In today’s overheated political climate, people are increasingly noting how difficult it is to convince others, who disagree, to alter their beliefs. Public discourse seems ever more compartmentalized in “silos,” where people express themselves in an “echo chamber” or “bubble” that reinforces their pre-existing biases. Contravening facts rarely get in and when they do people “double-down” and insist on their preferred beliefs irrespective of how compelling those contravening facts may be. Political arguments are increasingly “ tribalistic,” articulated in an “us vs. them” idiom where combatants have a primary responsibility to maintain their tribal allegiance irrespective of what research, facts and truth may suggest. Under these conditions, people are vulnerable to believing whatever reinforces what they wanted to believe in the first place, even if the claims being made are manufactured to do just that. In this context, “fake news,” intentionally manufactured to deceive, becomes more likely to achieve its intended effect when people are already primed to only hear what they want to hear. This is all the more compounded in an age of cable television and the internet where people can silo, enter their preferred echo chamber and only listen to those from their political tribe.
Research indicates that most people are not sealed off in echo chambers. And most people do not get seduced by fake news. But significant minorities who are the most politically active are indeed trapped in echo chambers that can reinforce their tribalistic belief in fake news.
Fox News is a special case. It was an early player in the tribalistic practice of reinforcing people’s prejudices. Starting 22 years ago Rupert Murdoch hired Roger Ailes to create a cable news channel dedicated to promoting the success of the Republican Party and especially the conservatives in that Party. The success of Fox in this endeavor has been well documented. Recently, research has been showing, however, that the success of Fox in attracting its base audience came at the cost of the quality of public discourse. Fox News has been documented in spreading lies and doing so often via fake news that it only sometimes retracts and rarely apologizes for.
Fox threw its support behind the rogue Republican primary candidacy of Donald Trump and that implicated it in rationalizing the lies and fake news Trump has made the hallmark of his short career as a politician. Now that Trump is President the lying continues even as he himself rails against fake news and Fox has doubled-down on rationalizing his mendacity.
This Fox News-Fake News-Trump Nexus has created what amounts now to a serious crisis of public discourse and perhaps even our constitutional system. Political scientists are only now beginning to study this crisis but there are initial data that can shed light on this issue. Our own research shows that, more than other news sources, Fox News attracts people who tend to believe fake news. And these fake news believers are more likely to support Trump compared to other voters.
Our research relies on the December 2016 Ipsos survey conducted in collaboration with Buzzfeed asking people about fake news. The survey sampled 3015 people to ask them about their familiarity with the top-performing real and fake news headlines (as posted, commented upon and shared on Facebook). Respondents were also queried about their sources of political information and their support for Trump in the 2016 presidential election. The fake news headlines were about things that were demonstrably false, as in “Pope Francis Shocks the World, Endorses Trump, Releases Statement.” The real headlines included: “Donald Trump on Refusing Presidential Salary: ‘I’m not taking it’.” Consistent with the research, most people indicated they had never seen the false (aka “fake news”) headlines. But depending on the fake headline, between 10-25 percent indicated they had seen it. And most of those who said they saw a headline thought it was accurate. Real news headlines were recognized by 10 to 60 percent of those queried depending on the headline, and most who had seen a real headline indicated they thought it was accurate.
We calculated a net score for each person indicating the extent to which they believed real news compared to fake news. In multivariate analyses, we find that relying on Fox News as a major news source significantly decreased a person’s score more than relying on any other news source. Relying on Vox was found to be somewhat significantly related to getting a lower score. No other major news source was found to be significantly related to belief in fake news. People who indicated relying heavily on the New York Times, however, had significantly higher net scores indicating belief in real over fake news. While the Times readers tend to be more liberal than Fox viewers, they also tend to be less likely to believe fake news.
We find that relying on Fox as a major news source was in fact more significant than a person’s Facebook use. In fact, it was the most significant factor even when we controlled for other factors like partisan identification, education, income, etc. Republicans had significantly lower scores, as did people with lower incomes, younger people and women. But relying on Fox News stood out as the most significant predictor of having a lower net score in believing real over fake news. Perhaps Fox News simply is more attractive to people who are more willing or vulnerable to believing fake news. Yet, we cannot dismiss the possibility that it could be that Fox News viewing increases your vulnerability to believing fake news.
We also find that a person’s net score in believing real compared to fake news is significantly associated with the probability of voting for Trump. Our prior research on this subject showed that “low-information voters” swung to Trump en masse in ways that had not happened previously. These voters were much more vulnerable to being influenced by fake news. Now we find that relying on Fox News and believing fake news relative to real news are strongly associated with each other and with supporting Trump in the 2016 election. Both the fake news and Fox News correlation with Trump support remain true when controlling for personal characteristics such as partisanship.
In today’s changing media landscape, fake news is circulating more widely and increasingly polluting public discourse. People across the spectrum have been shown to be susceptible to believing in and passing along fake news. Fox News is, however, distinctive as a site that is congenial to people who are more willing to believe in fake news and it encourages those beliefs. It contributed to the election of a president who has, himself, proven to be a major purveyor of fake news. The Fox News-Fake News-Trump Nexus points to a crisis in public discourse. Whether it continues beyond this presidency, however long it lasts, depends on how the public responds.
Sanford Schram is Professor of Political Science at Hunter College.
Richard Fording is the Marilyn Williams Elmore and John Durr Elmore Endowed Professor at the University of Alabama. They are currently completing a book manuscript entitled Hard White: Trump and the Alt-Right.