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Read That Social Media Swings Elections? That’s Probably Just Fake News

Ryan Bourne

It is often said that “a lie gets halfway around the world
before the truth has a chance to get its boots on”.

The great and good all seem to agree that there’s a new
boogeyman for fake news: the internet – or, more specifically,
social media.

In the aftermath of the Brexit vote and the election of Donald
Trump, the charge sheet for sites such as Facebook and Twitter is
long. They are said to give a platform for wild conspiracy
theories, facilitate the spreading of misinformation, and help
create “echo chambers” or “filter bubbles”,
whereby people only see news and views which back up their own
opinions.

The Economist ran a front page story last week implying that
social media was the nemesis of democracy. The BBC’s media
editor wrote a post days beforehand asking “can democracy
survive Facebook?”. In the US, Facebook has been in the
firing line of Democratic politicians since it came to light that
as many as 126m Americans may have seen Russian-sponsored ads
during the Presidential election campaign.

Facebook, Twitter and the
internet more broadly have limited explanatory power for the state
of politics today.

Conventional wisdom increasingly suggests that social media is
polarising our politics and even – in the US case – helping to
swing elections.

But is there any evidence to justify these conclusions?

In a recent paper, the economists Levi Boxell, Matthew Gentkow
and Jesse Shapiro collected data to test whether the internet was
to blame for polarisation and could explain the shock Trump victory
in 2016.

Their results might surprise you.

Constructing a measure of polarisation of American voters, they
indeed find a significant increase over the past two decades, a
time during which the internet and social media use has taken
off.

If the internet itself was driving this trend, rather than
something else, we would expect polarisation to be most intense
among demographic groups with the most exposure to online
information.

In fact, they find the complete opposite.

The increase in polarisation in the past 20 years is twice as
large for over 65s compared to 18-39 year olds, despite the former
obtaining information online and using social media at
significantly lower rates.

Similar results are found when controlling for other potential
demographic determinants of internet usage, such as education and
race: the groups least likely to have internet access displayed
greater increases in polarisation.

They found no support either for the idea that the internet was
critical to Trump’s success. Using three measures of internet
exposure, Trump did as well or better than his Republican
predecessors among groups with low internet exposure, and as well
or worse among groups with high internet exposure.

In two of the three measures, the 2016 election in fact saw the
Republicans’ vote share among the low internet group exceed
the high internet group for the first time.

Now, it could be that Trump would have done much worse among
regular internet users absent developments in social media, or that
news or information spread by younger cohorts gets transferred to
older groups through other means where its polarising effects are
amplified.

But on the face of it, there is no supporting evidence from this
work that social media can be blamed for polarisation, or indeed
credited with shaping the election.

This is important. Some commentators regularly condemn social
media firms’ effect on politics, and even suggest that
websites such as Facebook should be regulated as if they are public
utilities.

While it might seem to make sense to blame new forms of media
for political disruption, this evidence implies that online
polarisation is reflective of societal trends, rather than social
media itself driving the polarisation.

It is tempting for people upset with recent electoral outcomes
to reach for boogeymen to explain the results. Social media and the
internet are increasingly easy targets, especially given
Trump’s regular Twitter use. But this recent paper suggests
strongly that Facebook, Twitter and the internet more broadly have
limited explanatory power for the state of politics today.

Perhaps, just as with other method of communication such as
telephones, we should think of social media instead merely as a
medium to express free speech.

As the economist Tyler Cowen has written, free speech itself
often leads to the articulation of bad ideas that we may disagree
with. It can reveal ugly undersides to society, and can encourage
groupthink.

But attacking the mediums used for free speech makes no
sense.

And we should not be surprised that the biggest attacks on
Facebook come from the mainstream media, who stand to lose most
from social media dominating the spread of information.

Ryan Bourne
occupies the R Evan Scharf Chair in the Public Understanding of
Economics at the Cato Institute in Washington DC.