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…

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