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Trump’s attacks on the media are increasing the power of fake news, study shows

Trump is literally reinforcing misinformation efforts.

CREDIT:  Jim Lo Scalzo-Pool/Getty Images
CREDIT: Jim Lo Scalzo-Pool/Getty Images

When President Trump demonizes the media, he is actually increasing the likelihood that his followers fall for fake news stories. That’s what a new study on fake news suggests, at least.

The new study from News Co/Lab and Center for Media Engagement at The University of Texas at Austin conducted community surveys in Macon, Georgia; Fresno, California; and Kansas City, Missouri earlier this year to assess how susceptible people were to fake news stories. Overall, those who had a negative view of “news” (“fake,” “lies,” “untrustworthy,” “BS,” etc.) had more trouble identifying authenticity of stories.

For example, respondents were provided with two true headlines from their area and one fake headline. Those with negative views of the news were less able to correctly identify the fake news story. In Macon, for example, the fake headline was, “Macon gang initiation: Shoot white women at mall.” In Kansas City, the fake headline was, “New study: Nearly half the nation’s scientists now reject evolution.”

Participants were also shown some headlines and ledes of stories and asked to differentiate between news, opinion, analysis, and sponsored content. Those with negative views were less able to distinguish between these categories compared to those with a neutral or positive view. They were also less likely to ask for help when trying to find information online, suggesting that they are actually more confident about their ability to read the news despite actually being less discerning.

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Other factors also appeared to play a part in analyzing headline veracity. Those with college degrees were more likely to correctly identify the fake news headlines, though the study points out that such a degree is by no means a panacea as more than 30 percent of college-educated people failed to identify the fake news. There were also partisan divides, with Republicans less likely to spot the fake news headline.

These findings come at a time when the GOP has become more associated with those without a college education and “CNN sucks!” is a regular chant at Trump’s rallies. Not even two weeks after the White House suspended CNN reporter Jim Acosta’s credentials, Trump is insisting there must be more “decorum” from the press. And though a judge reinstated Acosta’s access, the White House is already vying to cut it off again once the temporary restraining order expires.

During the confrontation between Acosta and Trump at a press conference two weeks ago, Acosta attempted to point out that Trump regularly demonizes CNN but turned a blind eye when the network was targeted with a pipe bomb. Trump ignored the accusation and once again used the phrase “enemy of the people” to attack CNN. He has regularly invoked that description to describe the media writ large.

It’s no secret that Russian hackers favored Trump’s election in 2016 and trolled social media planting fake news stories. Besides creating a messaging imbalance in Trump’s favor, studies have also found that fake news stories may have depressed turnout for Hillary Clinton.

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Combined with the new findings, this suggests a vicious cycle. Trump attacks the media, his followers are less likely to trust real news, and this in turns makes them susceptible to stories that reinforce their support for Trump. It’s a disinformation campaign that preys on those with less education and has no end in sight — at least as long as he continues to demonize the reporters trying to hold him accountable.