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Fake News and the Future of Campaigns

By Alex Zamorski | February 13, 2017

“Did Fake News On Facebook Influence The Outcome Of The Election?” – Forbes, 11/24/2016
“Russia used fake news to influence the election…” – Slate, 1/5/2017
“Click and elect: how fake news helped Donald Trump win a real election” – The Guardian, 11/14/2016

These are just a few of the numerous headlines swimming around since President Trump won the 2016 Election this past November. But are these articles just more fake news?

A recent study presents new evidence on how fake news influenced the 2016 Election – with results that may be surprising to anyone familiar with the kind of headlines above.

Defining fake news as “news stories that have no factual basis but are presented as facts,” economists Matthew Gentzkow (Stanford) and Hunt Allcott (NYU) studied the importance of social media as a news source and what impact fake news might have had on the election.

Where Do Voters Get Their News?

Knowing where voters get their news is crucial to truly understanding the influence of fake news. The 2017 study determined where adults get their news based on survey respondents’ ranking of which outlets they find most trust-worthy.

Spoiler alert: it’s not social media.

Only 13.8% of survey respondents marked social media as the “Most Important” source of election news, as compared to 57.2% selecting TV (Cable, Network, and Local television combined). Websites garnered 14.8% of responses.

Figure 1 - Most Important Source of 2016 Election News
Allcott, Hunt and Matthew Gentzkow. “Social Media and Fake News in the 2016 Election.” Stanford University. January 2017

Lesson: Voters relied on television programs and news websites for their 2016 election news.

 “Fake” News Websites vs “Real” News Websites

Since news websites were the third most important source of 2016 election news, Gentzkow and Allcott dug further into what kind of websites – fake news sites or top U.S. news sites (not fake) – and which traffic sources ushered visitors to each. “For the top 690 sites, social media referrals represent only about 10 percent of total traffic. By contrast, fake news websites rely on social media for a much higher share of their traffic,” Gentzkow and Allcott report.

Figure 2 - Share of Visits to US News Websites by Source
Allcott, Hunt and Matthew Gentzkow. “Social Media and Fake News in the 2016 Election.” Stanford University. January 2017

Lesson: Beware of click-bait or inflammatory news on social media. It may lead to fake news (or other unsavory sites).

What’s the Likelihood that Fake News Significantly Impacted the 2016 Election?

Even though traffic to fake news site was largely driven by social media (which wasn’t a top 3 source of important news for most respondents), the concern about how much influence these fake news stories had on readers and in turn, voters, remained. Just because respondents said news from television and news websites was most important to them doesn’t necessarily mean that social media news or links to fake news websites didn’t have an impact.

By measuring the “persuasion rate” of 156 fake news articles compiled from three non-partisan lists, the study found that the persuasion rate of viewing 1 fake news story would have to be equivalent to watching 36 television campaign ads in order to make a difference in the U.S. Election.

Is this likely? No. Possible? Perhaps.

Lesson: A single fake news story would need to be as powerful as 36 television ads in order to shift the election results.  

What This Means for Current and Future Campaigns

While few campaigns are as brutal or contentious as the 2016 Presidential Election, the fake news whirlwind stirs up concerns for campaigns up and down the ballot. And despite Mark Zuckerberg’s big plans to combat fake news on Facebook, the reality is that fake news will likely persist for a while.

So what does this mean for the future of campaigns? How do you honorably battle for your cause when your opponent is disseminating fake news?

Our answer – outshine the fake news trolls by deploying a multi-channel approach that includes grassroots GOTV efforts, integrated direct marketing programs, and attention via events and earned media.

Overcoming Fake News VenDiagram

At the end of the day, voters are voting for people – people they believe will represent their issues, fight for their cause, and protect their way of living. Connect with voters in a meaningful, genuine way that inspires. Understand your voters’ concerns. Reinforce your message – over and over and over again. Motivate your voters into action at the voting booth and beyond. Keep fighting the good fight.

Let’s keep the conversation going. Send us an email at political@thelukenscompany.com




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Alex Zamorski

About Alex Zamorski

Alex Zamorski develops and implements marketing and communication strategies for The Lukens Company. Find her on Twitter: @AlexZamorski