On the first full day of the Trump administration, White House press secretary Sean Spicer admonished the news media for reporting that the crowd that witnessed Trump’s inauguration was smaller than other recent inauguration crowds, claiming, “This was the largest audience to ever witness an inauguration — period — both in person and around the globe.”
What made this attempt by a Trump staffer to spread misinformation particularly egregious was the abundance of clear photographic evidence proving Spicer’s statements false. So how far are Trump supporters willing to go to accept his administration’s argument?
A significant portion of Trump supporters were willing to go quite far.
Here’s how we did our research
On Sunday and Monday, we surveyed 1,388 American adults. We showed half of them a crowd picture from each inauguration (see below) and asked which was from Trump’s inauguration and which was from Obama’s.
If the past is any guide, we would expect that Trump supporters would be more likely to claim that the picture with the larger crowd was the one from Trump’s inauguration, as doing so would express and reinforce their support for him. Further, as some respondents had never seen these photos, uncertainty regarding the answer would likely lead them to choose the photograph that would be most in line with their partisan loyalties.
For the other half, we asked a very simple question with one clearly correct answer: “Which photo has more people?” Some of these people probably understood that the image on the left was from Trump’s inauguration and that the image on the right was from Obama’s, but admitting that there were more people in the image on the right would mean they were acknowledging that more people attended Obama’s inauguration.
Would some people be willing to make a clearly false statement when looking directly at photographic evidence — simply to support the Trump administration’s claims?
The figure below shows the percentage of people who gave the wrong answer to each question. In both cases, people who said that they had voted for Trump in 2016 were significantly more likely to answer the questions wrong than those who voted for Clinton or those who said they did not vote at all.
For the question about which image went with which inauguration, 41 percent of Trump supporters gave the wrong answer; that’s significantly more than the wrong answers given by 8 percent of Clinton voters and 21 percent of those who did not vote.
But what’s even more noteworthy is that 15 percent of people who voted for Trump told us that more people were in the image on the left — the photo from Trump’s inauguration — than the picture on the right. We got that answer from only 2 percent of Clinton voters and 3 percent of nonvoters.
Even when the photographic evidence was directly in front of them and the question was straightforward, one in seven Trump supporters gave the clearly false answer.
Why would anyone give the wrong answer to a pretty simple question?
To many political psychologists, this exercise will be familiar. A growing body of research documents how fully Americans appear to hold biased positions about basic political facts. But scholars also debate whether partisans actually believe the misinformation and how many are knowingly giving the wrong answer to support their partisan team (a process called expressive responding).
Our survey question about which photo shows the larger crowd is that an incorrect response to this question could really only arise from that second process. If there were no political controversy, any respondent who took the time to look at the photographs would see more people in the image on the right than the one on the left.
Clearly, some Trump supporters in our sample decided to use this question to express their support for Trump rather than to answer the survey question factually.
What are the consequences of our finding?
On one hand, some may find it reassuring to discover that at least some Trump supporters may not really believe the misinformation they express in surveys.
On the other hand, the Trump administration already accuses others of producing “fake news,” and instead offers its own (false) “alternative facts.” If a significant portion of Trump supporters are willing to champion obvious fabrications, challenging fabrications with facts will be difficult.
The scene in Washington on Inauguration Day
Brian Schaffner is professor of political science at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst. Find him on Twitter @b_schaffner.
Samantha Luks is managing director of scientific research at YouGov.