In the wake of a stunning election result, many people — especially in the media — have struggled for an explanation. Rather than acknowledge the obvious and prosaic answer — that voters in swing states chose change rather than the status quo — analysts have sought a Unified Theory of Donald Trump's Success. Trump couldn't possibly have won fair and square, the assumption goes, so all that's left is to identify whatever went wrong and banish it so this never happens again.
Over the past week, the consensus Unified Theory from the media is this: Blame fake news. This explanation started with BuzzFeed's analysis of Facebook over the past three months, which claimed that the top 20 best-performing "fake news" articles got more engagement than the top 20 "mainstream news" stories.
Nowhere in BuzzFeed's article does author Craig Silverman demonstrate a correlation between that data and voter persuasion, let alone a causal connection. Instead, the analysis offers a look at how articles of potentially questionable provenance could go viral quickly. That leaves a lot of questions begging in the "fake news threw the election" explanation.
There are also serious problems with the evidence BuzzFeed presents. As Timothy Carney points out at the Washington Examiner, the "real news" that Silverman uses for comparison are, in many cases, opinion pieces from liberal columnists. The top "real" stories — which BuzzFeed presented in a graphic to compare against the top "fake" stories — consist of four anti-Trump opinion pieces and a racy exposé of Melania Trump's nude modeling from two decades ago.
That didn't stop others in the media from making the leap from bad analysis to causal connections with absolutely no evidence in support of it. The New York Times began running news stories on the pernicious influence of "fake news," and even President Obama used it as an opportunity to lecture about the dangers it presents to democracy.
"If we are not serious about facts and what's true and what's not," Obama intoned from Berlin, "and particularly in an age of social media when so many people are getting their information in sound bites and off their phones, if we can't discriminate between serious arguments and propaganda, then we have problems." Earlier, Obama complained to The New Yorker, "Trump understands the new ecosystem, in which facts and truth don't matter. You attract attention, rouse emotions, and then move on. You can surf those emotions. I've said it before, but if I watched Fox I wouldn't vote for me!"
The president seems to leave out the fact that he won both of his elections in that same environment. In fact, there's nothing new here at all, except for a new outlet for the same paternalism that helped drive the election outcome two weeks ago. Those who came out on the losing end of the election want Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg to hire an "executive editor" to cull all but the most acceptable news sources before Facebook users can make up their own minds.
Zuckerberg has said he'll look into ways to identify misinformation, but scoffed at the "fake news" theory of the election. "Voters make decisions based on their lived experience," he said after the election. "I think there is a certain profound lack of empathy in asserting that the only reason why someone could have voted the way they did is because they saw some fake news."
Zuckerberg hit the nail on the head. Rather than deal with the lack of connection that Clinton and Democrats made with voters — including in House, Senate, and state legislative races — Democrats and the media would prefer to reject those voters as hicks and rubes who can't tell the difference between facts and opinions, and between false stories and facts. It goes beyond a lack of empathy; it's outright contempt.
That contempt from elites in media and politics may or may not have produced the electoral results seen two weeks ago, but it certainly explains the shock that has resulted from it. That contempt is also reflected in the push to shut down commentary and pressure Facebook into editing their social media network to allow only those sources deemed acceptable by those in power, politically and culturally. They are creating a new social panic within their own circles and doubling down on paternalism. Don't expect that to end well when the midterm elections roll around in two years.