When American President Donald J. Trump hears something he doesn’t like, he airily dismisses it as “fake news” — a product, he claims, of the biased, left-leaning popular media.
But who reads, spreads, and believes fake news?
Nobody disputes there’s plenty of fake news flying around today. Fake news has existed throughout human history but it’s being turbocharged now by the speed, connectivity, and pervasiveness of social media.
Fake news has become such a force in our lives that the respected World Economic Forum lists it as one of the principal threats to our contemporary society.
Just a few years ago, such a strong claim would seem far-fetched. But the apparently significant impact of fake news on the 2016 U.S. presidential-election campaign — the campaign that brought Trump to power — has highlighted its remarkable potential.
And it doesn't end with Trump. More recently, fake news has been implicated in the election of President Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil.
Ironically, because Bolsonaro is an authoritarian populist who also is widely feared by environmentalists, he is often called the “Tropical Trump.”
FAKE NEWS AND PRESIDENTIAL ELECTIONS
As bitterly as Trump supporters might dispute the claim, a growing body of empirical evidence suggests that Donald Trump may actually have ascended to the U.S. Presidency on the coat-tails of fake news.
In the months preceding the U.S. presidential vote, a whopping 25 percent of tweets spreading news stories were sharing fake or extremely biased news, according to an article in Nature Communications.
An analysis in the world-leading journal Science scrutinized how fake news bounced around Twitter during the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign.
The study found fake news was strongly concentrated among conservative voters, who were far more likely to read and retweet it — presumably because the false stories reinforced their conservative world views.
Similar trends were revealed by a study in Science Advances that examined Facebook activity during the U.S. presidential campaign. Conservatives were much more likely than moderates or liberals to share articles from fake-news domains, which in 2016 were largely pro-Trump.
Researchers also found a strong age effect. Users over 65 shared seven times as many articles from fake-news domains than did younger users — who were evidently better at spotting and ignoring fake news, given that they’ve grown up with the Internet.
Is fake news the enemy of conservative politicians like Trump and Bolsonaro, or actually their friend? The scientific evidence suggests that fake news is, on balance, helping to elect conservative politicians — politicians that are typically pro-development and weak on environmental issues.
If fake news were merely polluting real news with random distortions, it would be one thing. But the evidence suggests it is actually allowing unscrupulous users to make the playing field of democracy uneven and biased toward certain viewpoints.
Researchers from many fields are now focusing on the threat that fake news poses to democratic societies and fair elections.
Some researchers are working on techno-fixes, such as altering the algorithms, search bots, and filters that underpin social media.
Others are taking a sociological approach, trying to teach consumers how to spot fake news. Here, for example, are four tips from from Harvard University.
For the modern news consumer, underpinning just about everything is the application of commonsense and skepticism. Notably, aspirations of critical thinking are a vital foundation of modern science. If fake news is the poison, then a healthy dose of skepticism is one of our best antidotes.
Maybe if Donald Trump had studied more science in school, then he wouldn’t be complaining so much about fake news.
If anything, fake news seems to be Trump’s friend, not his foe.