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Data Analysis and Fake News: Two Sides of the Same Campaign Coin


Whatever the results of today’s U.S. presidential election (I’m off to vote after writing this), there are already two clear winners in the campaign: data analysis and fake news. Never before have facts and falsehoods been so prominent, so in the public eye, and so influential in a campaign.

These two apparently contradictory techniques of learning about the world co-exist, occupying opposite ends of the truth vs. fiction spectrum, of the broad range of Where Voter Knowledge Comes From. They shape the “news” that we read and become the knowledge that influences our judgments. You’d think they’d somehow cancel each other out.

How is this possible? How can our media landscape—and the way we experience the world—be so extremely skewed toward both these apparently opposing forces? As we’ll see below, the answer appears to lie within us, where these two forces achieve a similar result.

We love us some data…

At one end of the spectrum lies truth, as embodied by data, statistics, and data analysis. If you’re reading this, then you’re in the communications measurement business, and you’re probably fond of data and its analysis. You and I probably don’t think of ourselves as extreme, just rational. (Hang on for a second while I check FiveThirtyEight’s election forecast yet again.) The data reflects reality; so let’s see what story it tells.

And here I’ll hand off to Katie Paine, who last week posted “5 Ways the 2016 Elections Have Changed the Future of Measurement.” She lists several reasons why this election has elevated data, and those who analyze and use it, to new importance. Her big point is:

“This election has elevated to mainstream news discussions the importance of data quality and data integrity… Maybe I’m being overly optimistic, but I think, long-term, all this attention will raise the level of discussion about research data in general.”

She predicts that the trickle-down effect of this data-enabled campaign will strongly define PR and related jobs into the future. Go read the whole article, it’s quite good. (OK, yes, I did help edit it. But it’s still quite good.)

Other recent voices who reflect the importance of data include Jon Markman in Forbes:

“Whether on the campaign trail or on the battlefield, data analytics is one of the most important advancement in technology right now…”

and Jeff Nesbit at Wired:

“Math is what matters… It’s like this: When you go to the emergency room at a hospital, everything around you is chaos… But nurses and technicians calmly test the only data that matters… They make sure the math and data tell a consistent story through the chaos, so that physicians have a baseline when they’re asked to make a diagnosis.”

… and we love our fake news, too.

Meanwhile, at the far opposite end of the Where Voter Knowledge Comes From spectrum is fake news. Not fake news as in your favorite Comedy Central televised entertainment. Fake news as in apparently journalism but untrue. Our Internet- and clickbait-enabled media now dish up a bizarre concoction of “news” which is chosen by advanced algorithms for maximal engagement, and yet is often completely unvetted with regard to its truthfulness.

Fake news is big news. People make lots of money on it. Politicians get lots of votes based on it. In this video CNN, allegedly in the real news business, is understandably eager to point out the plague:

Why is fake news so common? Here are a few reasons:

  • We’re in a political campaign. We expect a little partisan stretching of the truth.
  • In particular, Mr. Trump’s spectacularly untethered relationship to facts—and the media’s willingness to extend his voice—has boosted the literally unreal nature of the campaign.
  • Social media, fast becoming most people’s source of news, is as yet unwilling or able to take journalistic responsibility. Facebook, the poster child for being faked out by fake news, was just recently called “a dust cloud of nonsense” by none other than President Obama. Says Vox:

“Facebook makes billions of editorial decisions every day. And often they are bad editorial decisions—steering people to sensational, one-sided, or just plain inaccurate stories. The fact that these decisions are being made by algorithms rather than human editors doesn’t make Facebook any less responsible for the harmful effect on its users and the broader society.”

Data analysis and fake news are both just giving us what we want.

So, how can both fact and fiction be so popular in the media at the same time? Perhaps we’re looking at the situation from the wrong angle; maybe the key is in the demand for knowledge, rather than the supply of it. As Emma Roller said in The New York Times:

“The strongest bias in American politics is not a liberal bias or a conservative bias; it is a confirmation bias, or the urge to believe only things that confirm what you already believe to be true.”

Maybe the important thing is not the source of the information, but our willingness to believe it. Can it be that my oh-so-sophisticated preference for the “truth” of data is just my preferred way to feed my confirmation bias? Am I motivated by the same urge that pushes someone else’s willingness to believe fake news?

Take it away Ken Stern in Vanity Fair:

“Audiences are increasingly seeking, and demanding, news that fits their personal notion of what is important and what is true. This is not only via Facebook and social media but also from the major news providers… it is not simply that they have opinions on one side or another; they are routinely demanding coverage that conforms to their world view…”

And so one person’s fake news may well be another person’s reality. And one person’s facts may be another’s fiction. Steven Marche in Esquire makes the point well with regard to covering the U.S. election:

“Information had become lifestyle choices. The value of anything you wrote was determined by the number of people who clicked buttons saying they liked it. Social media has returned us to an epistemology of tribes: a thing is true if your people say it is true.”

And so facts and falsehood join to become the same fodder for our hungry yet self-deceptive minds. We return to Emma Roller:

“A study conducted by the American Press Institute found … broad support for political fact-checking — or at least the concept of it. Eight in 10 Americans view political fact-checking favorably. But reconcile that statistic with the fact that, according to a CNN poll from 2015, 29 percent of Americans, and 43 percent of Republicans, think President Obama is Muslim. The implication seems to be that Americans like the concept of fact-checking, as long as those facts confirm their point of view.”

Seen in this light, the two ends of the Where Voter Knowledge Comes From spectrum are not that different. Both are ways of convincing ourselves that our preconceived notions are correct. Whatever the source, we are just telling ourselves the stories we want to hear.

Coda: If this general topic is your cup of tea, go read Eric Shepard’s excellent article “Fake news sites, deceptive memes, and the rise of post-truth politics.” It’s much more of a fun read than its title lets on. (Who knew there was such a thing as “bullshit asymmetry?”)


Thanks to Hoaxy for the chart at the top, and to Eric Shepard for pointing me to it.

Bill Paarlberg
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Bill Paarlberg

Bill Paarlberg co-founded The Measurement Standard in 2002 and was its editor until July 2017. He also edits The Measurement Advisor newsletter. He is editor of the award-winning "Measuring the Networked Nonprofit" by Beth Kanter and Katie Paine, and editor of two other books on measurement by Katie Paine, "Measure What Matters" and "Measuring Public Relationships." Visit Bill Paarlberg's page on LinkedIn.
Bill Paarlberg
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