After the shock of the 2016 presidential election, many Americans found psychological refuge in a simple explanation for why Donald Trump won: "fake news." False or misleading information published by dubious for-profit websites had spread widely on Facebook, reaching millions of people in the final months of the campaign. This development provided a tidy narrative that resonated with concerns about potential online echo chambers.
More than two years later, we can now evaluate these claims. And it turns out that many of the initial conclusions that observers reached about the scope of fake news consumption, and its effects on our politics, were exaggerated or incorrect. Relatively few people consumed this form of content directly during the 2016 campaign, and even fewer did so before the 2018 election. Fake news consumption is concentrated among a narrow subset of Americans with the most conservative news diets. And, most notably, no credible evidence exists that exposure to fake news changed the outcome of the 2016 election.
The fake news panic echoes fears that prior forms of communication would brainwash the public. Just as exaggerated accounts of hysteria over Orson Welles' "War of the Worlds" broadcast took advantage of doubts about radio, claims about the reach and influence of fake news express people's broader concerns about social media and the internet.
Many important concerns about online misinformation still remain, including the influence of the fake news audience, the difficulty of countering fake news at scale, the dangers of Facebook's size, and the threat of YouTube-based radicalization. But none of these questions can be adequately addressed without creating a reality-based debate that puts fake news in context as just one of the many sources of misinformation in our politics.