The Sunday Magazine·Analysis

Fake news is less of a threat to democracy than we imagine

We've been put on notice that bad actors seeking to rig our election are targeting Canadian voters with reams of fake news to disrupt or distort the vote. Ira Basen has questions about all the attention being paid to the threat of fake news, and what we might be missing out on as a result. His documentary is called “Fake Sale.”
Ira Basen's documentary for The Sunday Edition explores all the attention being paid to the threat of fake news, and what we might be missing out on as a result.

Since the 2016 U.S. presidential election, politicians and media organizations have been on high alert about the threat posed by fake news. 

"A storm of misinformation is coming. Our federal election could be at risk," read a recent Globe and Mail column headline. 

But did fake news stories — like a viral story about the Pope endorsing Donald Trump — actually sway the outcome of the 2016 election? What if people are actually better at sifting through this stuff than we give them credit for? 

In 2017, Stanford economics professor Matthew Gentzkow and his colleagues published a paper exploring just how many voters were influenced by fake news stories. They did a survey to test whether people actually remembered reading fake news stories. They also looked at web traffic data, and the number of times the stories were shared. 

They discovered that the average American only encountered one or two of those stories during the campaign, and that the stories likely didn't change many minds. 

A misinformation news stand set up by the Columbia Journalism Review, in midtown Manhattan, aimed to educate news consumers about the dangers of disinformation, or fake news, in the lead-up to the U.S. midterm elections in 2018. (Angela Weiss/AFP/Getty Images)

"It's a very small and concentrated group of people who are seeing these stories, and the people seeing them have been overwhelmingly people who already support the candidate in question. So most of those fake news stories supporting Donald Trump were seen by people who already supported Donald Trump," Gentzkow told The Sunday Edition's Ira Basen. 

"If you're a big fan of Donald Trump already and you see some story that makes him look good, your motivation to go triple check whether it's really true is not so high."

Disinformation stories like the Pope endorsing Trump — or a debunked story from 2019 about non-citizens getting to vote in a Canadian federal election — may get lots of social media engagement, and get talked about a lot in the mainstream media, but they don't appear to be changing minds or deciding elections. 

Misinformation vs. disinformation

"My sense is that being misinformed is a bigger threat than being disinformed. What we have to worry about is people just having the wrong facts," said Peter Loewen, a professor of political science at the University of Toronto. 

He agrees that the threat of fake news hijacking our election is fairly small — but don't pop the champagne corks quite yet.

"The long running challenge, which has been there forever and I think is getting worse, is that the way political discourse unfolds, the way parties interact with the media, the way the economics of media are going, it makes it more and more likely that people are gonna be misinformed by consuming media than they were before," he said. 

University of Toronto professor Peter Loewen was involved in a study that looked at where and how Canadians get their news and information. (Queen's University)

Last summer, Loewen was involved in a study that looked at where and how Canadians get their news and information. They asked 10 basic questions about current political issues, such as: is Canada on track to meet its commitments under the Paris Accord? Is the deficit higher now than in 2015? How many refugees does Canada admit every year?

The surprising conclusion was that just because you consume a lot of news, doesn't mean you're going to be well-informed. In fact, the opposite may be the case. 

According to Loewen, the people most likely to be misinformed about political issues are political partisans. They consume lots of media, mostly from traditional sources, so they think they have the answers, but they tend to filter that information through a partisan lens. That means they may be more likely to get things wrong. 

"When you've got confirmation bias and you're consuming media, as often as not it gives you the tools to be misinformed [rather than enlightening] you on what the true state of the world is," he said. 

It's only in politics that we call we call it fake news if someone has a different opinion than you.- Peter Loewen

Many journalistic organizations have responded to the threat of fake news by focusing on fact-checking. 

But Loewen argues a binary approach, where everything is either true or false, doesn't accurately reflect reality. It also doesn't leave room for the nuance that should accompany political debate, and it could have unintended consequences.

"Pervasive fact checking looks like it has the effect of reducing people's trust in politicians. Maybe that's well-placed, because politicians have very good reasons to distort the truth. But what I think is ultimately dangerous for democracy is the idea that because there is disagreement over things and different media outlets have different accounts of things, that one of them is fake news and one of them isn't," he said. 

"People disagree over things all the time. And it's only in politics that we call we call it fake news if someone has a different opinion than you."

With two weeks to go before election day, all appears to be quiet on the fake news front. No major disruptions to report. 

But even if we manage to escape this time around, the attention we now pay to fake news has changed our political discourse, and not necessarily for the better. 

By focusing on all that is fake in our politics and media, we risk losing trust in everything we see and hear. And that loss of trust can, in the long run, be even more damaging than the fake news stories themselves. 

Click 'listen' above to hear Ira Basen's documentary, Fake Sale.