Impact of fake news on elections

The misinformation crisis we are confronting is huge: the post-Balakot information chaos is proof. (Read Farhad Manjoo’s column in the New York Times)

Dozens of Indians were lynched last year following child kidnapping rumours circulated on WhatsApp. There is absolutely no doubt that social-media driven fake news is one of the major cybersecurity problems of the 21st century digital economy.

But that crisis doesn’t necessarily mean that the new form of misinformation can sway elections like never before, even though we know that political parties are flooding the internet with misleading propaganda. The apocalyptic predictions on how masses of misinformed voters will lead to the death of democracy is based on idealistic assumptions, especially that voters generally make informed rational choices.

What research shows: Latest research from the US shows that people’s worst fears about the impact of fake news on 2016 Presidential Election were not accurate. Drawing on evidence, Brendon Nyhan, a professor of public policy at the University of Michigan, wrote an excellent Medium post:

…it turns out that many of the initial conclusions that observers reached about the scope of fake news consumption, and its effects on our politics, were exaggerated or incorrect. Relatively few people consumed this form of content directly during the 2016 campaign, and even fewer did so before the 2018 election. Fake news consumption is concentrated among a narrow subset of Americans with the most conservative news diets. And, most notably, no credible evidence exists that exposure to fake news changed the outcome of the 2016 election.

Read his analysis here (“Why Fears of Fake News Are Overhyped”)

Questions we need to ask: To understand the impact of fake news on elections, we need to answer a few questions, that Nyhan listed in his February 2018 New York Times column: How many people actually saw the questionable material? Whether the people being exposed are persuadable? The proportion of news people saw that is bogus?

We don’t have any data on this in the Indian context. I don’t think the numbers would be large enough. Ongoing research projects are aiming to answer this question and we will have more clarity in the coming months.

Theoretical argument: Political scientist Rebekah Tromble made great points about this debate in a Twitter thread. Here is her argument, paraphrased for clarity:

No research suggests that there are more misinformed citizens than at any time in the past. We don’t know if misinformed citizens vote more enthusiastically — meaning they turn out to vote in higher numbers. It could well be that “those who are very politically active are more likely to encounter and believe misinformation”. And there is no data to show that fake news has converted “uninterested and disengaged citizens into extreme partisan ideologues who are, in turn, running out to vote.”

That doesn’t mean that misinformation is inconsequential—far from it. I am merely highlighting that we don’t have a good model yet to understand how grave the social-media driven fake news crisis is for electoral politics. And the limited evidence from the US doesn’t support the apocalyptic predictions. It’s hard to change people’s minds.

Television news is the problem: TV is the dominant source of news for Indians. That medium is what I think is the root of India’s political information crisis. There are many ways that political leaders deploy to hijack media conversations which possibly (no evidence) have a much larger impact on public discourse than WhatsApp forwards.