How Fake News and Campaigning Affect an Election Outcome


By Jennifer Nicoll Victor, Ph.D., George Mason University

Although presidential candidates spend an incredible amount of money on campaigning, there is scant evidence that the campaigns influence the outcome of the election. During the heat of a campaign, activities like the occasional gaffe and fake news may change the course of the campaign. However, the effect of campaigning on the election outcome is not significant.

A woman reading “fake-news” newspaper
Parties have blamed journalists for generating and spreading fake news (Image:

2016 Presidential Election and Its Outcome

The outcome of the 2016 presidential election was surprising in many ways. For the most part, forecasters had not really predicted that Donald Trump would defeat Hillary Clinton. Since then, some political observers have been extremely critical of the polling that forecasters relied upon and have questioned the validity of the exercise.

The vote totals from the 2016 election do not readily convey how close the election really was. Trump officially won 304 Electoral College votes to Clinton’s 227, and since 270 Electoral College votes are needed to win, it appears to be a comfortable winning margin. However, Trump’s Electoral College margin win was due to his unexpected wins in three states: Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin. Together, these three states have 46 electoral college votes.

This is a transcript from the video series Understanding the US Government. Watch it now, Wondrium.

Fake News and Presidential Elections

Fake news refers to news stories that do not use industry-accepted best-practices aimed at ensuring accuracy and credibility of information when producing news and editorial content. Fake news might refer to stories that are outright false or fabricated, but it can also include stories that present information in misleading ways. Sometimes these categories are referred to as misinformation

Notably, it’s been nearly 100 years since fake news has been around in US elections. Back in the golden age of newspapers (1910s-1920s) people were concerned about fake news, but since then journalism experienced a professionalization that led it to become a full-fledged industry complete with educational norms, ethical standards, and shared editorial practices.

What Do Statistics Say? 

The prevalence of fake news has only recently become of greater importance in US elections. Research demonstrates that fake and misleading news was much more prevalent in the 2016 election than it had been in previous elections.

Young using a smart phone behind a laptop for viewing social media platforms
A significant percentage of fake news resources are in Twitter. (Image: 13_Phunkod/Shutterstock)

Studies revealed that in the run-up to the 2016 election, most Americans saw and remembered at least one fake news story about the election and that about 27% of Americans visited a fake news source in the weeks just prior to the election. On the bright side, the data also showed that visits to fake news sources only constituted about 2.5% of all visits to news websites. Scholars found that exposure to fake news on Twitter is relatively limited (6% of all news consumption on Twitter was fake news).

Learn more about the challenges of polling public opinion.

The Standard Sources for News

Unfortunately, there is a partisan bias in fake news consumption. Conservatives are more likely to consume and spread fake news stories than liberals are. But for most people, mainstream news sources still provide the bulk of information out there, and most of that information is of reasonable quality.

The landscape for the prevalence of fake news in 2020 was treacherous. Former President Trump regularly labeled mainstream news sources like The New York Times, CNN, and The Washington Post as fake, despite the fact that these sources use ethical standards and processes for accuracy and reliability. Former President Trump went so far as to cancel the federal government’s subscription to these publications, officially leaving federal agencies and departments without access to reliable sources of information.

Democrats, Republicans, and Fake News

Research shows that conservative and Republican-identifying voters are more likely to follow the president’s lead and disavow information from these sources, exacerbating an information landscape where Democrats and Republicans do not operate from a shared set of information or basic facts. According to a study performed by the Pew Research Center, Republicans are about three times as likely as Democrats to blame journalists for generating fake news. 

Also, Republicans are more likely to say they have encountered fake news. In addition, US intelligence agencies (CIA, FBI, etc.) revealed that foreign adversaries attempted to influence the 2016 election in part through the placement of misinformation on social media websites, further threatening to undermine the legitimacy of US elections.

Learn more about the fundamentals of elections and voting.

Five Pieces of Advice to Stave Off Fake News

A stressed girl surrounded with fake news via different sources.
The spread of fake news is unstoppable, so one should be always on the lookout for what one sees or hears. (Image: Shyntartanya/Shutterstock)
  1. Consume a variety of well-respected news sources, such as The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times, TIME magazine, USA Today, and National Public Radio. 
  2. If you must watch the news on television, try to avoid always watching the same channel. 
  3. Avoid getting your news exclusively from social media. 
  4. Practice consuming news dispassionately. Engage the news with a sense of curiosity and a desire to be informed, rather than an urge to be outraged or moved. 
  5. Read before you spread. Do not forward or retweet links to articles you have not read.

When a president takes the oath of office,  he/she swears to “preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States.” Regardless of political leanings, we all have a responsibility to protect our democracy and an important step in doing so is to be a well-informed citizenry. Be on the lookout for fake news and misinformation and try your best to spot it when you can. We’ll all be better off without it.

Common Questions about the Effects of Campaigning and Fake News on Election Outcome

Q: What is Fake News?

Fake news is inaccurate and/or misleading report cited as news. A standard analysis showed that the top fake news stories about the 2016 U.S. presidential election got more engagement on social media than actual news stories.

Q: What are the standard sources of ethical news?

To avoid fake news, one should follow the news from standard sources. These mainstream sources include The New York Times, CNN, The Washington Post, Yahoo! News, The Wall Street, Time magazine, USA Today, and so forth.

Q: What can be done to stave off fake news?

There are many ways to ignore fake news, and one of them is to stop spreading it. Another way is to follow news only from reliable sources. Watch news from multiple TV channels.

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