Could “fake news” have helped determine the outcome of the 2016 presidential election?
Social media users and intensely partisan news broadcasts disseminated a massive number of messages during the campaign. Many of these messages demonized candidates and seriously distorted the facts presented to voters. One recent study of nearly 25,000 election social media messages shared by Michigan voters identified nearly half as “unverified WikiLeaks content and Russian-origin news stories” that fall “under the definition of propaganda based on its use of language and emotional appeals.”
What hasn’t been clear, however, is how much of an impact – if any – these “fake news” items had on the outcome of the election. To our knowledge, there have been no empirical studies that have systematically assessed the extent to which believing fake news stories influenced voting decisions in 2016. So, we set out to do one.
We are scholars associated with the Comparative National Elections Project, which is coordinated at The Ohio State University. In December 2016, we commissioned YouGov to conduct a nationwide post-election survey. Our study concludes that fake news most likely did have a substantial impact on the voting decisions of a strategically important set of voters.
Here’s what we learned.