A study conducted by Ohio State University researchers has demonstrated that 'fake news', including disinformation distributed by Russian entities, likely had a significant impact on the 2016 presidential election.
A YouGov survey carried out in late 2016 and 2017 revealed that voters who previously voted for Barack Obama in 2012 were more likely to have voted for Donald Trump in 2016 if they believed false news stories about Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton.
In order to quantify the impact of fake news on the election, Ohio State University researchers Richard Gunther, Paul A. Beck and Erik C. Nisbet conducted a YouGov survey in late 2016 and early 2017 of 585 voters who supported Obama in 2012 out of a total sample of 1,600.
Ten percent of these voters cast ballots for Trump, 4 percent supported minor parties and 8 percent declined to vote; the researchers sought out to determine what accounted for the defections from Clinton.
Researchers then asked numerous questions of the voters in an effort to determine what extent, if any, belief in false statements correlated with vote choice.
Specifically, they asked the voters 281 questions that included fake news statements, two of which were negative statements about Clinton and one positive about Trump, and all of which were propagated by traditional and social media. The researchers, for instance, asked voters if they believed the statement, “Hillary Clinton is in very poor health due to a serious illness.”
[A] much larger percentage of those Obama voters who did not believe any of the fake news statements voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016 (89 percent) than those who believed one of the statements (61 percent) and those who believed two or three of them (17 percent).
After controlling for other factors, such as the degree to which voters disliked Clinton or liked Trump, the impact of belief in fake news remained significant.
“Former Obama voters who believed one or more of these fake news stories were 3.9 times more likely to defect from the Democratic ticket in 2016 than those who did not believe any of the false claims, after taking into account all of these other factors,” the researchers wrote.
And despite the fact that whether or not fake news affected the election outcome continues to be an issue of hot debate, the team concluded that because false news stories carried significant weight for the voters they polled, it is probably that those stories impacted a tight presidential race.
“Indeed, given the very narrow margins of victory by Donald Trump in key battleground states, this impact may have been sufficient to deprive Hillary Clinton of a victory in the Electoral College.”
Still, the researchers were careful to point out that correlation does not necessarily translate to causation:
“We cannot prove that belief in fake news ‘caused’ these former Obama voters to defect from the Democratic candidate in 2016,” the researchers wrote.
“But if these estimates are even remotely accurate as measures of the impact of belief in fake news on defections from the Democratic candidate, it is highly likely that this pernicious pollution of our political discourse was sufficient to influence the outcome of what was a very close election.”