Thesis Statement for Fake News: Analysis of Trump's Presidential Elections

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Fake news; to what degree did it help Trump during the presidential elections?

“So much Fake News. Never been more voluminous or more inaccurate. But through it all, our country is doing great!” (Vox, 2018). Donald Trump, often characterized as a populist (Rice-Oxley & Kalia, 2018), is speaking here concerning fake news[footnoteRef:1] in a tweet that he posted on the 26th of March 2018. To illustrate why Trump has been characterized as a populist, Professor Susan Hunston (2017) stated the following: “Although his language, both in content and in style, is odd for a political leader, it is familiar to his audience. It is the true language of populism”. During the US presidential elections, fake news coming from different institutes might have influenced the outcome greatly (Chalfant, 2018). Not only could the national institutes have interfered in the elections, but Russia is also said to have actively intervened in the 2016 presidential elections as well (The Times of Israel, 2016). It is likely that if Russia has interfered, their tactics had at least three elements; online propaganda, hacking into and exposing political organizations and individuals’ emails, and targeting state elections systems. It is possible that their work has spread, and millions of Americans ended up unknowingly sharing the fake news and viewing the ads, which are illegal (The Washington Post, 2017). Trump did encourage the political hacking of Russia during his campaign: “Russia, if you’re listening, I hope you’re able to find the 30,000 emails (from Clinton) that are missing” (BBC News, 2016). To emphasize the relevancy of this issue, up until this day a federal discussion is being held by the F.B.I. to investigate the effects of the possible intervention of Russia on the US presidential elections. A team of researchers from Ohio University even argue that all the inaccurate news was enough to swing the election in Trump’s favor (Chalfant, 2018). However, to what degree has fake news actually helped Trump? This essay will be explored to what extent fake news contributed to Trump’s advantage during the US presidential elections in 2016. In the paragraphs that follow, it will first be presented in what ways fake news has helped Trump during the elections and secondly how fake news worked against Trump. Afterward, an analysis will be held between these two perspectives. Lastly, the research question will be answered in the conclusion. Comment by Max van duivenboden: Source [1: news articles that are intentionally and verifiably false, and could mislead readers (Allcott & Gentzkow, 2017). ]

Regarding the ways, fake news has helped Trump during the presidential elections. During the elections, a lot of fake news was shared across the United States. Many experts have concluded that it might have been pivotal for the election of Donald Trump as most discussed fake news stories tended to favor Trump over Hillary Clinton (Allcott & Gentzkow). One of the biggest sources of inaccurate news was Facebook. Mark Zuckerberg, CEO of Facebook, contradicted this and said it was ‘extremely unlikely’ fake news on Facebook had an impact on the election, while he boasted that Facebook was responsible for 2 million people registering to vote (Parkinson, 2016). All Facebook users in America are certain to have read multiple fake news articles. This could be derived from research that Allcott and Gentzkow (2017) had conducted with a database that consisted of 156 fake stories; out of those 156 articles 115 were pro-Trump and 41 pro-Clinton. All throughout the election, these fake stories, sometimes covered with parody, circulated throughout Facebook. Notable examples are: ‘The Pope Endorses Trump’, ‘Hillary Clinton bought $137 million in illegal arms’, and ‘The Clintons bought a $200 million house in the Maldives’ (Read, 2016). Alcott and Gentzkow’s (2017) results showed that these 156 stories combined were shared 38 million times, which translates into 760 million instances of a user clicking through and reading a fake news story; which means about three stories read per American adult. In addition, Guess, Nyhan, and Reifler (2018) found out that 27.4 % of American adults were confronted with a fake news article, 3 months prior to the elections. Guess et al. (2018) also concluded that the people saw an average of 5.45 fake news articles, with 5.00 being pro-Trump and only 0.45 pro-Clinton. To go deeper into details, Paul Horner, a 38-year-old impresario of a Facebook fake-news domain, has made his living off viral news hoaxes for several years (Dewey, 2016). But during the months of their campaign of Trump, he started to notice the fake-news ecosystem growing more crowded and exceedingly more influential. In March 2016, Trump’s son Eric and his then-campaign manager, Corey Lewandowski, even tweeted links to one of Horner’s disinformation articles (Dewey, 2016). In an interview with The Washington Post, Horner answered questions with the concern that his own fake news stories somehow helped Trump get elected: “I honestly feel people are definitely dumber. They just keep passing stuff around. My sites were picked up by Trump supporters all the time. I think Trump is in the White House because of me. His followers don’t fact-check anything - they’ll post everything, believe everything” (P. Horner, personal communication, November 17, 2016). In terms of how fake news benefitted Trump, he also received a lot of international aid as Russia possibly interfered in the presidential elections in 2016. According to the U.S. intelligence community’s assessment, the campaign was directed from the seat of power in Russia; Vladimir Putin (The Washington Post, 2017). The Russian’s online disinformation campaigns then sprawled over the social media companies Facebook, Twitter, and Google. With the help of automated social media accounts or bots, Russian operatives shared free and paid posts with millions of Americans (The Washington Post, 2017). To put this into perspective, statistics have shown that 1.4 million tweets, 80,000 Facebook posts, and more than 1100 YouTube videos were likely linked to Russian trolling activity during the times of the elections (CBS News, 2017).

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So far, this essay has discussed in what ways fake news has helped Donald Trump during the presidential elections. The following section will discuss the manners in which fake news worked against Trump. Boxell, Gentzkow, and Shapiro (2018) conducted research concerning the role of the Internet in the outcome of the 2016 elections. Boxell et al. (2018) compared trends in the Republican part of the vote between likely and unlikely internet users and between internet users and non-internet users. Data was used from the presidential election years 1996-2016 from the ANES, which is an American survey that poses different demographic and political questions. Boxell et al. (2018) used three main measures to identify the use of internet among the voters. Boxell et al.’s (2018) first measure, which referred to whether the voter had access to the Internet, came from a response to “Do you or anyone in this household use the Internet at any location?”. The second measure, which referred to whether the voter had seen any campaign news, had to do with the fact that voters had heard anything concerning the presidential campaign on the internet. The ultimate measure classified the voters in either the top or the bottom quartile referring to the predicted [image: ]internet use of these voters. Figure 1 on the right includes the results of Boxell et al.’s (2018) research. Thereby, figure 1 shows for all three measures the share of the voting respondents that voted for the Republican candidate in all elections. Figure 1 reveals that there has been a gradual increase in the proportion of the least-active online voters over the last couple of years. Thus, all three graphs show that Trump performed the best among the groups least likely to use the Internet. One possible implication of this result is that internet users would have been less likely to vote for Trump, considering that internet users have been inflicted with all sorts of fake news articles (Boxell et al., 2018). This does not rule out the fact that the ‘least-active’ internet users might be influenced the most when exposed to fake news (Boxell et al., 2018). Another significant aspect of the ways fake news has hindered Trump is to look at the negative effects it carried beyond 2016. Since there were so many articles of fake news displayed during the presidential elections, the residents of the United States find it difficult to separate quality information from false information (Stecula, 2018). Moreover, the ideology seems to impact the assessment of news credibility more than ever. Consequently, a news source that looks and feels fake will be given more legitimacy than an actual reliable news source, for ideological reasons (Stecula, 2018). Knight Foundation (2018) also writes about the fact that Americans believe it harder to be well-informed. “They increasingly perceive the media as biased and struggle to identify objective news sources” Statistics from a nationally representative survey of more than 19,000 American citizens show that more Americans have a negative (43%) than a positive (33%) view of the news media, while 23% are neutral (Knight Foundation, 2018). Additionally, 66% believe that most media news does not do a good job of separating fact from opinion. Figure 1: Trends in votes for Republican presidential candidate by online activity

Thus far, the essay has shown how fake news helped and hindered Trump during the presidential elections. In this section of the essay, the impact of the two perspectives will be analyzed. To begin with, the research of Allcott and Gentzkow was aided by a database that consisted of 156 fake news stories. Of the 156 stories, 115 stories tended to favor Trump over Clinton and the other 41 stories tended to favor Clinton over Trump. Combined they were shared approximately 38 million times (on Facebook), with the 115 pro-Trump stories contributing to 30 million shares whereas the 41 stories only contributed to 7.6 million shares (Allcott & Gentzkow, 2017). Moreover, Guess et al. estimated that out of the average 5.45 fake news articles that American citizens had read 3 months prior to the elections, 5.00 was pro-Trump. Furthermore, Paul Horner, an entrepreneur within the fake news empire, stated that Trump was living in the White House because of him. On the other hand, in spite of these recent findings about the role of fake news having positively influenced the presidential election, Boxell et al.’s research stated other theories. Boxell et al.’s results detected that citizens without the use of the internet or access to fake news articles shared a bigger proportion of Trump’s votes than the citizens categorized as ‘active internet users’. For 2 of the 3 measures of their research, it showed that this was the very first time since 1996, that the Republican candidate performed better or equally well among the citizens that are less active online (Boxell et al., 2018). This finding might also suggest that the fake news during the elections had a negative impact on Trump’s chances of becoming president. This implication must be taken with caution, as it could also be possible that the ‘least-active’ internet users were influenced by traditional media. As previously stated, Russia might have played a role in influencing the presidential elections as well. However, even to this day, the F.B.I. is still investigating this possible interference. Even though the US intelligence community has accepted the fact that Russia was waging a broad effort to interfere, Trump, himself has refused to accept the conclusion that Putin was trying to help him (Cohen & Herb, 2019). As was mentioned in the paragraph above as well, the fake news that circulated throughout the elections has their a negative impact up until this day. From a survey by the Knight Foundation, Americans find it much harder to identify objective news sources as 66% of the population believes that most media news do not excel at separating fact from opinion.

After this analysis, and coming back at the earlier phrased research question, it could be stated that fake news has had both positive and negative effects on Trump’s chances. Trump benefitted from the fake news as multiple sources concluded that the proportion of pro-Trump articles outperformed the amount of pro-Clinton articles. On the contrary, solely Boxell et al.’s research found that Trump’s votes originated more from the citizens who used the internet the least. However, this does not instantly mean that fake news worked against Trump’s chances of becoming president. Boxell et al.’s research could also be interpreted in different manners. For example, it could also be true that the least active internet users were influenced the most and therefore voted for Trump. Not only did fake news sway the presidential elections, the effects, such as low trust in the objectivity of the mainstream media, are still present today. In short, the overall impact of fake news on Trump contributed virtually to his advantage during the elections, whereas the current effects from all the fake news are virtually negative. For further research, it could be interesting to examine the impact of fake news during the presidential elections of 2020. This could be interesting to examine as more social media platforms, such as Facebook and Twitter, will pay more attention to the spread of fake news on their territories.


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