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Matthew Gentzkow on Social Media and the 2016 Election

By Bill Quinn

Matthew Gentzkow’s presentation, “Media, Polarization, and the 2016 Election,” brought the NULab’s and Shorenstein Center’s co-hosted series on fake news to a close for the semester. Gentzkow is a Professor of Economics at Stanford University, where he studies empirical industrial organization and political economy. His underlying research for this talk arose from the general sense that this moment in American politics, “no matter where you fall on the political spectrum,” feels “like a profound crisis in our democracy.” Seeking to contextualize and understand this urgent dilemma, whether real or perceived, Gentzkow addressed three questions:

Are Americans more polarized than ever before?
Is it the Internet’s fault?
Did fake news change the 2016 election?

Studies from the early 2000s have indicated that although Republicans and Democrats in Congress have been growing further apart ideologically, evidenced by measurements of roll call and partisan language, the voters themselves have not. Gentzkow’s work, however, approaches voter polarization from a different set of metrics. He and others are beginning to see that there has been an increase in straight ticket voting—voters choosing entirely Republican or Democrat candidates on ticket ballots. Furthermore, unlike previous voting patterns which saw voters favoring a mixture of conservative and liberal issues, voters now appear to be approving entirely conservative or liberal policies. Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, voters in recent years have expressed more hostility and negative feelings towards those voting for the opposite party.

Within these shifting trends of voting patterns and voters’ impressions of the other party, Gentzkow seeks to identify the role fake news stories on the Internet played in the lead up to the 2016 election. Gentzkow compared voter polarization amongst different generations. Analyzing discrepancies between different age groups should indicate the Internet’s influence on the atmosphere of American politics, because age is a powerful predictor for online and social media activity. Contrary to public opinion, however Gentzkow reported that growing polarization is consistent across all age groups, suggesting that online news consumption does not yet influence voters’ political stances. Although social media continues to grow more ideologically segregated compared to measurements taken in 2008, online news consumptions remains a smaller source than television, thereby moderating its effects on voters.

Fake news stories leading up to the 2016 election, therefore, likely did not change voter choices. Nevertheless, the interplay between voter polarization and online news consumption continues to be a moving target for researchers. Isolating ideological bias and its influence on voters is not a perfect science. {Other explanations…} And although fake news likely did not sway voters’ this election, Gentzkow warns that polarization amongst voters is real and digital media are becoming increasingly important driving forces for voters’ impressions and opinion.

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