‘Fake news’ was the story of 2016 and continues to trouble media and politics in 2017 but the trend of conspiracy theories, false stories and innuendos began much earlier. During President Barack Obama’s administration, his opponents produced a wide variety of fake news items: Obamacare death panels, Muslims Brotherhood infiltration and the biggest of all – birtherism. Polls taken before and during the 2016 presidential election show a worrying correlation between belief in fake news and voting preferences.
Public Policy Polling (PPP) surveyed Trump supporters in September, 2015 and found that 54 percent of them believed Barack Obama was a Muslim, while only 29 percent believed he was born in the United States. This means that more than half of Trump’s supporters believed that Obama is Muslim (he isn’t) and that more than two thirds of Trump’s likely voters believed in the ‘birther’ conspiracy.
Donald Trump was the leading light of the ‘Birther Movement’ during Obama’s second presidential campaign in 2012. Trump was the most public and most famous figure to argue that Obama was pulling a con job on the country and that his Hawaiian birth certificate was a fake. More than any national Republican politician, Trump embodied the persistent conspiracy theory that Obama was foreign-born.
Another PPP poll in May, 2016, when Republicans were rallying around Donald Trump, showed that 59 percent of prospective Trump supporters did not believe Obama was born in America. The numbers are consistent and strongly suggest that Trump’s promotion of a fake news about Obama helped him at the polls.
The same poll showed that Trump supporters embraced a number of other conspiracy theories, including some Trump had mentioned on the campaign trail. Sixty-five percent thought Obama was a Muslim, 27 percent believed vaccines cause autism (there is no evidence of this) and 24 percent believed Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia was murdered. Trump hinted at this totally unfounded conspiracy theory following Justice Scalia’s peaceful death in his bed.
The evidence is strong enough to suggest that those who embraced conspiracy theories or ‘fake news’, were more likely to vote for Donald Trump. Voters who thought Obama was Muslim or not born in the US flocked to Trump and he promoted the conspiracies they believed.
It is impossible to assess the beliefs of every single person who voted for Trump in November, but it seems clear that his support of ‘fake news’ and the birther conspiracy in particular won him support from sections of the electorate that other, more mainstream Republicans couldn’t win over.
Now that Donald Trump is president, it i likely he will continue spreading fake news stories. He has already lied about crowd sizes at his inauguration and his relationship with the CIA. But Trump’s core supporters already believe in easily disproved conspiracies. It is hard to see how their views of Trump can be changed.