Brendan Nyhan, Professor of Government, Says Fact-Checking Can Help

Writing for the New York Times Upshot column, Brendan Nyhan claims that research he did with Jason Reifler shows that fact-checking can make a difference in people views. Covering the 2014 election, the research shows that people’s beliefs could be changed.

Here’s the abstract from the research:

Though fact-checking’s prominence has grown in recent years, little is known about public attitudes toward the format or how exposure to it affects the accuracy of people’s
beliefs about controversial political issues. Fact-check readers appear to be better informed than we might otherwise expect, but this inference is limited by the fact
that individuals self-select into fact-checking exposure. During the 2014 campaign, we therefore randomly exposed a representative panel of Americans to receive fact-checking or placebo content over multiple survey waves. Our findings indicate that fact-checking exposure significantly increases the accuracy of people’s beliefs about contested political claims, especially among individuals with high political knowledge. Notably, we find only limited evidence that these effects vary by whether the fact-check is politically congenial to respondents. Our data also indicates that educated and politically sophisticated people are more interested in fact-checking and
that Republicans feel less positively about the practice than Democrats.

It should be noted that these findings are different from research that finds typical backfire effects, where trying to persuade someone with corrective information is often counterproductive.

Just last week, I saw Steve Lewandowsky, author with John Cook of the Debunker’s Handbook, say, in a public forum at Boston University that he wasn’t sure any more whether debunking was an effective tool.

My own belief is that under some conditions, people will certainly change their minds. As of yet, it’s not clear what those conditions are…

Claim: Many Fake News Stories Started by Trump Cronies

In this excellent article by Lee Fang writing on The Intercept, he highlights the many fake-news websites created by Republican supporters. He also puts this in perspective, describing the whole ecosystem of fake news, including some fake news being put out by liberal websites.

The Cure for Fake News is Worse than the Disease

Jake Shafer of Politico writes a powerful warning in the midst of the panic over fake news, arguing that the cure for fake news is worse than the disease.

It’s a great article.

Here is some of what he says:

From an economist’s viewpoint, fake news is mostly a demand side problem. If readers weren’t so determined to click sexy headlines that lead them to websites of dubious or unknown reputation, and do it again and again, and often sharing the link, fake news would soon be extinct. But its prevalence indicates that the market is only providing the cheap and stupid thrill some readers desire. Rather than tweaking its algorithms, Facebook might be better off trying to change human nature.

This is what a stupid economist might think — one who still believes the fantasy that human behavior is always rational. That’s crazy talk of course. In reality, we human beings are more reactive than proactive, less able to resist some stimuli in our environment.

The following is an important observation:

Almost every genre of news has been invaded by fake news, but some subject areas appear to be more or less immune to its charms. Fake news about sports or business is extremely rare. Oh, the sports and business pages aren’t fake-free. Hoaxes and baseless rumors get published, but sports and business readers tend to be knowledgeable and discerning about their interests. A fake story about a stock price or a baseball score is quickly resisted by savvy readers who demand that it must be corrected or retracted. They chase down the works of pranksters and hoaxers like white blood cells in pursuit of infectious disease. Fake weather news seems rare, too, for the same reason. The same for fake traffic reports.

So, what makes some information marketplaces subject to fake news and others not so much. This should be a critical target of inquiry for scientists, journalists, and social-media companies… and Truth for Democracy if we can get it off the ground.

Not all fake news fits into this bias pattern, but, in general, the pattern holds. The more outrageous and partisan a fake bundle is, the greater the chance it will be reshared, go viral and break into the mainstream.

Fake news is too important to be left to the Facebook remedy—Mark Zuckerberg is no arbiter of truth.

Of course, fake news is only a small part of the misinformation industrial complex. We need more than a social-media fix.

How to Spot Fake News — Advice from

Lori Robertson and Eugene Kiely of provide useful advice on how to tell fake news from real news.

And here is another article on how to tell fake news from real news, this by Nick Robins-Early, reporter at Huffington Post.

It’s all good advice, but how many of us have time or the inclination to do this? This may be helpful, but it’s going to be a small part of the fake-news solution.

Is The Frenzy over Fake News Just Liberal-Elite Contempt?

This article on Vox, by Emmett Rensin on April 21, 2016, argues that liberal elites have become a parody of contempt again working-class citizens who JUST DON’T KNOW ENOUGH.

There is a smug style in American liberalism. It has been growing these past decades. It is a way of conducting politics, predicated on the belief that American life is not divided by moral difference or policy divergence — not really — but by the failure of half the country to know what’s good for them.

In 2016, the smug style has found expression in media and in policy, in the attitudes of liberals both visible and private, providing a foundational set of assumptions above which a great number of liberals comport their understanding of the world.

The trouble is that stupid hicks don’t know what’s good for them. They’re getting conned by right-wingers and tent revivalists until they believe all the lies that’ve made them so wrong. They don’t know any better. That’s why they’re voting against their own self-interest.

The recent election results would seem to put an exclamation on this notion! Clearly, at least half of the country had no idea that the other half was going to rise up and elect a man who doesn’t know much about the world. Doh!

To me, the article does hint at the difficulty of countering the fake-news problem, the dishonesty in public discourse problem. It will NOT be enough to simply tell the truth.

America’s Fake News Problem Predates Facebook

It’s a really important article in reminding us that misinformation has been potent in the United States for quite some time.

Indeed, even though the article didn’t mention it, we might also remind ourselves that it’s not just politics that are targeted by fake news. Those of us who lived through it cannot help but remember the tobacco industry’s insistence that smoking was NOT harmful.

How Politicians Who Use Fake News Push Back Against Debunking

Callum Borchers of the Washington Post writes a nice article about how fake-news creators handle critics of their dark art.

In it he starts with this line:

Throwing criticism back at the critic is perhaps the most basic counterattack in the book…

He goes on to cite such examples as Ron Paul’s Liberty Report and it’s “real fake-news list,” which included a long list of mainstream media types, including folks like Diane Sawyer, George Stephanopoulos, and Wolf Blitzer.


Borchers response to kind of list is the following:

It is perfectly legitimate to criticize the press for underestimating Trump’s candidacy or for failing to demand more evidence before the invasion of Iraq — but it makes no sense to equate these alleged shortcomings with publication of pure fiction.

Nick Kristof’s List of Conservatives to Follow

Nicholas Kristof recently wrote an article arguing that to enable healthy conversations on political topics, we should all reach across the aisle and seek perspectives beyond those of our political tribe. Many of us, including me, asked him which conservatives we should follow.

Here’s who he recommended:

@DouthatNYT, @MJGerson, @StephensWSJ, @JoeNBC, @peggynoonannyc, @reihan, @arthurbrooks, @ayaan, @eliotacohen, @Heritage, @danielpipes and @nfergus.

I’ve just added them to those I follow at @MakeTruthGreat. We’ll see what happens…

Snopes Editor Blames Mainstream Media, Not Fake News

Jessi Hempel writes on Backchannel that Brooke Binkowski, Managing Editor at Snopes blames the mainstream media not fake news for the rash of misinformation. I don’t think her argument holds up to scrutiny — as it’s doubtful that more and better correct information is likely to automatically wash away lies and falsehoods — but it’s nice that someone is not zeroing in on fake news as the only culprit.

Here are two quotes from the article:

But as managing editor of the fact-checking site Snopes, Brooke Binkowski believes Facebook’s perpetuation of phony news is not to blame for our epidemic of misinformation. “It’s not social media that’s the problem,” she says emphatically. “People are looking for somebody to pick on. The alt-rights have been empowered and that’s not going to go away anytime soon. But they also have always been around.”

The misinformation crisis, according to Binkowski, stems from something more pernicious. In the past, the sources of accurate information were recognizable enough that phony news was relatively easy for a discerning reader to identify and discredit. The problem, Binkowski believes, is that the public has lost faith in the media broadly — therefore no media outlet is considered credible any longer. The reasons are familiar: as the business of news has grown tougher, many outlets have been stripped of the resources they need for journalists to do their jobs correctly. “When you’re on your fifth story of the day and there’s no editor because the editor’s been fired and there’s no fact checker so you have to Google it yourself and you don’t have access to any academic journals or anything like that, you will screw stories up,” she says.

Binkowski says the more important work involves setting the record straight at legitimate publications that get things wrong.

It could be she’s just towing the company line. Snopes is known for it’s debunking work. I guess they ought to believe that debunking works. The scientific evidence weighs against her view… Debunking has been shown not to be always or particularly effective.