After authorities arrested a handful of Donald Trump supporters for plotting to car-bomb Somali immigrants in Kansas in 2016, the defense attorney for one pointed to a novel defense for his client: fake news. Per the attorney, Patrick Stein – whose Facebook was littered with both fake stories and support for then-candidate Trump – was motivated to plan his slaughter because he thought then-President Barack Obama was on the brink of declaring martial law, misinformation he picked up from fake news sites.
Stein’s plot, of course, was foiled, but his case helps sum not only the threats posed by the spawn of fake news sites over the past few years, but the propensity for Trump supporters to find themselves consuming fake news sites at far higher clips than other demographics in the U.S.
Indeed, a new paper from a trio of researchers illustrates just how popular fake news sites are for Trump supporters – and how ineffective fact-checking efforts aimed at combating these sites remain.
The new paper from Princeton’s Andrew Guess, Dartmouth’s Brendan Nyhan, and University of Exeter’s Jason Reifler illustrates how approximately 27 percent of American adults visited a fake news site in the lead-up to the 2016 election, as well as the election’s immediate aftermath. For the purpose of the study, the academics described fake news sites as those that “frequently publish false claims, distort genuine news reports, and copy or repurpose content from other outlets.” Sites identified included fake news outlets like BipartisanReport.com, IJR.com, and DailyWire.com, among dozens of others.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the researchers discovered that fake news geared at the presidential candidates “was heavily skewed toward Donald Trump.” Moreover, Trump supporters “were far more likely to visit fake news websites – especially those that are pro-Trump – than [Hillary] Clinton supporters.”
Moreover, according to the paper, nearly 60 percent of the total visits to fake news sites “came from the 10 percent of people with the most conservative online information diets” – with older Americans “much more likely to visit fake news” based on the variables examined in the paper. Such findings back up earlier research, including a 2017 fake news-related conference at Harvard’s Shorenstein Center that concluded that “misinformation is currently predominantly a pathology of the right.”
Facebook, as the fake Russian feeds recently unearthed made clear, stands as a hive of misinformation and fake news without parallel. As the paper notes, Facebook “was a key vector of exposure to fake news,” with the researchers’ findings providing “the most compelling independence evidence to date” backing up Facebook’s descent into a fake news paradise.
Given that fake news – thanks in no small part to Trump’s continued usage of the term – remains as relevant, and prevalent, since the election, the most concerning findings of the new paper may be the fact that dedicated fact-checking sites so rarely reach fake news consumers. As the researchers found, “only about half of the Americans who visited a fake news website during the study period also saw any fact-check from one of the dedicated fact-checking website[s].” Remarkably, not a single respondent who came across a fake news article flagged – that is, which contained a claim rated as explicitly false – actually saw any fact-check that debunked the story.
To be sure, fake news is hardly siloed to voices on the right, or those within Trump’s camp. As a piece from The Atlantic last year noted, the lesson that those pushing anti-Trump conspiracies – including voices like Seth Abramson and the Palmer Report – seem to have taken “is that fake news works.”
And it’s possible that, since the time-frame examined in the recent paper, fake news consumption has tilted away from Trump’s most fervent supporters. But given the new numbers, it’s clear that Trump rode a wave of support from fake news consumers through the election – even while he continues to decry the “fake news” he says is now aimed at him.