In a paper just posted on the Internet, R. Kelly Garrett of the Ohio State University School of Communication and James Danziger of the University of California, Irvine, parse the results of a national telephone survey conducted in the weeks just after the November election. Participants were asked about eight specific rumors concerning the candidates, as well as their use of the internet as a source of campaign information.
Above-average users of online news sources were significantly more likely to have encountered the rumors than the survey group as a whole. However, they were also more likely to have read or heard challenges to the rumors. And in the end, they were only slightly more likely to believe the false statements were true.
“People who get their news online are more familiar with rumors about both candidates, not just the one they support, and they are more likely to have heard the rumors on both sides challenged,” the report states. While heavy Internet users – like everyone else – tend to find rumors about the opposition more credible than those about their own candidate, the use of the Internet as an information-gathering tool does not appear to increase this tendency.
Not surprisingly, the survey found that the number of people using the World Wide Web as a news source has soared since the 2004 campaign, when 27 percent of Americans reported reading election-related news online. In 2008, this jumped to 64 percent, with 38 percent reporting they turned to the Internet “every day or almost every day” for campaign information.
Fifty-three percent of respondents said they received campaign news via “e-mail from friends and family,” while 49 percent got it from the Web sites of major national news organizations such as cnn.com. Eleven percent said they got information from politically conservative Web sites such as NewsMax.com, while 7 percent said they went to liberal sites such as DailyKos.com.
Of the eight rumors the researchers asked about – all complete falsehoods which had been discredited by the Web sites factcheck.org or snopes.com – one circulated far more widely than all the others: That Barack Obama is a Muslim. Ninety-one percent of respondents said they had heard that rumor. Of those, 55 percent said they had also heard a challenge to its veracity.
In the end, 22 percent of those who had heard the rumor expressed the belief it was true – a somewhat sobering statistic, since it was debunked not only by the media but even by Obama’s opponent, Sen. John McCain.
The only other rumor heard by more than 50 percent of respondents was that Obama “does not qualify as a natural-born citizen of the U.S.” Fifty-nine percent said they heard it; of those, 30 percent also heard a challenge to it, and only 10 percent ultimately believed it.
Rumors about the Republican ticket did not circulate as widely. The one heard most often – by 40 percent of survey participants – was that vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin “successfully banned several books from the local library” while serving as mayor of Wasilla, Alaska. Of those who heard it, 15 percent heard a challenge to it, and in the end 13 percent believed it.
“Although McCain supporters believed more rumors than Obama supporters, this appears to reflect the fact that there were more rumors about Obama in circulation,” the report states. “Overall, both groups of supporters believed about 40 percent of the rumors they heard.”
For those of us who would prefer that people make their voting decisions based on fact, that’s a distressingly high number. But early evidence suggests the Internet is not, as some have feared, making the problem worse.