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A journalistic lesson for an algorithmic age: Let the scientific method be your guide
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Jan. 10, 2023, 4:15 p.m.

Good news: Misinformation isn’t as powerful as feared! Bad news: Neither is information.

To people who publish facts, it’s appealing to think of them as powerful. But people’s belief systems go a lot deeper than facts.

Scared of needles? Maybe you don’t need to be.

At least that’s one thought I take away from a few items in the news lately — that we’re not as vulnerable to outside stimuli as we might fear.

The needle in question here is a theoretical one: the hypodermic needle model of opinion change. That’s the idea, born decades ago, that the way to understand the effect of media is to think of it as a direct injection of information, straight into your brain. Your reaction to this information will likely be rapid, predictable, and potent — just as much as a shot of adrenaline to the heart. You learn something terrible about a political candidate; this information injection makes you decide, instantly, not to vote for him.

Now, the hypodermic needle model exists mostly for scholars to make fun of it. No one ever took it completely seriously; it’s a straw man of sorts. But rather than a coherent theory, think of it as one end of a spectrum of views on how media influences us all. Some people think a few carefully chosen messages can change your behavior easily and meaningfully. Others think it’s a lot harder than that — that we’re pretty adept as shrugging off new facts, for better and for worse.

Journalists and people around media are sophisticated enough to know that the work we produce doesn’t have huge, life-changing effects on people’s opinions every time we publish.

On the other hand, the hypodermic model can sometimes make media seem all-powerful, which holds a certain allure to those of us who make it.

It can be an especially comfortable mode to fall into when we talk about misinformation and “fake news.” (Remember 2016, when Donald Trump was elected president because some people thought Pope Francis endorsed him?) In general, people think they are sophisticated consumers of information, able to weight new facts appropriately — but other people? Other people? If Facebook tells ’em 2 + 2 is 5, they’ll throw out their calculator.

I want to highlight three items from the past few days that, at root, all address the same question: How powerful is information, anyway?

A few Russian tweets didn’t make Americans hate Hillary Clinton.

There was a new paper out yesterday in the journal Nature. Here’s the abstract:

Exposure to the Russian Internet Research Agency foreign influence campaign on Twitter in the 2016 US election and its relationship to attitudes and voting behavior

Gregory Eady, Tom Paskhalis, Jan Zilinsky, Richard Bonneau, Jonathan Nagler, and Joshua A. Tucker

There is widespread concern that foreign actors are using social media to interfere in elections worldwide. Yet data have been unavailable to investigate links between exposure to foreign influence campaigns and political behavior. Using longitudinal survey data from US respondents linked to their Twitter feeds, we quantify the relationship between exposure to the Russian foreign influence campaign and attitudes and voting behavior in the 2016 US election.

We demonstrate, first, that exposure to Russian disinformation accounts was heavily concentrated: only 1% of users accounted for 70% of exposures.

Second, exposure was concentrated among users who strongly identified as Republicans.

Third, exposure to the Russian influence campaign was eclipsed by content from domestic news media and politicians.

Finally, we find no evidence of a meaningful relationship between exposure to the Russian foreign influence campaign and changes in attitudes, polarization, or voting behavior. The results have implications for understanding the limits of election interference campaigns on social media.

That’s right: It wasn’t a few tweets from St. Petersburg that tipped the scales — just like it wasn’t that ersatz papal endorsement.

Two thoughts about the paper. First, the analysis here is a minor data miracle — connecting individual survey-taking Americans to the specific tweets they could have seen in their Twitter timeline. Wowzers. Second, I don’t think Twitter would be the first platform people would suspect any effective Russian influence to take place; the far, far larger Facebook would be more fertile turf.

But I suspect that in a world with perfect Facebook research data, the result here would be the same. Most misinformation reaches people who are already misinformed — or at least very open to being misinformed. If Facebook told you that John Podesta drinks the blood of children, it’s very likely you already had an, um, unusual media diet. A few stray tweets won’t change your mind about anything as meaningful and identity-bound as your choice for president.

As Joshua Tucker put it in this thread on the paper:

Despite these results, it would be a mistake to conclude that simply because Russia’s Twitter campaign wasn’t meaningfully related to individual-level attitudes, it didn’t have any impact on the election, or on faith in American electoral integrity.

Indeed, debate about the 2016 U.S. election continues to raise questions about the legitimacy of the Trump presidency and the electoral system, which in turn could turn out to be related to Americans’ willingness to accept claims of voter fraud in the 2020 election.

Such beliefs may stem from speculation that Russian interference on social media influenced the election outcome. In a word, Russia’s social media campaign may have had its largest effects indirectly by convincing Americans that its campaign was successful.

Nevertheless, our results hopefully provide an important corrective to the view that Russia’s foreign influence campaign on social media easily manipulated the attitudes and voting behavior of ordinary Americans.

Myths about America are real, but they’re effect as much as cause.

Last week, a new book edited by Princeton’s Kevin Kruse and Julian Zelizer came out called Myth America: Historians Take On the Biggest Legends and Lies About Our Past. It features some top-notch historians (Carol Anderson! Eric Rauchway! Lawrence Glickman! Elizabeth Hinton! Daniel Immerwahr! my old college history prof, Glenda Gilmore!) each writing chapters on a major American myth that their work has helped puncture. I suspect everyone involved would describe themselves as a political liberal, though it’s no den of Marxists; nearly all of the “myths” at hand here are associated more with the right than the left.

I’m looking forward to reading it (as you might imagine from someone who goes all fanboy at a list of middle-aged historians). But I was also struck by this critique of Myth America that ran yesterday in Slate. It’s by Paul M. Renfro (Florida State) and Matthew E. Stanley (Arkansas), and they argue the book’s authors miss the point.

In its attempt to explode particular myths, however, Myth America engages in its own mythmaking. The book fundamentally misunderstands the crises facing the U.S. and the world.

By implying that misinformation is the principal cause of the partisan rancor, violence, and general dysfunction that mark our current political moment, the collection obscures our much bigger problems. And by localizing the threat of misinformation and disinformation almost exclusively within certain far-right segments of the conservative movement and the Republican Party, Myth America absolves not only other stripes of conservatism, but also the milquetoast technocratic liberalism that helped set the stage for this moment…

If Americans can simply stick to the truth, Myth America implies, we might just defang the insurgent Trumpist right, suture our wounds, and start on the path toward national reconciliation…

It is unclear what exactly Kruse and Zelizer hope to accomplish through this attempt to “set the record straight.” Of course, the desire to promote evidence-based analysis is an understandable response to birtherism, COVID denialism, QAnon, “America First” ethnonationalism, the “great replacement theory,” rising antisemitism, “big lie” election claims, vicious attacks on LGBTQ people, and Jan. 6–style insurrectionism — all developments that thrive on easily disproven conspiracy theories.

Yet the relentless focus on countering false claims reveals the centrist liberal tendency to see historical falsehoods more as causes than outcomes of political change. For Kruse and Zelizer, the current threat to U.S. democracy appears to center less on systems than on bad actors, whether they be conservative TV personalities, MAGA politicians, or Russian bots, who promote inaccurate and often uncritical historical narratives. There is an ineffectual particularism — not to mention a whiff of elitism — in their implication that historical literacy, informational authority, and the consumption of “better” information can “save our democracy.”

Personally, I think “should fix American political culture” is probably too big of a goal to set for a book. And calling QAnon, birtherism, and the rest “easily disproven conspiracy theories” demands the question: Easy to disprove to who? (QAnon fans don’t seem particularly easy to sway.)

But Renfro and Stanley are absolutely correct to complicate Myth America‘s mental model. Do people believe the 2020 election was stolen because they don’t have access to the high-quality information that would tell them it wasn’t? (They haven’t found the right hypodermic needle, in other words.) Or did the Big Lie develop precisely because it supports people’s existing belief systems? These mythologies — whether fringe or mainstream — are more often the result of political change than the cause of it.

The truth may not have set you free (from George Santos).

Finally, a story about local news. You know about George Santos, right? The guy who just got sworn in to the House of Representatives despite lying about, well, just about everything significant about his life? (Like how he worked at Goldman Sachs, or how he went to college, or how he is Jewish, or how he is African American, or how his ancestors fled the Holocaust, or how his mom was a finance executive killed by the 9/11 attacks.)

All of these lies began to unravel with a New York Times story that ran December 19 — before Santos took office, but after he’d already been elected. Many people asked why it it was only after he’d been voted in that these disqualifying details came to light in the media.

Just before the new year, Sarah Ellison had a good piece in the Post noting that a small local newspaper in New York, the North Shore Reader, has raised questions about Santos earlier. “A tiny paper broke the George Santos scandal but no one paid attention,” the headline read.

Months before the New York Times published a December article suggesting Rep.-elect George Santos (R-N.Y.) had fabricated much of his résumé and biography, a tiny publication on Long Island was ringing alarm bells about its local candidate. The North Shore Leader wrote in September, when few others were covering Santos, about his “inexplicable rise” in reported net worth, from essentially nothing in 2020 to as much as $11 million two years later…

It was the stuff national headlines are supposed to be built on: A hyperlocal outlet like the Leader does the legwork, regional papers verify and amplify the story, and before long an emerging political scandal is being broadcast coast to coast.

But that system, which has atrophied for decades amid the destruction of news economies, appears to have failed completely this time. Despite a well-heeled and well-connected readership — the Leader’s publisher says it counts among its subscribers Fox News hosts Sean Hannity and Jesse Watters and several senior people at Newsday, a once-mighty Long Island-based tabloid that has won 19 Pulitzers — no one followed its story before Election Day.

To be clear: Congratulations to the North Shore Leader for being ahead of the story! And shame on Newsday and other New York outlets who didn’t jump on it!

But I still can’t help but be struck by how deep the hunger for that missing hypodermic needle is here. The North Shore Leader article was a “raising questions” story about a campaign finance filing; it ran in a Republican paper owned by a past candidate for the very same seat Santos was seeking. The Leader itself does not seem to have done any followup stories in the months after the piece but before the Times story ran. And others had noticed the fishy smell around Santos, like Talking Points Memo’s Josh Marshall a year earlier.

Of course I wish that the truth about Santos came out earlier — that “that system” Ellison describes had worked. But let’s be depressingly honest for a moment: There’s zero guarantee that more publicity about his campaign finance filings would have changed enough minds for Santos to lose. He won by nearly 22,000 votes, 8 percentage points — darn near a blowout in today’s gerrymandered world.

After all, if the past decade has taught us anything, it’s that “exposing facts” does not equal “changing people’s minds.” If facts don’t care about your feelings, it’s also clear your feelings often don’t care about facts.

The hypodermic needle model is a straw man, sure. But it’s alluring in the same way it’s terrifying. Maybe misinformation isn’t as potent as feared — but accurate information also isn’t as potent as desired. Those injections of information are more likely to be treating the symptom than the underlying disease.

POSTED     Jan. 10, 2023, 4:15 p.m.
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