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By Holman W. Jenkins, Jr.
A study last year of the 2016 election by six scholars affiliated with Harvard’s Berkman Klein Center got virtually zero play, and it’s not hard to understand why.
It found that social media “engagement” that shaped the election outcome overwhelmingly was sparked by the traditional profit-seeking, left-tilting national media, plus new-style, right-wing outlets like Breitbart-and not by fake news sites or Russian bots.
“The ‘fake news’ framing of what happened in the 2016 campaign . . . is a distraction,” says the study. The real difference maker in 2016 was the rise of highly propagandistic, dissenting, right-wing media, but the authors are far from certain that its arrival should be considered an “attack on democracy, rather than its expression.”
What little press coverage the study got focused on its account of Breitbart’s success in “shopping” the Clinton Foundation story to the mainstream media. “If Donald Trump’s support had been limited to readers of Breitbart, he would never have won the electoral college,” the authors say.
But isn’t this virtually the ideal in a test tube? Dissenting new media force mainstream outlets to notice a story, but also to vet it?
By now you may be thinking of Facebook ’s Rob Goldman, who was pilloried for a tweet that criticized press accounts of Russia’s Facebook activities that “align with the main media narrative of Tump [sic] and the election.”
You may be thinking of Mark Zuckerberg’s statement, before he was forced to recant, that it was “silly” to imagine Facebook affecting the election outcome. The Harvard study amounts to a comprehensive debunking of a hysterical BuzzFeed report that unfortunately remains influential. The news site claimed that, during the last three months of the campaign, the top 20 election stories from “hoax sites and hyperpartisan blogs” outperformed the top 20 stories from legitimate sites in terms of Facebook engagement. The problem here should be apparent. Dozens of news sites would have covered the same legitimate stories, but their “engagement” wasn’t measured, as it should have been to compare the traction gained by specific real vs. specific fake stories.
As a separate study in the Columbia Journalism Review also notes, “engagement” with fake news often has more to do with its “entertainment value” than its believability.
Dartmouth College’s Brendan Nyhan, another debunker of the fake-news hysteria, points out what anybody in charge of spending ad dollars already knows: People just aren’t that influenceable. Even if fake news were as effective as TV advertising, concludes yet another careful study, “the fake news in our database would have changed vote shares by an amount on the order of hundredths of a percentage point.”
Which brings us to today. Go to your Facebook page. You won’t find it overrun with Russian trolls and fake news, but the kinds of things your “friends” always post.
It might begin to be sayable that Facebook is a place where anybody can say almost anything, and (with a few exceptions) we can live with that.
It might be mentionable that 2016 actually served as a pretty useful inoculation of the body politic against new kinds of unfiltered media and unreliable messages.
It might even be mentionable that 99.99% of Vladimir Putin’s impact on the U.S. has come via the exploitation of the “Russian influence” meme by U.S. domestic opportunists. We could also begin to notice that the mainstream media has become a tad trial-lawyer-y-i.e., seeing what it can get away with.
A New York Times piece “fact checks” (debunks) Mr. Goldman’s tweet that Russia’s “main goal” was sowing discord rather than electing Mr. Trump by saying this claim is contradicted by the Mueller indictment of 13 Russian trolls.
Except the indictment’s plain words are almost identical to Mr. Goldman’s: The Kremlin “had a strategic goal to sow discord in the U.S. political system,” though, of course, only those activities aimed at helping a particular candidate are actionable under U.S. campaign law.
Or revisit Glenn Greenwald’s catalog of Trump-Russia “scoops” that had to be retracted.
One or both of the following statements may be false (though both appear to be true according to Senate investigators): The Trump Tower meeting was elicited with a promise of “dirt” on Mrs. Clinton and it turned into a discussion of the Magnitsky Act. One thing the statements aren’t is contradictory, as implied by a fake news cycle this week.
All this serves many interests. The media are still trying to live down their Trump-promoting ad-sales bacchanal during the campaign. If Mr. Trump is everything Democrats say, Mrs. Clinton will go down as the all-time chump for letting him in office.
Just wait till Democrats, if they take the House, try to manufacture an impeachment case out of two years’ worth of media innuendo. We might be glad that tubby, easily winded Americans are fighting on Facebook instead of the streets.
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