The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Fake news is bad news for democracy.

Unreliable information shapes voter choices — and election outcomes.

This file photo illustration from Sept. 26, 2017, shows the Whatsapp application logo on a smartphone screen. (Nicolas Asfouri/AFP/Getty Images)

Last week, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg welcomed government regulation of content on the Internet in several areas, including “election integrity.” Around the world, there are increasing concerns that “fake news” threatens democracy.

Our recent research supports this view — democracy is less likely to survive in a poor informational environment. Our book shows that when voters are poorly informed, enough voters are more likely to make mistakes at the polls. This leads to the election of incompetent — and perhaps corrupt or self-dealing — governments.

Here’s why this matters: Such outcomes at the polls lower public confidence in democracy and generate support for emergent anti-democratic forces.

Unreliable information shapes voter choices

Our research focuses on the economy. Voters like a healthy economy — and often rely on official pronouncements or publicly available information like jobs data or growth forecasts to decide for themselves how well the economy is doing. This information can be more or less precise or accurate.

In a highly transparent society, public pronouncements tend to be on target — the government releases accurate information. Voters then make informed decisions at the polls. They reelect governments that produce solid economic performance and vote out governments that fail to address economic woes.

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When official announcements of economic performance are less trustworthy, voters rely more on their own personal, perhaps idiosyncratic, experience with the economy to make choices at the polls — and are more likely to make collective mistakes. After they see the election results, voters often figure out that misinformation impacted the outcome.

Bad information bungles elections

If the challenger receives more votes than expected (relative to what the actual state of the economy would have suggested is warranted), the voters are likely to realize they’ve made a collective error. And when incompetent or corrupt governments win reelection, the disappointed public may align with anti-democratic forces.

Our book, “Information, Democracy, and Autocracy,” and a recent article present evidence in line with our theory. Using an original measure of the transparency of economic outcomes, we show that democracies with low levels of transparency are less likely to survive. Incumbents are more likely to be removed from office through extra-constitutional means — coups or assassinations — especially when the economy is performing poorly. Highly transparent democracies survive, even under poor economic conditions.

Fake News changes the story

Our analysis focuses on credible information governments provide regarding the economy. Yet the world of fake news and social media trolling exacerbates the problems we identify. Ironically, greater connectivity and access to information makes for less transparency.

Fake news leads to the dissemination of false narratives, which exposes voters to a “noisier” signal of government performance. If the stories vary widely, voters may not know what to believe or may believe false information. Some individuals may come to believe that others are in thrall to false information and regard their views as illegitimate. In some ways, this noise is similar to situations in which no credible information is available at all.

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In such an environment, elections function poorly as a means of removing underperforming politicians. When voters don’t believe the electoral process is working and lose trust in democracy, they may be more likely to encourage violent coups. Or they might even offer popular support as a democratically elected government turns authoritarian by undermining the systems that keep it accountable, such as the rule of law, an independent judiciary or a free press.

Where is the “danger zone” of transparency?

We identify a “danger zone” of transparency where the informational environment is strong enough for democracy to emerge but not enough to sustain democratic rule. We find that only developing countries have experienced the danger zone.

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In Bangladesh, for example, transparency rose in the late 1980s, and democracy emerged in the 1990s. But then transparency fluctuated, never reaching the levels enjoyed by most established democracies. The democratic regime eventually descended into chaos in 2007. In Nepal, democracy emerged with the “people’s revolt” (the “jana andolan”) movement in 1990, but transparency remained low, and democratic rule collapsed in 2002.

The informational environment in the United States is, to be sure, much stronger than in these countries. Americans can turn to the Internet to download statistics on every facet of the economy with relatively high confidence that the information they read is reliable. So, based on our research and the work of others, the U.S. should not be in immediate danger of democratic breakdown.

Nevertheless, our work corroborates concerns about fake news. The prospect of sharing false information — spread by individuals and foreign governments — threatens the quality of democracy in America. False and noisy information makes voters more likely to reelect poorly performing governments and lowers public confidence in democracy.

James R. Hollyer is Benjamin Evans Lippincott Associate Professor in Political Economy at the Department of Political Science at the University of Minnesota.

B. Peter Rosendorff (@PeterRosendorff) is professor of politics at New York University and editor of the interdisciplinary journal Economics & Politics.

James Raymond Vreeland (@james_vreeland) is professor of politics and international affairs in the Woodrow Wilson School and Department of Politics at Princeton University.

They are authors of “Information, Autocracy and Democracy: Economic Transparency and Political (In)Stability (Cambridge University Press, 2018).