Grasping at the Fake News Straw--and Why it Matters

So Fake news is fake news.

By which I mean, "fake news" is fake news. Not that there's no fake news. But it's not really much in the way of news. Or it shouldn't be.

The hype, of course, is that fake news is a big thing, influencing lots of people with outright BS. Our evidence that it's big? Well, everyone seems to be talking about it, and you probably saw one or two cases of it (some of them absurd, like the Pizzagate fiasco).

Let's just say such an approach is far from scientific. How might we get some facts to determine how big fake news is? First we need to define "big:" we can only really define it relatively to other news, and one way to do that is to see how many people are reading fake news vs. real news. And to track whether they believed it, we can track how many people are sharing fake news vs. real news on social media sites, where the problem is allegedly worst. 

From an MIT Study:

Preliminary analysis conducted by the Media Cloud team at MIT and Harvard suggests that while fake news stories spread during the 2016 US election, they were hardly the most influential media in the dialog. In tracking 1.4 million news stories shared on Facebook from over 10,000 news sites, the most influential fake news site we found ranked 163rd in our list of most shared sources. Yes, fake news happens, but its impact and visibility comes mostly from mainstream news reporting about fake news.

A fake news site getting to 163rd out of 10,000 is an impressive top 2% finish, but remember that these lists have a very long tail: a few news sources make up almost all shares, and the rest make up hardly any. (I wonder how ReConsider is ranking in this list.)

If such a list has a long tail, then the fake news market-share would be tiny. In short, it's probably a hard sell to convince someone, with this data, that many people were largely informed--if at all--by fake news. 

So the hype is overblown. What's not these days? Why care?

Grasping at Straws

A lot of people are still spinning their wheels trying to explain why Trump won. Regardless of how you feel about him, his victory was unexpected, to put it lightly. A lot of people are going to believe there must be some sort of unprecedented explanation for why he won: Russian hacking, fake news, some uprising of neo-nazis, or just being a political mastermind above what anyone can imagine. 

If I had to venture a guess, I'd say that Trump just had a campaign formula that has worked elsewhere.

In my own experience, I've found a lot of people struggling to accept that 63 million Americans watched the election and in some usual manner--as they have in the past--decided to roll into the voting booth and cast their ballots for Trump in sound mind.

This aversion leads to grasping at straws. Fake news became a thing, and all sorts of speculation started whirling about regarding how this relatively new concept must be behind Trump's victory. But such grasping is bad science, and bad explanatory power.

Why does it matter? Well, whether you want more Trump or less Trump, actually understanding Trump's supporters and the movement behind him will be critical to understanding why he won. If we stake ourselves in bad explanations about his victory, we'll be quite ill-suited to affect our country's direction in the future. 


Erik Fogg

We do politics, but we don't do the thinking for you.