Gentzkow Reads Fake News Amid Rising Polarization

By Alan Wong – American politics are more polarized than ever, and fake news is to blame. Or is it? At a Levine Family Fund lecture hosted by the Department of Economics on May 12, 2017, Matthew Gentzkow of Stanford University traced the impact of online news and echo chambers on our widening political divisions. His talk was entitled “Media, Polarization, and the 2016 Election".

Drawing on empirical evidence from his own research as well as that of others, Gentzkow, a professor of economics, addressed three questions pertaining to polarization in the United States in 2017: 1) Are Americans more polarized than ever before? 2) Is it the Internet's fault? 3) Did fake news change the 2016 election outcome?

In Congress, Gentzkow found, there has indeed been more voting along party lines in recent years, in both the House and the Senate. While polarization measured in this way is not at an all-time high—the late 19th and early 20th centuries saw greater partisanship—congressional voting trends clearly show an increase in polarization since the 1950s. Gentzkow found that the language used by congressmen and congresswomen has become more polarized, too. Sampling congressional speeches since the 1990s, for example, it has been become easier to determine if the speaker is a Democrat or a Republican.

Rising hostility

Less clear, Gentzkow said, is whether or not voters themselves are becoming more polarized. Looking at views on individual issues, self-described ideology, party identification, and residential segregation offers little evidence to that effect. However, increased division is apparent when measuring correlation between issue views and party, correlation of views across issues, straight-ticket voting, and—perhaps most importantly—negative feelings toward those on the other side of the political spectrum.

These feelings of hostility, which are not always reflected directly in voting patterns, are at the heart of our broader current sense of mounting polarization. But why exactly are people feeling more antagonistic towards those of other political alignments? Is the internet to blame?

Beyond the echo chamber

Categorizing voters by age, and assessing levels of bias among various news sources, Gentzkow investigated whether the web has indeed been pushing people into isolated "echo chambers." Surprisingly, he found that, relatively speaking, online news sites aren't significantly more segregated than other sources or sites at which politics is reported or discussed. In fact, when accessing any media, including the internet, people are more likely to encounter different political views than when interacting face-to-face.

Meanwhile, though people's Facebook networks tend to pattern similarly to their face-to-face interactions, less than 20 percent of Americans actually get the majority of their news through Facebook. (The oft-quoted higher figures aggregate the categories of people who get any of their news via social media, including those that responded 'hardly ever'). In which case, has the impact of fake news been overstated?

False reports

Gentzkow estimated that, during the 2016 U.S. presidential election, the average voter saw between one and five fake news stories. Was that enough to shift the eventual outcome? To be considered so, consuming one fake news story would have to be as effective as watching approximately 20 campaign commercials. 

Thus, while the rise of fake news during the election may have been symptomatic of a broader cultural phenomenon—namely, the decline of trust in traditional news outlets—it likely did little to influence the results.

Everyday factors

Wrapping up, Gentzkow suggested that cable TV, which is still consumed heavily by older voters—many of whom who voted for Trump—may actually have played a larger role than social media or online news, fake or otherwise. Meanwhile, interaction between congresspersons and voters may indeed be intensifying partisanship.

But the most important contributions to our increasingly polarized political climate still come from structural factors—social, cultural, economic—affecting people's everyday lives.

Learn more about Matthew Gentzkow.

Related: Election 2016: Polarization, Public Opinion and Policy Making [Video]