Revisiting “Facebook Didn’t Tilt the Election”

Shortly after the 2016 presidential election, I posted a column on Bloomberg, observing Facebook Didn’t Tilt the Election.

“Today’s topic is confirmation bias. This is the tendency for people to seek out news, information and opinion that reinforces existing beliefs. We pay more attention to, interpret more favorably and tend to remember the things with which we agree. The opposite is also true: We tend to not notice, interpret unfavorably and more easily forget that which is at odds with what we already think….

I am skeptical that social-media posts changed many votes; people aggressively avoid ideas that challenge their basic philosophy and opinions. Social media has become an echo chamber, an exercise in preaching to the choir and other members of your own tribe. I’ll end this by posing just one request: If anyone switched their vote because of a Facebook post or a 140-character squib on Twitter, please let me know. I’ll be waiting.”

Not surprisingly, not a single person reached out to say Facebook changed their minds on who to the vote for. I also believe that Fox news has tilted the country to the right somewhat, and more importantly made people misinformed, but let’s save that debate for another day.

I was fully prepared to add this discussion to my annual mea culpa list, but as it turns out, but the data seems to be confirming our original discussion. From the abstract, with my emphasis added:

Though some warnings about online “echo chambers” have been hyperbolic, tendencies toward selective exposure to politically congenial content are likely to extend to misinformation and to be exacerbated by social media platforms. We test this prediction using data on the factually dubious articles known as “fake news.” Using unique data combining survey responses with individual-level web trac histories, we estimate that approximately 1 in 4 Americans visited a fake news website from October 7-November 14, 2016. Trump supporters visited the most fake news websites, which were overwhelmingly pro-Trump. However, fake news consumption was heavily concentrated among a small group — almost 6 in 10 visits to fake news websites came from the 10% of people with the most conservative online information diets. We also find that Facebook was a key vector of exposure to fake news and that fact-checks of fake news almost never reached its consumers. (emphasis added)

That most of the fake news was consumed by people who were highly likely demographically to be Fox News viewers confirms both my bias and prior studies that show Fox viewers are not uninformed, but rather, are misinformed (but see this, this, this and this).

If this sort of stuff interests you — and you know I find it fascinating — go read the pieces listed below…


Facebook Didn’t Tilt the Election (November 16, 2016 ) Mirror Bloomberg

Cognition, Bias & Facebook (November 17, 2016)


See also:
Selective Exposure to Misinformation: Evidence from the consumption of fake news during the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign
by Andrew Guess (Princeton), Brendan Nyhan (Dartmouth), Jason Reifler (Exeter)
January 3, 2018

‘Fake News’: Wide Reach but Little Impact, Study Suggests (NYT, JanN. 2, 2018)

Study Finds Facebook was the Biggest Distributor of Fake News (PC Magazine)

Within Facebook’s Strength Lies a Weakness (Bloomberg Gadfly)


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