There’s a wealth of tech-centric explanations for a 2016 presidential election that defied expectations and has many Americans scared about our civic future. Fake news. Cambridge Analytica. Filter bubbles. Russian hacking. WikiLeaks. Propaganda bots.
It’s almost as if people are loath to admit that we live in a deeply divided nation (remember Bush v. Gore, anyone?) where Americans of all political stripes have lost much of their trust in government. Fixing Facebook’s algorithms to filter out fake news seems easier than fixing a dysfunctional Congress or the campaign finance system.
My colleague Yochai Benkler and I recently offered a different explanation for Trump’s election. With our teams at Harvard and MIT, we analyzed 1.25 million news stories, using hyperlinks and mentions on Twitter and Facebook to map the ecosystem of campaign media. We discovered that while left and centrist voters relied heavily on traditional media to understand the election, the dominant source of information shared by right-wing voters on Facebook and Twitter was Breitbart, which anchored a media ecosystem of new, online-only outlets that mixed propaganda and conspiracy theory with partisan news.
These sites, we found, are not fake news in the usual sense of wholly fabricated articles written to earn online ad dollars, but hyperpartisan, partly factual news. Their partial truth, as well as their invocations of familiar, false narratives that are common within an echo chamber, make them very hard to debunk. Read something unbelievable on the Daily Caller and you are likely to find it echoed on the Washington Examiner, InfoWars, and Breitbart. This echo chamber was responsible, we believe, for taking a fringe position on ending legal immigration, making it central to the 2016 presidential campaign and ultimately, for helping the candidate willing to support this position rise to the presidency.