Public Policy professor unveils research on the impact of fake news on elections

Monday, November 26, 2018 - 8:54pm

Public policy professor Brendan Nyhan, a political scientist, discusses his research into who reads fake news and the role of Facebook in exposing people to it in a seminar at North Quad Monday.

Public policy professor Brendan Nyhan, a political scientist, discusses his research into who reads fake news and the role of Facebook in exposing people to it in a seminar at North Quad Monday. Buy this photo
Matt Vailliencourt/Daily

According to Public Policy professor Brendan Nyhan, fake news may have a more complex impact on the American public than experrts previously thought.

For the last several years, Nyhan has been working on a comprehensive study of U.S. fake news consumption, aiming to determine the scope and influence of fake news on the political leanings of Americans. Nyhan presented the facts and implications of his research Monday afternoon at the School of Information’s seminar “Who Reads Fake News?” About 25 faculty members were in attendance. Media literacy has been of interest to many on campus in the wake of the 2016 election. Last fall, the University offered a one-credit class on fake news to at help students dispel bias in the media, while computer science researchers are building an algorithm deisgned to detect fake news better than human reviewers. 

Introducing his research, Nyhan said he wanted to investigate the tangible impacts fake news has on public political opinion.

“What I want to answer for you today are some questions like these: How prevalent was fake news consumption in 2016, what effects does have on people’s political attitudes and behavior and how are people being exposed to this dubious content in the first place?” Nyhan said.

During his lecture, Nyhan put a particular emphasis on his findings that contradicted popular perceptions of the influence of fake news.

“The average person, regardless of party, is not consuming this heavily skewed diet that many folks would predict,” Nyhan said. “There’s a relatively small subset of people who have strong predispositions to seek out and consume pro-attitudinal information.”

This subset of people, as Nyhan explained, were identified through a cognitive reflection test, or a measure of one’s capability for thinking analytically about information presented to them.

According to Nyhan, his survey demonstrated this subset of people were far more likely to believe fake news sources, particularly when information was presented more than once.

“These (fake news) stories come to seem familiar,” Nyhan said. “You’ve seen fake news before, now you see it again, maybe you think it’s more likely to be true. We did observe a small but statistically measurable effect here.”

As Nyhan explained, the foundations of his work were influenced by the crucial 2016 report “Social Media and Fake News in the 2016 Election,” written by political scientists Hunt Allcott and Matthew Gentzkow. According to Allcott and Gentzkow’s report, fake news doesn’t rely on an established audience or reputation to reach digital readers.

“Content can be relayed among users with no significant third party filtering, fact-checking, or editorial judgment,” Allcott and Gentzkow wrote. “An individual user with no track record or reputation can in some cases reach as many readers as Fox News, CNN or the New York Times.”

Alain Cohn, an assistant professor at the School of Information with a focus on economics and moral decision making, said he was particularly interested in Nyhan’s points about the strategies of persuasion utilized by fake news sources. According to Cohn, Nyhan’s work intersects with his own in several capacities.

“I teach a course on persuasion and social influence,” Cohn said. “In my course I try to teach students how they are going to be persuaded in political contexts but also in consumer contexts.”

Though his analysis of fake news impact presented serious implications, Nyhan contended fake news had a central impact on the outcome of the 2016 election. As he explained, the impact of fake news is far more complex than many make it out to be.

“It’s pretty hard to tell a story about how vote choice was affected by fake news when the people you would expect to be the most unsure about which candidate to vote for are consuming very little fake news,” Nyhan said. “It really challenges this simplistic account of the 2016 election.”

Cohn, on the other hand, worries fake news could have unforeseen yet drastic consequences.

“Those who consume fake news have already made up their opinion,” Cohn said. “However, if they become more extreme, that might be dangerous. There are other ways fake news consumption may affect society, even if it’s just among a minority.” 

Though faculty made up the majority of the audience Monday afternoon, students are also taking up the question of fake news, especially in the context of social media. LSA sophomore Mackenzie Freeman, a communication studies major, told The Daily in an interview last month fake news is an issue that, if left undetected, could alter the efficacy of news altogether.

“This is really problematic because people see the news as being able to express the truth and that feature is being taken away,” she said.  

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