Hillary Clinton holding a microphone
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Fake news may have been enough to swing the 2016 presidential election, depressing Democratic turnout for Hillary Clinton by about 4 percent, a new study suggests.

 

Democratic strategists have wondered why a chunk of 2012 Obama voters defected from the Democrats in November 2016. An analysis by researchers at Ohio State University found that fake news stories discouraged about 4 percent of Obama's voters from casting their votes for Clinton, the Washington Post reports.

 

The study's authors inserted three widely circulated fake news stories from 2016 into a 281-question YouGov poll. The pool of respondents included 585 Obama voters, 23 percent of whom didn't vote for Clinton, either by abstaining or choosing another candidate.

 

How the fake news study was conducted

These were the untrue stories, along with the percentage of Obama voters who said they were true or probably true: Clinton was in “very poor health due to a serious illness” (12 percent); Pope Francis endorsed Trump (8 percent); Clinton approved weapons sales to Islamic jihadists, “including ISIS” (20 percent).

 

About a quarter of 2012 Obama voters believed at least one of the stories. Of that group, 45 percent voted Clinton. But of the respondents who believed none of the stories, 89 percent voted for Clinton.

 

Controlling for factors such as gender, race, age, education, political affiliation and personal feelings about Clinton the researchers found those factors were responsible for 38 percent of Obama defectors, but fake news was responsible for another 11 percent.

“We cannot prove that belief in fake news caused these former Obama voters to defect from the Democratic candidate in 2016,” the researchers wrote. “These data strongly suggest, however, that exposure to fake news did have a significant impact on voting decisions.”

What fake news could have done to Clinton

Clinton lost the election by about 77,000 votes in the former Democratic strongholds of Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania. The polling director at the Washington Post extrapolated the data from the Ohio State study into a model that created two theoretical elections: One with fake news, and one without. He found that the election with fake news cost Clinton about 2.2 points in all three crucial states. Clinton lost Michigan by 0.2 points and Pennsylvania and Wisconsin by 0.72 and 0.76 points, respectively.

The news would not be well received by President Trump, who is said to be insecure about the legitimacy of his victory of Clinton, one of the reasons he hasn't spoken out against Russian President Vladimir Putin. Trump has repeatedly said that Russian interference in the 2016 election — which was confirmed by U.S. intelligence agencies even before Election Day — didn't change the outcome.

And there is, as of yet, no evidence that actual vote totals were changed.

But for the first time, there's an estimate on the number of minds that were.