Where is the evidence that fake news and psy-ops are influencing voters?
There ain’t none (keep reading).
But here are plenty of indicators that more and more people are turning to hard news — and choosing to pay for it.
As someone who works for a news organisation, it’s hard for me to like Facebook. Along with Google, the social network leeches revenue from the local media industry, then shuffles it offshore. It’s invasive and its frenetic format encourages mindless, bite-size news snacking.
But in terms of fake news and “psy-ops” (psychological operations) by Machiavellian politicians and their backers, I think it gets a bum rap.
Recently, many on social media have breathlessly shared a Guardian article called “The great British Brexit robbery: how our democracy was hijacked.”
It details how US hedge fund billionaire and conservative activist Robert Mercer directed his data-mining firm, Cambridge Analytica, or at least an affiliated company, called AggregateIQ, to help the “Leave” campaign. Cambridge Analytica creates technology for analysing voters’ Facebook profiles, the better to target them with customised, manipulative content in their newsfeeds.
Mr Mercer has also been blamed (or credited) with Donald Trump’s election across the Atlantic.
Cambridge Analytica helped the Trump campaign with social media marketing, and the right-wing news site founded by the hedge fund billionaire, Breitbart News, which since 2012 has been pushing marginal stories around topics like Trump’s “birther” campaign questioning Barack Obama’s citizenship and, recently, alleged wiretapping of Trump Tower.
Anyone on social media at the time of the US election and Brexit will have seen their share of fake news. Some of it, no doubt, was psyops but a lot of it was reportedly driven from opportunists in eastern Europe, who knew that any outlandish headline about Trump or Clinton would draw lots of clicks and search word ad revenue.
While Mr Mercer’s crew at Cambridge Analytica no doubt knows its stuff, social media marketing, profiling and targeted communications are standard in big political campaigns these days.
Sophisticated Clinton operation
NBR got a glimpse of the (much better funded) Clinton campaign’s social media operation when we profiled New Zealand company BuddyBid in the run-up to November 8. BuddyBid was only handling merchandising for one of the Democrats’ many affiliated SuperPACs (political action committees) but even the simple act of buying a Hillary T-shirt delivered her campaign a treasure trove of data to her campaign. And, for what it was worth, the Clinton campaign was said to have a much larger data mining operation targeting undecideds.
That helped the Democrat win the popular vote by 48.0% to 45.9%, with Trump claiming the White House by dint of winning the rust belt states and with them a majority in Electoral College.
With hindsight, Mrs Clinton was doomed to lose states like Wisconsin and Pennsylvania because she took them for granted, and voters sensed (quite correctly) that she was secretly in favour of free trade.
Mr Trump, on the other hand, was a master of old-fashioned campaign rallies tub-thumping, as were Nigel Farage and Boris Johnson during the Brexit campaign.
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Research doesn’t bear out fake news influence
Yes, almost all the statistics that Mr Trump quoted on the campaign trail were presented out of context, or outright wrong. And some opportunistic, ad-chasing fake news pushers just made stuff up about his rival.
But a lot of it was hoovered up by voters with confirmation bias. That is, they sought out information that reinforced their views, and lived in their own bubble on the right, or left. That’s hardly anything new; it’s as old as talkback radio (or in fact, probably just human nature and as old as politics itself).
It’s my sense that these non-digital factors played the largest role in Trump’s victory and Brexit. Voters angry and alienated by globalisation just wanted challenger politicians who would disrupt the status quo, and Trump and Johnson delivered.
Conversely, the Clinton and Remain campaigns failed to connect with voters. The rustbelt electorate in the US felt, quite correctly, that Clinton was being disingenuous with her sudden conversion to protectionism, and taking blue-collar support for granted.
Rustbelt voters did not necessarily believe everything Mr Trump said, but they did think he was the only candidate who appreciated their anger, and responded to it.
Blaming fake news or psyops is a red herring, and the first step to losing your next election.
I say “it’s my sense” because – remarkably given its alleged influence – it seems there is no substantial research showing fake news is leading us astray.
There is a Michigan State University study of 14,000 users in seven countries, which found that on the whole people sought verification from multiple sources as they sifted through cyberspace in search of the good oil. Yes, that study was funded by Google. But the research was carried out by kosher academics at a respected university. And according to The Conversation – a site that aggregates articles by academics — there are no studies that contract it.
Lecturer and AUT Centre for Journalism, Media and Democracy (JMAD) project manager Merja Myllylahti she’s not aware of any local research (although she would like to see some; I think it’s fair to say she’s probably not on board with my general line of reasoning).
Real gains for real news
We do know traditional media has flourished over recent months. Fox News and CNN got record ratings during the US presidential campaign. A record 83 million Americans watched the first debate between Mrs Clinton and Mr Trump.
The New York Times made a net gain of 308,000 paid digital subscribers in the first quarter of this year (for a total of 1.92 million) or more than five times its usual rate of acquisition. Its monthly unique audience is close to 80 million. And despite Mr Trump repeatedly referring to it as failing, coverage of his presidency saw it to a $US30 million profit. That’s modest by historic US media standards, but hey, it’s in the black according to its audited, public accounts and its NYSE-listed shares have risen from $US11.85 in June last year to $US17.60 as of Friday’s close.
And in the UK, the Guardian says more than 500,000 people have now participated in its voluntary donation scheme.
Here, NBR now has just a whisker under 5000 paid individual member subscribers, and around two-thirds of New Zealand’s 500 largest organsiations have one of our IP (office-wide) subscriptions, helping to fund an expanding newsroom and new features like NBR VIEW.
NZME and Stuff have a few issues with fake news (peppered through Outbrain “Promoted Story” blocks, and occasionally pushing into articles through efforts like the recent lazy, idiotic piece on pre-Maori European settlement. or the more tabloid wire stories they choose to run). But overall, they’re pretty robust. And they’ve grown audience reach to rival Google and Facebook in NZ (arguably the pair were too successful on this front, undermining their arguments for a merger).
The evidence is people do want good information, and will seek it out now more than ever.
And while social media is often derided, it also performs a very useful function. For the first time, readers and experts can hold journalists to account in an unmediated, public forum. They can and do call out mistakes and bias. Often it’s a slightly chaotic process as a story breaks. But over time, the wisdom of the mob is pretty powerful. It helps a true picture of an event to emerge.
Surging, record figures for mainstream news sites show that most people look to traditional sources for validation of what they read on social media or, more likely, as part of their social media experience (and the BBC has offered excellent coverage of the latest terrorist incidents in London, across both old and new media).
These crazy times are actually proving crazy-good for media that does a good job.
There has never been a better time to be a reader.