Some Real News About Fake News

David A. Graham, June 7th 2019, The Atlantic

Elijah Nouvelage / Reuters

The rise of fake news in the American popular consciousness is one of the remarkable growth stories in recent years—a dizzying climb to make any Silicon Valley unicorn jealous. Just a few years ago, the phrase was meaningless. Today, according to a new Pew Research Center study, Americans rate it as a larger problem than racism, climate change, or terrorism.

But remarkable though that may seem, it’s not actually what’s most interesting about the study. Pew finds that Americans have deeply divergent views about fake news and different responses to it, which suggest that the emphasis on misinformation might actually run the risk of making people, especially conservatives, less well informed. More than making people believe false things, the rise of fake news is making it harder for people to see the truth.

Pew doesn’t define what it calls “made-up news,” which is a reasonable choice in the context of a poll, but matters a great deal in interpreting it. The term has come to mean different things to different people. It was coined to describe deliberately false articles created by Potemkin news sites and spread on social media. But in a deliberate effort to muddy the waters, President Donald Trump began labeling news coverage that was unfavorable to him “fake news.” (Indeed, Pew finds that Americans blame politicians and their aides, more than the press, activist groups, or foreign actors, for the problem of made-up news.) Now when Trump’s supporters refer to “fake news,” they often seem to mean mainstream news they dislike, whereas when others do so, they mean bogus information spread by fringe actors.

If Pew’s data are taken to mean that people find this latter category more dangerous than climate change, that is almost certainly an overreaction. As the political scientist Brendan Nyhan wrote in February, summarizing the state of research in the field:

Relatively few people consumed this form of content directly during the 2016 campaign, and even fewer did so before the 2018 election. Fake news consumption is concentrated among a narrow subset of Americans with the most conservative news diets. And, most notably, no credible evidence exists that exposure to fake news changed the outcome of the 2016 election.

Pew finds a significant gap between Democrats’ and Republicans’ views on the seriousness of the problem with made-up news, though:

This looks a lot like a split over the definition of fake news, rather than the actual problem. Put differently, Republicans may well be responding not to out-and-out fakery, but to bias—real or perceived—in news coverage. It would make sense that conservatives would be primed to accept the idea of widespread bias in the press after a decades-long campaign against the credibility of the mainstream press. Indeed, Republicans are about three times more likely than Democrats (58 percent versus 20 percent) to say that journalists create a lot of fake news, though they still assign more blame to both politicians and activist groups.

How do people respond when they sense fake news? Here again, the partisan splits are notable:

It’s a positive sign that people are trying to fact-check stories themselves, though it’s an open question whether they’re any good at it. (Respondents thought little of their peers’ ability to find bad information, but believe that they, like the children in Lake Wobegon, are all above average: “Survey respondents also put a good deal more faith in their own ability to recognize potentially inaccurate or misleading information than they do in the broader public’s ability to discern it.”)

Some of the other choices are more troubling. One of the biggest risks often imputed to the current media environment, in which audiences can pick and choose news outlets that agree with them, is that people will become more and more siloed, cutting themselves off from information that they don’t like or that contradicts their prior assumptions.

The Pew study suggests that fake-news panic, rather than driving people to abandon ideological outlets and the fringe, may actually be accelerating the process of polarization: It’s driving consumers to drop some outlets, to simply consume less information overall, and even to cut out social relationships.

If people stop reading a website, because it’s peddling conspiracy theories, that’s good news. If they stop consuming any coverage from mainstream outlets like CNN or The Washington Post, because they believe a story is biased, or because the president has labeled it fake news, that’s less positive. While nearly six in 10 Democrats have dropped an outlet over perceived fake news, a full 70 percent of Republicans have. A much larger portion of Republicans have also reduced their overall consumption of news. The less politically aware are also 20 percent more likely to have reduced their overall consumption of news than the more politically aware—meaning that people who were already acquiring the least information are now acquiring even less.

Fully half of respondents said they had avoided talking with someone, because they thought that person might bring made-up news and information into the conversation. The numbers are roughly equivalent across parties—48 percent of Republicans, 51 percent of Democrats. It’s another example of an action that might seem rational under certain circumstances; no one should feel obliged to listen to an Alex Jones–listening relative’s Sandy Hook trutherism or a neighbor’s Louise Mensch–derived Trump conspiracy theories. But given the relatively small actual prevalence of true fake news, this figure is probably just another sign of people siloing themselves from information that challenges their assumptions.

Nor does Pew’s study offer much reason for optimism that these problems will fade anytime soon. The public’s solutions are fraught with contradictions. More than half of respondents said that journalists bear the most responsibility for fixing the problem (53 percent, versus 20 percent for the public, 12 percent for the government, and 9 percent for tech companies), and yet eight in 10 say limitations on made-up news and information—restrictions on free speech, in other words—are needed. Moreover, almost two-thirds of people said that political divisions are a big challenge to addressing made-up news. Yet the steps that they report taking themselves seem likely to only exacerbate those political divisions.