Dartmouth Professor Warns Fake News Had Impact on 2016 Election

Brendan Nyhan speaks about the effects of targeted misinformation during the 2016 presidential election, April 23. Nyhan’s speech was part of a speaker series on fake news and misinformation at Harvard University co-sponsored by Northeastern University. Photo by Jessiscan Richardson / BU News Service

By Chloë Hudson
BU News Service

CAMBRIDGE  – On Monday, American political scientist Brendan Nyhan, professor of government at Dartmouth College, argued selective exposure to politically congenial content extends misinformation during his analysis of the consumption of fake news during the 2016 U.S. presidential election.

“Fake news reflects the potential for people on the extremes to be trapped in echo chambers that provide them with false and misleading claims that seem to reinforce their political opinions,” said Nyhan, who spoke to 40 people at the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard University. The event was co-sponsored by the NULab at Northeastern University.

Nyhan presented the findings of his study on the spread of fake news in 2016. He defined fake news websites as for-profit sites which emerged in 2016 and “ate the conventions of journalism but displayed no factual accuracy.”

Nyhan estimated one in four Americans visited a fake news website prior to the election. He admitted correlation does not equal causation but emphasized Trump supporters visited the most fake news websites, which were overwhelmingly pro-Trump.

“The 10 percent of Americans with the most conservative information diets consumed the majority of the fake news,” Nyhan said. “This seems to be a problem that’s really heavily concentrated among a relatively small subset of Americans in its most intense form.”

Nyhan said fact-checking has been the most systematic response by political journalism to political misinformation. However, he expressed skepticism over its effectiveness.

“It may be the case that someone views pro-Trump fake news and then goes and reads a fact-check telling them that something Hillary Clinton said was wrong and so in both cases they’ve encountered pro-attitudinal information, and they have not been challenged in their preconceptions or received corrective information,”  Nyhan said.

Nyhan explained how the spread of misinformation was exacerbated by social media. He pointed out how online platforms allow users to build extensive networks with like-minded individuals.

“Facebook seems to have been the key vector of misinformation in bringing people to these websites,” Nyhan said. “However, you should also think about the potential role of social endorsement. It might be the case that you wouldn’t necessarily treat a headline as credible, but if your friend — whom you trust and think is knowledgeable — endorsed it, you might be more likely to.”

After the speech, Nyhan shared how he and his students tested warnings about fake news in a different study last year by alerting participants to its prevalence and then asking them to determine the credibility of a series of real and fake headlines. He stressed how panic surrounding fake news may undermine trust in the media people consume online.

“What we found was that warning them was successful in making them be less trusting in the fake news they encountered, but it also made them less trusting in the real news they encountered,” Nyhan said. “They didn’t seem to calibrate very well, so I think we should be very careful in responding to this problem.”

Audience member John Wihbey, 42, an assistant professor of journalism and new media at Northeastern University, later commented on Nyhan’s discussion of fake news.

“He raises an alarm bell about how easily this kind of misinformation travels,” Wihbey said. “He also provides compelling evidence for why this misinformation may not necessarily be shared the way the public thinks it is.”


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