Ohio State Fake News Study Doesn’t Say What The Media Thinks It Says

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Joe Simonson Media Reporter
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The Washington Post’s Aaron Blake circulated a problematic study Tuesday that allegedly suggests fake news might have been the deciding factor for President Donald Trump’s victory in the 2016 election.

Researchers at the Ohio State University concluded that “fake news most likely did have a substantial impact on the voting decisions of a strategically important set of voters — those who voted for Barack Obama in 2012.”

The study focuses on the voting behavior of 585 respondents from a sample of 1,600 who originally voted for former President Barack Obama in 2012 and then asked the group 281 questions “that included, in addition to the standard election-survey items, three fake news statements.”


Such statements included “Hillary Clinton is in very poor health due to a serious illness,” which 12 percent of former Obama supporters said was “definitely true” or “probably true;” “Pope Francis endorsed Donald Trump for president prior to the election,” which eight percent supported; and “During her time as U.S. Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton approved weapon sales to Islamic jihadists, including ISIS,” which 20 percent of Obama voters agreed with.

From these numbers, the researchers extrapolated that the “pernicious pollution of our political discourse was sufficient to influence the outcome of what was a very close election.”

Such a conclusion comes with a number of caveats. For starters, the researchers themselves acknowledge that “given the inability to determine temporal order in a single-wave cross-sectional survey, we cannot prove that belief in fake news ’caused’ these former Obama voters to defect from the Democratic candidate in 2016.” WaPo’s piece on the study is headlined “A new study suggests fake news might have won Donald Trump the 2016 election.”

Moreover, the respondents agreed with fake statements after they voted. This carries the possibility they are simply justifying their 2016 choice.

There is also no evidence that the fake statements or rumors used in the study were from foreign sources like Russia. Americans are perfectly capable of creating false stories on their own without outside interference.

The researchers don’t have any evidence that these voters weren’t going to vote for Trump under any circumstances. It’s possible that many of these crossover voters felt better about their choice after learning Clinton had some sort of debilitating illness, but it’s unlikely that such a rumor would negate a voters’ policy preferences.

A Stanford and New York University study concluded in 2017 that any so-called “fake news” stories likely had zero to minimal impact on the election’s outcome. The authors concluded:

“If one fake news article were about as persuasive as one TV campaign ad, the fake news in our database would have changed vote shares by an amount on the order of hundredths of a percentage point. This is much smaller than Trump’s margin of victory in the pivotal states on which the outcome depended.”

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