2016 C+J Symposium: Election deception is nothing new, says Stanford professor

By Annina Hanlon

The deception in this year’s hotly-debated presidential race is less unprecedented than it may seem.

Friday morning, Stanford Communication Professor Jeff Hancock kicked off the 2016 Computation + Journalism Symposium at Stanford with a keynote talk which dissected trustworthiness, fact checking and credibility. The theme: this year’s race for the White House.

Hancock revealed four main takeaways when it comes to lies and truthfulness in the election season:

Deception is an age-old issue.

Hancock contextualized the problem of trustworthiness in our current presidential election by discussing how both this year’s candidates and previous presidential contenders have used categorical denials, state secrets, lies of the heart, humblebrags and truthful hyperbole. Although the bots supporting Trump on Twitter are deception on a new scale, they are hardly original in their intent, he said.

Computational analysis has reshaped deception detection.

Computational methods now can reliably use data to distinguish the truths from the falsehoods, Hancock said. Without the aid of technology, there is no reliable cue for one human to tell whether another human is lying. The most consistent finding of the last few years is simply that humans have a bias: they want believe that people are telling the truth — even when the evidence indicates otherwise.

Trump added new elements of deception to the election narrative.

Although deception in an election season is not unprecedented, some of Trump’s particular strategies are new for a presidential candidate, Hancock said. Trump uses an “attribution shield,” in which he credits a statement to an unidentified third party. Additionally, more than 70 percent of Trump’s statements are mostly false (PolitiFact). A typical candidate in the last couple of election cycles has averaged around 20–30 percent, Hancock said.

Trump and Clinton are perceived as equally trustworthy.

Trump is considered to be as trustworthy as Clinton, despite his statistically higher tendency toward falsities, Hancock said, citing polls by ABC News and the Washington Post. He outlined four possible explanations for this reality:

  • Fact-checking just doesn’t matter.
  • The tendency for people to like and trust others who are similar to themselves.
  • Distrust in institutions is at an all-time high.
  • Trump is a bullshitter, or a person defined by lack of concern for the truth and disregard for being adequately educated.

Although this year’s presidential race is all about fact-checking, deception is not a new issue, Hancock said.

“Everyone thinks we’re more deceptive than we were before … that the current generation is less honest than the previous generation,” Hancock said. “But you see that almost every generation going back.”

Hancock is a professor of Communication at Stanford University and director of the Stanford Center for Computational Social Science. His primary research focus is on the psychology of social media, examining how technology interacts with trust and deception. For more of Hancock’s insights about computational journalism and the election, CNN is airing a special on Science of Political Deception in mid-October.

Annina Hanlon is a student reporter at Stanford University.