The most important 2016 "misinformation" came from the regular news media
The sour legacy of a weird panic
Recently published research by Gregory Eady, Tom Paskhalis, Jan Zilinsky, Richard Bonneau, Jonathan Nagler, and Joshua Tucker looked at the influence of Russian social media disinformation operations on the 2016 race and concluded that the impact was minimal, or potentially non-existent. It’s a good paper.
In terms of the discourse, I don’t think anyone credible is still seriously arguing that the pro-Trump Russian meme accounts were a decisive factor in the election, though the relevance of those accounts is sometimes downplayed by those on the right who want to blind themselves to the Russian government’s role in the election. But I think this is a good opportunity to step back and look at the explosion of interest in “misinformation” in the wake of the 2016 election specifically because I think an enormous share of this interest is a kind of displaced guilt.
After all, it wasn’t the GRU that made The New York Times run this front page on the weekend before Election Day.
Reasonable people can, to an extent, disagree about the appropriateness of the coverage of the Clinton email story in The New York Times and on network broadcast news during the 2016 campaign. But what I don’t think can be seriously doubted is that this coverage was:
High-profile and seen by more people than any information operation
Not “fake news” in the original sense of being willfully made up
Damaging to Clinton’s election prospects
The irony is that the mainstream media’s relationship with Donald Trump was obviously and objectively very hostile. The New York Times in particular was quite tough in their coverage of him, and Trump would frequently vent with extreme rhetoric against the paper. After the election, the Times published a lot of great journalism about the Trump White House and also benefitted financially from a liberal subscriber base that saw the Times as a bastion of freedom and enlightenment in a dark time. The Washington Post tilted even further in this direction with its “Democracy Dies in Darkness” tagline. And while the Post is now in business trouble, the very well-managed NYT played the whole thing perfectly, reaping a huge Trump Bump but also using his four years in office to strengthen the larger business and build an appealing bundle with all kinds of great cooking and games content.
But the fact remains that if you want to place blame for Trump’s narrow victory over Clinton on someone or something in the information environment, it’s not the Russians or Facebook or “misinformation” you should be looking to — it’s the most influential mainstream news outlets in America.
2016 campaign coverage was dominated by emails
That one splash from the Times has become emblematic of the obsessive coverage of the Clinton emails story, but the issue was much broader than that. The mainstream American press treated the 2016 campaign as one in which the most important issue was whether or not Hillary Clinton had accidentally mishandled classified information as a result of breaking State Department policy to use her own email server for work.
Consider broadcast television news. The Tyndall Report concluded that there were roughly 32 minutes of coverage of the candidates’ policy positions on network news during the 2016 cycle in contrast to 100 minutes on the emails story. David Rothschild and Duncan Watts looked at the Times’ front page and found, similarly, that “in just six days, the New York Times ran as many cover stories about Hillary Clinton’s emails as they did about all the policy issues combined in the 69 days leading up to the election.”
I would also note that beyond the emails, there was an inordinately negative inflection to the coverage of Clinton.
The 2016 cycle, for example, saw a lot of scrutiny of the Clinton Foundation and its activities. I am, as I hope people know at this point, pretty interested in the subject of philanthropy. So I’d wondered for years whether the Clinton Foundation was any good. My suspicion was always that a closer look would show that the “real scandal” of the Clinton Foundation was that it spent tons of money on programs that sound nice but don’t do any good. But Dylan Matthews, who had similar suspicions, looked at it, and it turned out that the Clinton Foundation was pretty good!
I thought it was likely the Clinton Foundation had gotten behind a lot of PlayPump-like projects — feel-good, sound-great ideas that attracted Clinton’s wealthy and well-known friends but didn’t really have much of a measurable impact the world.
But I was wrong. After reviewing foundation documents and talking to numerous people in the philanthropy and global health sectors familiar with its work, I’ve come to the conclusion that the Clinton Foundation is a real charitable enterprise that did enormous good. Its projects are of varying effectiveness, but its work is supported by credible, discriminating funders, and the foundation has least one huge accomplishment under its belt — an HIV/AIDS program that saved an untold number of lives.
To have affiliation with a charitable enterprise that saved countless lives of sick people in poor countries turned into a negative against you is extraordinary.
At the time, I was really furious about this. Having mellowed some, I now believe there’s an element of scope to this — nobody held a gun to Democrats’ heads and made them nominate someone who was known to have bad relationships with the press. Part of the responsibility of a political party is to select strong candidates, and this was a failure in that regard.
Another thing you could say about the coverage (but that I never hear) is that the coverage was really good and that the heavy coverage of the email scandal helped people really understand the stakes in the election. You might think that whatever impact Trump’s presidency had on taxes or abortion rights or whatever else, voters who were concerned about scrupulous adherence to federal document retention and IT policies got their chance to elect a champion.
Except of course that’s absurd. And that’s what I think is so fundamentally damning about the 2016 coverage — not that I necessarily “blame” it for anything, but that it was simply a media failure on its own terms. We’re all of us responsible for our decisions about what to cover, and the decisions made painted a misleading portrait of the race in a way that helped Trump win.
The Russian connection
There is a real Russia angle here, of course, which is that Russians (as best we can tell) hacked John Podesta’s email account, put those emails on the internet, and then the press wrote a bunch of stories based on Podesta’s hacked emails.
This is distinct from the question of whether the Russian Twitter accounts made a difference, and I think it’s a much more plausible line of argument for Russian impact on the campaign. But, again, the mode of influence here would be mainstream media coverage of the contents of Podesta’s hacked emails. This poses a genuinely somewhat difficult question of journalistic ethics. I don’t think you would want to say reporters should never write a story based on stolen information. But there is something odd about saying that Candidate X should be subjected to a cavalcade of negative stories based on having been the victim of a computer crime.