Misinformation and the General Election
13 April 2015
Research suggests that misinformation is widespread in the information environment during national election seasons, and is potentially exacerbated by the arrival of social media. The prevalence of misinformation contradicts the foundation of the democratic political system, as it is a system that is based on the assumption that voters will have access to relevant information in order to reach an informed decision.
The 2015 General Election has been dubbed the first ‘social media election’ in the United Kingdom. Social media platforms are thought to play an increasingly important role in facilitating debate on political issues. There are many that hope the arrival of social media can boost voter turnout by increasing the level of engagement between politicians and the electorate - particularly for politically alienated youth. However, there is a worry that spin, political scaremongering and fear tactics can become more widespread and contagious as a result of social media and the 24/7 news cycle. As journalist Rachel Ehrenberg explains; ‘though the strategic spread of misinformation is as old as elections themselves, the Internet Age has changed the game’. In the world of social media, fear can spread that much faster than facts.
Political parties are not strangers to employing fear tactics for their own political gain. One controversial UKIP election poster from last year adopted the statement: ’26 million people in Europe are looking for work. And whose jobs are they after?’ Other examples include Labour’s claim that the NHS and other public services will not survive another five years under the current government, or the Conservatives’ argument that the economy is just not safe in Ed’s hands. What these narratives have in common is the suggestion that their party is the only party that can avoid a particular unwanted outcome - whether that outcome concerns immigration, the economy, or the NHS.
According to Lord Tim Bell, advisor during Margaret Thatcher’s election campaign, there are only two election strategies: ‘It’s either the opposition saying, “time for a change”, or the government saying, “Britain’s great again, don’t let the other lot muck it up”. The rest is just details.’ On this view, it would seem that details are only important insofar as they have the capacity to craft a convincing political story. But what happens when details are the subject of misinformation and political manipulation?
Full Fact is dedicated to fact checking the claims presented by politicians and media outlets. Among the claims investigated are 10 facts from the seven-way party leaders' debate - of these, six claims can be said to be either false or misleading. In March 2015, the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) wrote an article questioning the Conservative Party's claim that a Labour government would lead to a £3,028 tax rise for every working family. According to the IFS, 'there is little value in bandying around numbers which suggest either party would increase taxes by an average of £3,000 for each working household'.
Whilst we know that elections are associated with a degree of misinformation, as the evidence above suggests, there is little research measuring the extent of it or the impact that it has on the electorate in the UK. A study (see reference 1) of the 2011 electoral referendum concluded that both the ‘Yes’ and the ‘No’ campaign were guilty of spreading misinformation to voters. In Germany, a study (reference 2) of televised political debates during the 2011 general election found that people’s knowledge about the economy did not improve as a result of the debates. Instead, viewers were more likely to be misled by the selective presentation of facts. Similarly, in the United States, one survey (reference 3) found that voters were significantly misinformed on many prominent political issues during the 2010 midterm federal election. For example, 86% believed that federal income taxes had either stayed the same or gone up when in fact they had decreased for 97% of households. The level of misinformation was similar despite differences in respondents’ news sources - a finding which suggests that misleading information is widespread in the general news environment.
In political science, game theory and rational choice theory is founded on the assumption that human behaviour is driven by rationality and strategic self-interest. It assumes that humans act in ways so as to maximise what is perceived to be good outcomes and minimise bad ones. In this context, fear can impact upon what we perceive to be rational or in our best interest. Of course, fear is not always irrational or even undesirable - it has the capacity to narrow our focus as we concentrate our efforts to eliminate potential threats or unwanted outcomes. The danger arises when fear is based on misinformation or oversimplification of the truth. Research from political psychology shows that fear and anxiety increase people’s openness to persuasion - consequences that have the capacity to affect election outcomes (see references 4 and 5).
Never before in human history have we had access to the wealth of information that currently exists online. While this means that we have the potential to be better educated than ever before, there is also a risk that we may become overwhelmed by the magnitude and enormity of knowledge that is available to us. Social media platforms such as Twitter and Facebook provide quick and effortless access to information - the majority of which is not fact checked. In this digital age, we could perhaps all be a little more careful with what we tweet.
1. Vowles, J. (2011) ‘The Manipulation of Norms and Emotions? Partisan cues and campaign claims in the UK Electoral System Referendum’, APSA 2011 Annual Meeting Paper.
2. Maurer, M. and Reinemann, C. (2006) ‘Learning Versus Knowing: Effects of Misinformation in Televised Debates’ in Communication Research, Vol. 33, No. 6, pp. 489-506
3. Ramsay, C., Kull, S., Lewis, E., and Subias, S. (2010) ‘Misinformation and the 2010 election: A study of the US electorate’. Retrieved from http://drum.lib.umd.edu/bitstream/1903/11375/3/misinfor- mation_dec10_quaire.pdf
4. Arceneaux, K. (2012) ‘Cognitive Biases and the Strength of Political Arguments’ in American Journal of Political Science, Vol. 56, No. 2, pp. 271-285
5. McDonald Ladd, J. and Lenz, G. (2011) ‘Does Anxiety Improve Voters’ Decision Making?’ in Political Psychology, Vol. 32, No. 2, pp. 347-361
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