Editorial: Demonstration of fake news' impact is important, but consider it carefully

If you were conscious during the first quarter of 2018, you no doubt were exposed to all sorts of sketchy, skewed, overblown or outright truthless political advertising spewing forth from the Illinois gubernatorial campaign. It was a truly shameless display of fakery designed to garner votes. But today, we're talking about a different type of fakery used to garner votes, and that is the placement of false news stories during the 2016 presidential campaign - and how it might have changed the outcome of the election.

A Washington Post story published in the Daily Herald this week delved into a study done by a group of researchers from Ohio State University that concluded fake news likely played a significant role in muffling Hillary Clinton's support in 2016.

It suggests a large percentage of Barack Obama's 2012 supporters were dissuaded from voting for Clinton because they believed one or more fake news stories that were in wide circulation at the time.

The authors of the study inserted three popular fake news stories - that Clinton had a serious illness, that Pope Francis endorsed Donald Trump and that Clinton had approved weapons sales to jihadists - into a 281-question survey that was given after the November 2016 election to 585 people who supported Obama in 2012.

Of that group, 23 percent said they did not vote for Clinton, deciding either to abstain or choose another candidate. About a quarter of the respondents believed at least one of the three stories, and among them, less than half - 45 percent - voted for Clinton. After controlling for a variety of demographic factors, the academics determined that belief in fake news accounted for 11 percent of the respondents' votes shifting away from Clinton.

To this degree, the survey is valuable in its vivid demonstration that false stories can have a mass influence on voting - and presumably all kinds of choices people make.

But the conclusions the researchers go on to make - most notably that the study shows these fake news stories may have cost Clinton the election - deserve scrutiny themselves. For one thing, the researchers acknowledge that the study wasn't extensive or granular enough to suggest what might have happened in close votes in Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. Yet, they conclude that the presence of those fake news stories accounted for much more than Trumps' less-than-one-percent margin of victory in those populous states. Discounting for a moment the small and imprecise sample surveyed, such conjecture might have some claim to plausibility, but, considering the lack of relevant detail, it must be recognized for what it is, conjecture - and as such is hardly more valuable than anyone's random guess regarding the specific impact on the election.

Perhaps even more troubling is the fact that the researchers made no attempt to provide a comparative analysis or study of Trump voters who may have seen false news stories damaging to his campaign. Without such comparative data to show the degree to which false news stories about Trump may have damaged his campaign or helped hers, more specific conclusions can only be considered speculation.

The Ohio State researchers stop short of saying their work shows false news stories may have cost Clinton enough votes to lose the election and wisely limit themselves to the conclusion that "exposure to fake news did have a significant impact on voting decisions."

It is disturbing enough to see confirmation of that simple observation. At the same time, failure to analyze the details of such research with the same critical scrutiny we apply to the fake news it aims to combat can make us just as vulnerable to manipulation.

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