Since the 2016 presidential election, “fake news” has become a buzzword in American politics. What exactly the term denotes varies based on how it’s used and who is using it, but the frequency with which fake news is invoked has created widespread concern about the integrity of political communications.
During the last presidential election, the term fake news was initially used to describe false, hyper-partisan stories about the election that circulated primarily through social media. It’s proven to be almost impossible to quantify the impact these stories had on the election, but Americans seemed to agree that the stories contributed to a confusing, polarized political environment.
A report published by the Pew Research Center in 2016 following the election showed that 64 percent of Americans believed that fake news was distorting basic facts about political issues and events. Since 2016, platforms like Facebook, Google and Twitter have attempted to implement policies, strategies and algorithms to limit the influence of fake news, but they have largely proven ineffective. Fake news stories have continued to spread through those platforms, influencing perceptions about political issues in the United States and even creating doubt in elections abroad.
And by all accounts, it is likely to persist into the 2018 elections.
Defining fake news
The term “fake news” has evolved rapidly in recent years and has been used to describe satirical publications, like The Onion, as well as by politicians looking to dismiss reports that portray them in a negative light. But the fake news that is causing concerns about upcoming elections is something else entirely.
Dr. Kristen Landreville, an associate professor in the University of Wyoming’s Communication and Journalism Department, defined fake news as “false or misleading information” designed to be spread.
Landreville explained that the fake news stories that spread during the 2016 election were often hyper-partisan and devised to elicit emotional reactions in people who come across them.
“It really does prey upon our psychological tendencies,” Landreville said. “When you see news that makes you angry, or it gets an emotional rise out of you…you want to act, you want to react.”
These stories are spread primarily through social media, which, Landreville noted, can lend them credibility. Though the original source of a story might be unclear, people are more inclined to believe it when it is presented by someone they know and trust.
And though these stories can appear outlandish, Landreville said people are more likely to believe them when they conform to a person’s beliefs.
“We want to share information that supports our side,” Landreville said. “And we don’t do as much fact checking when we see an article on social media that proves our point. It’s very ego driven — we don’t like to be wrong.”
Landreville said while the prevalence of fake news is alarming, she is perhaps more concerned with citizens’ increasing reliance on partisan news outlets.
While other news sources may have leanings, partisan outlets actively push an agenda. If fake news is guilty of outright lies, partisan news sources commit sins of omission. They bury inconvenient facts and reduce complex issues to matters of right and wrong. Landreville said partisan news sources convince consumers that other information sources are misleading them and demonize opposing views.
“Trust in media is a big concern and I think these partisan news sources really do a number on your perceptions of trust and value and credibility of the other side,” Landreville said. “…Then you are destroying any chance of potential compromise [because] you don’t even believe the other side is worthy or honest or out for the greater good.”
Breitbart.com, on the right, and The Daily Kos, on the left, are examples of partisan news outlets.
Landreville urges voters to avoid partisan news outlets altogether, but if voters do frequent partisan news sources, she stressed the need to make concerted efforts to balance the information they are consuming.
Wyoming elections and media literacy
Though people in Wyoming are susceptible to the same cognitive biases as everyone else, Landreville said that, at least in local elections, the state may be more resistant to fake news than others.
“Because of [Wyoming’s] small population and our intertwined social networks, I think that helps us in terms of being able to verify potentially false and fake news about our local politics,” Landreville said. “Also I think in a small state, there’s more social pressure to work together because you know these people, you work with these people; these are small communities and you’re going to see these people face to face.”
Those social networks become less relevant, however, when voters consider candidates they observe from more of a distance. It will be much easier for voters to verify stories about a candidate running for mayor in their town or city than it is to verify information about candidates running for U.S. senator, for instance.
Cameron Duff, the library director of the Sheridan County Library System, said he is concerned false information about larger elections could spread too fast for impartial sources of election information, like local libraries, to keep up.
“It may not come up too much at the local elections, but definitely at the state and federal level I can [anticipate] a lot of news coming out that could be considered fake news and it could take us days to figure it out,” Duff said.
Marguerite Herman, the state lobbyist for the Wyoming League of Women Voters, said considering the potential for misinformation in the current media environment and the unlikelihood a structural fix is going to emerge, voters need to take it upon themselves to be diligent about verifying information.
“I know it is putting a lot of burden on the voter who is busy and who generally doesn’t like to track down stuff that conflicts with their opinions,” Herman said. “But I think it’s an inherent responsibility to make sure they’re demanding the most of candidates and informing themselves with facts… If we don’t do it for ourselves, who else is going to do it?”
Landreville echoed the sentiment and urged voters to pause and consider why they may be drawn to an inflammatory story. If voters choose to share stories that are proactive, but dubious, they become part of the problem.
“[Voters] have a civic responsibility to understand the information they’re sharing and inspire civil conversation around that topic,” Landreville said.
Duff said he encourages voters looking for election information to be critical when evaluating the sources they consult.
“What is a reliable source?” Duff asked. “Sources that have gone through peer review or have created a standard where, when they make a post it is usually accepted that they’ve done their research.”
Duff noted that the League of Women Voters has traditionally served as a neutral, reliable source. Herman said the group will work to put together impartial resources for voters in the upcoming elections.
“We will do voter service; we will have candidate forms; we will have voters’ guides; and we will be scrupulous about giving everyone a fair chance,” Herman said. “We hope we are one source of information people can count on — all we want are well informed-voters.”
Fake news isn’t going anywhere, and while academics, journalists, lawmakers and tech companies will continue to search for ways to guard against misleading information, no policy or algorithm or law will protect elections as effectively as judicious voters.