In 2009, one of the world’s foremost political scientists published a prophetic research study questioning how much influence the media had in elections. In Does the Media Matter?, Alan Gerber, a professor at Yale, and his team found that randomly assigning participants to receive different newspapers or no newspaper had “no effect on political knowledge, stated opinions or turnout in post-election survey and voter data”. Most participants, they found, had made up their minds before reading the news.
This was not a unique finding. In another recent experimental study, researchers found that fact-checking of inaccurate statements had little impact on changing the minds of Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump’s voters. Participants were given a series of falsehoods Trump had said, then shown that they were not true. But voters maintained their unwavering support for him, even if they admitted to previously believing untrue information.
“I guess it means that politicians like Trump can spread misinformation without losing support,” concluded the study’s author, Briony Swire-Thompson, a graduate student at the University of Western Australia.
In many ways, Trump’s victory was a large-scale natural experiment reaffirming the findings in these research studies. We may never again witness the media’s united effort to condemn a major-party presidential candidate. Only six newspapers endorsed Trump, while several media outlets that almost always support Republicans urged their readers to reject him as an unambiguous threat to the world order. This unprecedented coalition was, evidently, ineffective.
Now, rather than admitting the difficult realisation of their own limits, many journalists are seeking to redirect blame. Facebook, where “fake news” spread virally side by side with real reporting, has become the go-to scapegoat. ‘Mark Zuckerberg is in Denial’, declared one piece in the New York Times that excoriated the social network CEO for defending the company’s role in the election.
Zuckerberg has called accusations that Facebook influenced the election “a pretty crazy idea”, citing internal data showing that fake news, hoaxes and alternative news sites represent a tiny fraction of the overall news shared on the platform. He says Facebook routinely introduces a diverse set of views to its users, but they choose to ignore them and don’t click through to stories that differ from their preconceived opinions.
Indeed, research suggests that most links shared on Facebook aren’t even clicked on but are shared by partisans who already know what they want to believe. On the other hand, reporting by BuzzFeed suggests that fake news, most likely hyperpartisan in nature, was more popular than mainstream news just before the election.
“Right now, the problem isn’t that diverse information isn’t there ... but we haven’t got people to engage with it in higher proportions,” Zuckerberg said at the Techonomy conference in Half Moon Bay, California. It’s true: Scapegoating Facebook ignores more fundamental issues with democracy.
Before the internet and the proliferation of cable news, producers and newspaper editors enjoyed a golden era as the gatekeepers of the national conversation. Much of America was all fed the same news, while outlier views were excluded from TV and print.
The internet is an unusually efficient vehicle for making money off the spread of fake and incendiary news, which is why Google, Twitter and Facebook have attempted to clamp down on ads paired with unscrupulous links. But the uncomfortable reality is that journalists no longer enjoy the convenience of a captive audience. Readers can find news wherever they like; Facebook makes it easier for people to encounter and share it, yes, but if that platform didn’t exist, something else would.
Ultraconservative outlets, such as the Drudge Report, are reporting record traffic. Self-selection is even occurring within conservative outlets, as Trump champion Sean Hannity for the first time beat his colleagues Bill O’Reilly and Megyn Kelly on Fox News Channel in the 25-to-54-year-old ratings demographic, according to the Nielsen data released in September.
Unless we fix the demand for biased or fake news, no filter feature that Facebook or Google builds will make much of a difference. America will likely need to reform the education system to create a more informed electorate. Secretary of Education John B. King Jr. recently called for a greater emphasis on civics education, while many states are either ramping up their civics courses or mulling new graduation requirements.
Of course, journalism has an essential role in educating the public and elevating national discourse. If 29 per cent of Americans believe President Barack Obama is a Muslim, that reflects the media’s inability to convey ideas effectively. Fixing that is our great challenge, our responsibility.
Research suggests that it is possible to counteract rumours only when readers trust the source. According to Gallup, trust in the media is at a historic low of 32 per cent, down 28 points since 2005. The proliferation of partisan news and conspiracy-theory outlets has likely fuelled this distrust and made it harder for citizens to identify high-quality media.
Increasing trust in quality news publishers will likely require journalists to engage with voices and ideas they find deeply offensive, reaching out to the darkest elements of the internet they might otherwise wish to avoid.
I want to be clear: I’m not blaming my colleagues in the news business. But the reaction against Facebook is naive about the realities of the new media landscape and unduly pessimistic about the capacity of citizens to make good choices.
The inconvenient truth is that the internet is a reflection of what people are saying and thinking, whether it’s on Facebook or alternatives like the Drudge Report and the massive underground of email chains that circulate conservative rumours. A billionaire CEO will not stem the rising unrest of American populism, and it’s troubling that anyone hopes one company should exert so much power even if it could.
Before we can solve Facebook’s problem, we need to fix democracy.
— Washington Post
Gregory Ferenstein is the editor of the syndicated column Ferenstein Wire and author of The Age Of Optimists.