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How Prevalent was Fake News in 2016?

After the 2016 Presidential election, many media outlets and politicians cited fake news for the success of Donald Trump. Pew Research Center found that after the election, 64% of Americans believed fake news confused the basic facts of current events (Barthel, Mitchell, & Holcomb, 2016). Fake news is commonly defined as an article presenting itself as legitimate news while spreading blatantly false information for profit. Research has found that fake news primarily spread through Facebook. Looking deeper at the fake news, we also see that the majority of fake news articles targeted Trump supporters, spreading false positive information about Trump and false negative information about Clinton. The question then is, how much influence did it have on the election?

The answer seems to be: not much. Several scholars attempted to demonstrate the strong effects on fake news on election attitudes, but could find neither consistent results nor strong effects. In a study by Allcott and Gentzkow (2017), only 15% of their survey respondents recall seeing a fake news story and only 8% saying they believed it. This being said, they calculated that on average, a single Facebook user would see 1.14 fake news articles (of the articles present on a fake news database). These number are low, so the question is if these 8% of people that believed it had an unequal influence on the election than those that did not see and believe fake news. Garrett (2019) found in a separate study that those that use Facebook users usually possessed more accurate knowledge and able to point our fake news than those that use other social media. Thus, if the majority of fake news spread on Facebook, not only do only a few users see it, but they are also more likely to tell it is false.

So why was fake news such a big issue? There are a few answers to this question. First, fake news can still impact sections of the population. Guess, Nagler, & Tucker (2019) found that the elderly were more likely to share fake news than any age or based on any other demographic characteristic. The elderly are the population most likely to vote and thus have a sizable impact on elections. Second, fake news does active more polarized political views. Fake news is not intended to target members of the opposite party, rather strengthen existing political views. This can lead to radicalization, violence, aggression, and general separation between members of the opposing party. Iyengar, Sood, and Lelkes (2012) finds that more polarized individuals are more likely to express hatred to the opposing party and attribute negative traits to them as well. Lastly, to much of the media and academic community, the 2016 election didn’t go according to plan. Public opinion research didn’t measure the public’s intention to vote properly, so when voters kept voting for Trump, they were surprised and sought an answer.

- Jacky Anderson


Allcott, H. & Gentzkow, M. (2017). Social Media and Fake News in the 2016 Election. Journal of Economic Perspectives, 31(2), 211-236.

Barthel, M., Mitchell, A., & Holocomb, J. (2016). Many Americans Believe Fake News Is Sowing Confusion. Pew Research Center.

Iyengar, S., Sood, G., & Lelkes, Y. (2012). Affect, Not Ideology: A Social Identity Perspective on Polarization. The Public Opinion Quarterly, 76(3): 405-431.

Garrett, R. (2019). Social Media’s contribution to political misperceptions in U.S. Presidential elections. PLoS ONE, 14(3), 1-16.

Guess, A., Nagler, J., & Tucker, J. (2019). Less than you think: Prevalence and predictors of fake news dissemination on Facebook. Science Advances, 5, 1-8.

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