Social media had only a small influence on how much people believed falsehoods about candidates and issues in the last two presidential elections, contends a pair of studies at Ohio State University. Moreover, study author R. Kelly Garrett, professor of communication, contends that Facebook--which came under fire for spreading misinformation in the 2016 campaign--actually reduced misperceptions by users in that election compared to those who consumed only other social media.
"Given the amount of attention given to the issue, it may seem surprising that social media doesn't have a larger impact on Americans' belief in falsehoods. It is an issue that we should be concerned about, but it is not the main driver of why so many people believe false information about issues and candidates."
In previous research, Garrett found evidence suggesting that email contributed to the spread of false information in the 2008 election, before social media was as popular as it is today. Garrett specifically designed these studies to gauge the role of social media in what Americans believed in the last two election campaigns.
Reliance on social media for political news has increased rapidly. In 2012, about two in five Americans reported using social media for political purposes, according to the Pew Research Center. In 2016, more Americans named Facebook as the source they used for pre-election political information than any other site, including those of major news organizations.
"This study began long before 'fake news' became as popular a topic as it is today, but the questions that drive this study are very much in keeping with our concerns about how disinformation is spread online."
The 2012 study involved misperceptions about the two presidential candidates, Barack Obama and Mitt Romney. Overall, Republicans tended to hold less-accurate beliefs about Pres. Obama than Democrats did, while Democrats held less-accurate beliefs about Romney than did Republicans. Results showed that increasing social media use reduced participants' belief accuracy about Obama falsehoods, although the effect was small.
Social media use did not influence belief in the Romney falsehoods, Garrett indicates. One important reason may be...