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Who want to combat online misinformation should take steps based on evidence and data

Some people in the US have the idea that false news articles that flooded Facebook and other online outlets during the presidential elections in November 2016 swung the election to Donald Trump

By: N. Peter Kramer - Posted: Thursday, March 08, 2018

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In the international edition of the New York Times on February 17-18, professor Brendan Nyhan of Dartmouth College (an Ivy League university in Hanover, New Hampshire) wrote that ‘much more remains to be learned about the effects of these types of online activities, but people should not assume they had huge effects. Previous studies have found, for instance, that the effects of even television advertising (arguable a higher impact medium) are very small.’
In the international edition of the New York Times on February 17-18, professor Brendan Nyhan of Dartmouth College (an Ivy League university in Hanover, New Hampshire) wrote that ‘much more remains to be learned about the effects of these types of online activities, but people should not assume they had huge effects. Previous studies have found, for instance, that the effects of even television advertising (arguable a higher impact medium) are very small.’

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by N. Peter Kramer

Similar suggestions of large persuasion effects, supposedly pushing Mr Trump to victory, have been made about for instance online advertising from Cambridge Analytica and content promoted by Russian bots.

In the international edition of the New York Times on February 17-18, professor Brendan Nyhan of Dartmouth College (an Ivy League university in Hanover, New Hampshire) wrote that ‘much more remains to be learned about the effects of these types of online activities, but people should not assume they had huge effects. Previous studies have found, for instance, that the effects of even television advertising (arguable a higher impact medium) are very small.’ 

Prof. Nyhan refers to some recent meta-analysis and field experiments that show null effects for different forms of campaign persuasion. ‘We shouldn’t be surprised – it’s hard to change people’s minds’. Votes are shaped by fundamentally factors like which party they typically support and how they view the state of the economy.  

He advises to ask three questions when evaluating claims about vast persuasion effects from dubious online content: 

How many people saw the questionable material? ‘Many alarming statistics have been produced about how many times fake news was shared on Facebook or how many times Russian bots retweeted content on Twitter. But’, Prof. Nyhan points out, ‘these statistics obscure the fact that the content being shared may not reach many Americans; most people are not on twitter and most people consume relatively little political news’.   

How persuadable are people exposed to fake news? According to Prof. Nyhan, dubious political content online is disproportionally likely to reach heavy news consumers who already have strong opinions. ‘For instance’, he wrote, ‘a study I conducted with Andrew Guess of Princeton University and Jason Reifler of the University of Exeter in Britain, showed that exposure to fake news websites before the 2016 election was heavily concentrated among the 10 percent of Americans with the most conservative information diets – not exactly swing voters’.

And, what is the proportion of news people saw that is bogus? ‘The total number of shares or likes that fake news and bots attract can sound enormous until you consider how much information circulates online’, is Prof. Nyhan’s view. ‘Twitter, for instance, reported that Russian bots tweeted 2.1 million times before the election – certainly a worrisome number. But these represented only 1 percent of all election-related tweets and 0.5 percent of views of election-related tweets.’

Prof. Nyhan’s conclusion is that none of the findings indicate that fake news and bots are not worrisome sings for American democracy. They can mislead and polarise citizens and undermine trust in news media. But those who want to combat online misinformation should take steps based on evidence and data!’ 

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