Research Article: Social media’s contribution to political misperceptions in U.S. Presidential elections

Date Published: March 27, 2019

Publisher: Public Library of Science

Author(s): R. Kelly Garrett, I-Ching Lee.


There is considerable concern about the role that social media, such as Facebook and Twitter, play in promoting misperceptions during political campaigns. These technologies are widely used, and inaccurate information flowing across them has a high profile. This research uses three-wave panel surveys conducted with representative samples of Americans during both the 2012 and 2016 U.S. Presidential elections to assess whether use of social media for political information promoted endorsement of falsehoods about major party candidates or important campaign issues. Fixed effects regression helps ensure that observed effects are not due to individual differences. Results indicate that social media use had a small but significant influence on misperceptions about President Obama in the 2012 election, and that this effect was most pronounced among strong partisans. Social media had no effect on belief accuracy about the Republican candidate in that election. The 2016 survey focused on campaign issues. There is no evidence that social media use influenced belief accuracy about these topics in aggregate, but Facebook users were unique. Social media use by this group reduced issue misperceptions relative to those who only used other social media. These results demonstrate that social media can alter citizens’ willingness to endorse falsehoods during an election, but that the effects are often small.

Partial Text

On November 19, 2016, the New York Times’ editorial board published a scathing critique of Facebook’s failure to stop the spread of falsehoods in the lead up to the 2016 U.S. Presidential Election [1]. The opinion piece is emblematic of concerns about the threat that social media pose to democracy by corrupting citizens’ perceptions of political reality. Implicit in this claim is an assertion that the effects of social media on citizens’ belief accuracy are large, in contrast to the more limited effects associated with older media systems [2].

Data come from a pair of three-wave panel surveys conducted during the 2012 and 2016 U.S. Presidential Elections. In each election, a large, representative, general population sample of Americans responded to the same set of survey questions at three points during the election cycle. Surveys in both elections repeat measures of social media use and belief accuracy in each wave, but they differ in terms of the misperceptions assessed. The first focused on candidate misperceptions, and the second on campaign issue misperceptions. The goal was to better understand whether and how social media effects would differ across these two important types of falsehoods.

The 2012 survey focused on Americans’ endorsement of false political statements about candidates following other studies in the literature on misperceptions [5, 19]. Misleading claims about candidates are widespread, and the personal nature of the attacks may make them uniquely effective campaign tools. The falsehood endorsement measure assessed respondents’ beliefs in eight falsehoods, four critical of each of the two major-party candidates, Barack Obama (D) and Mitt Romney (R) (see Table 1). Several dozen candidate statements were collected with the assistance of Amazon Mechanical Turk workers, and the survey design team selected a subset that were unambiguously false based on the assessments of credible fact checkers such as Politifact, FactCheck, and major national news organizations. The final set of statements represents a range of issues and includes items that vary in terms of the media coverage they received. The belief battery also includes one true statement about each candidate.

The 2016 analyses focus on four high-profile campaign issues, using a single measure of belief accuracy for each topic (see Table 2) at three points in time. Like candidate falsehoods, false claims about campaign issues can also promote inaccurate beliefs. Candidate falsehoods, however, tend to have a relatively low profile on the campaign trail. Candidates have historically avoided making unsubstantiated claims about their opponents a central part of their public campaigns—though whisper campaigns are not uncommon. Political issues, in contrast, tend to have a much higher profile. Candidates regularly use evidence in misleading ways in order to advance their political agenda [35]. Misleading claims about campaign issues can influence voters, altering their perception of, or support for, a policy decision. For example, beliefs about the economic impact of repealing the Affordable Care Act (ACA) would be expected to shape support for the policy. How citizens respond to such claims, however, could differ from their response to more personal attacks on candidates. Assessing social media’s influence on both types of falsehoods gives us a fuller understanding of the technologies’ political consequences.

These data suggest that social media have a small but significant influence on Americans’ belief accuracy. Heavier use of these communication services was associated with a slight increase in the likelihood of endorsing falsehoods about President Obama in 2012, but it had no effect on beliefs about the Republican candidate. In 2016, social media use had no measurable aggregate influence on issue beliefs, but frequent use by Facebook users did more to promote accuracy than use by those who only interacted with other social media platforms during the election season. The evidence that social media can play a role in shaping Americans’ political beliefs is important. At the same time, though, the idea that social media are not a major driver of political misperceptions stands in contrast to numerous popular media accounts. Importantly, these empirical results are consistent with other studies of the role of social media on belief accuracy, which suggest that exposure to ‘fake news’ was limited [26, 37, 38] and that the influence on beliefs was quite modest [25]. There is no question that a large number of falsehoods circulated during the past two U.S. Presidential elections, and that millions of Americans have engaged with inaccurate messages via social media. This research suggests, however, that during the 2012 and 2016 U.S. presidential elections, social media use contributed relatively little to Americans’ willingness to endorse political falsehoods.

Over the past decade, social media, and especially Facebook, have transformed how Americans get political news. Perhaps as a consequence of their high profile, these technologies have become an important conduit over which misinformation is spread. Panel data collected during the U.S. Presidential elections in 2012 and 2016 suggest that despite the prevalence of falsehoods on these networks, their influence on citizens’ beliefs is relatively small. Social media use produced only a small increase in endorsement of falsehoods about President Obama, and had no effect on beliefs about his competitor in the 2012 election. Contrary to the conventional wisdom, in 2016 social media use had more positive (or less negative) effects on campaign issue belief accuracy among Facebook users than among those who did not use the social networking platform. Taken together, these results suggest that a single-minded focus on fighting misinformation on social media is shortsighted. There may be other, more important sources of misinformation, and social media may have other more important harmful effects on democracy.




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