Skewed coverage by the mainstream media was more responsible for Hillary Clinton’s defeat than fake news, according to a paper published in the Columbia Journalism Review.
Although fake news is a serious issue, the amount of coverage about it is disproportionate to its volume and influence, say authors Duncan Watts and David Rothschild. “As troubling as the spread of fake news on social media may be, it was unlikely to have had much impact either on the election outcome or on the more general state of politics in 2016,” they write. In terms of volume, Russian agents’ fake news posts on Facebook were a drop in the bucket — legitimate posts outnumbered Russian troll posts by 87,000 to 1.
A bigger influence? What Harvard and MIT researchers describe as “a network of mutually reinforcing hyper-partisan sites that revive what Richard Hofstadter called ‘the paranoid style in American politics,’ combining decontextualized truths, repeated falsehoods, and leaps of logic to create a fundamentally misleading view of the world,” the authors say. In other words: sites like Breitbart News, InfoWars and the Daily Caller.
But mainstream media outlets dwarf even them, with center-left publications like the New York Times, Washington Post, HuffPost, CNN and Politico drawing exponentially more eyeballs. And during the 2016 presidential campaign, those outlets fixated on Hillary Clinton’s emails more than anything else. The Harvard and MIT researchers found that mainstream media sources devoted almost four times as many Clinton-related sentences to scandals as opposed to policies, while Trump-related sentences were one-and-a-half times as likely to be about policy as scandal — even though Trump was involved in many major scandals during the campaign, including accusations of sexual assault, the Trump Foundation, Trump University, insulting a Gold Star family and frequent racist or misogynist speech.
“Even more striking, the various Clinton-related email scandals—her use of a private email server while secretary of state, as well as the DNC and John Podesta hacks—accounted for more sentences than all of Trump’s scandals combined (65,000 vs. 40,000) and more than twice as many as were devoted to all of her policy positions,” the authors say. “To reiterate, these 65,000 sentences were written not by Russian hackers, but overwhelmingly by professional journalists employed at mainstream news organizations, such as The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Wall Street Journal.”