Many smart people are throwing up their hands and have given up, believing that our current political-information system is doomed to failure. For example, see Harvard professor Bhirat Anand’s thoughtful article.
Here are some of the many arguments for this pessimism:
- Donald Trump is a sociopathic liar and will be lying through his presidency.
- Social media’s business model benefits from fake news, so they won’t change it.
- People live in information bubbles and can’t access corrective information.
- People live in partisan echo chambers and don’t want corrective information.
- The main stream media’s business model is collapsing, so it can’t provide a corrective.
- The partisan media’s business model is based solely on slanting the information they provide.
- Politicians lie in general and always have and always will.
- The American people (okay, any people) are too lazy, gullible, stupid to search out good news.
- Fact-checkers are impotent against people’s prior beliefs.
- When we try to help people overcome their misconceptions, our attempts to debunk will backfire.
I’m an optimist at heart and a true-believer when it comes to believing that we will overcome our current level of dishonesty.
I certainly don’t have answers to all the factors that might prod us toward pessimism, but let me address the last two, having to do with fact-checking and debunking. While it is true that lots of research shows that debunking may backfire and fact-checking can be impotent, I don’t think we’re stuck.
First, people have always changed their minds, even about deeply held beliefs. Go into any church, synagogue, mosque, or nonreligious congregation and you’ll find people who were once true believers in another faith. There is not a form of belief more fundamental than a religious belief, and these change for some people. Other beliefs and behaviors change too. Hardened criminals turn their lives around and work to do good in the world. The German’s once bought into Nazism and later rejected it. Racists become tolerant. Haters become loving. Republicans become Democrats and Democrats become Republicans. While belief and behavior-change are hard, they are not impossible.
Second, there are many bodies of research which have not yet been utilized in trying to fight against dishonest and misinformation. There’s research on persuasion, behavior change, advertising, learning, and more that simply have not yet been called upon to make an impact.
Third, there is research going on now — and that has been done recently — that shows that people can change their minds, that fact-checking can work, that feedback can correct misconceptions. Rich and Zaragoza (2016) found that misinformation can be fixed with corrections. Rich, Van Loon, Dunlosky, and Zaragoza (2016) found that corrective feedback could work, if it was designed to be believed. More directly, Nyham and Reifler (2016), in work cited by the American Press Institute Accountability Project, found that fact checking can work to debunk misinformation.
Here’s what they concluded:
“Our findings indicate that fact-checking exposure significantly increases the accuracy of people’s beliefs, especially among individuals with high political knowledge. We find only limited evidence that these effects vary by whether the fact-check is politically congenial to respondents. While Republicans feel less positively about fact-checking than Democrats, fact-checking improves belief accuracy among Republicans and Democrats for both belief-consistent and belief-inconsistent items.”
I remain optimistic. It is true we are in a period of great dishonesty and misinformation, but we will come through it. With more science, more applications of good science, more innovation, more technology, and renewed dedication of journalists, advocates, citizens, and technologists; we will push the pendulum to the other side.