How can such rumors be countered? Research I’ve recently published in the British Journal of Political Science suggests one possible solution: The spokesman refuting the rumor should be an unlikely source, someone whose personal and political interests would be better served if the rumor were true.
Of course, rumors have long pervaded U.S. politics. In recent years alone, polls have shown that wide swaths of the American public accept the “birther” rumors suggesting that President Barack Obama was not born in the United States. Other surveys demonstrate significant support for “truther” beliefs that the George W. Bush administration either allowed or was behind the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Such rumors are troubling for a democratic society. Disseminating misleading and untrue information fosters distrust of institutions and may keep Americans from meaningfully engaging in the civic arena.
Increasing partisan polarization, among other things, has sped up the circulation of such political rumors among both Democratic and Republican partisans. Republicans were more likely to accept rumors questioning Barack Obama’s citizenship, while Democrats were more likely to believe in 9/11 conspiracies. With unified Republican control of the federal government, surely rumors will grow among those left of center.
What’s the best way to debunk misleading or false political “information?”
Previous research in this field suggests that attempts to counter political rumors often fail. Ironically, just repeating rumors that you’re trying to debunk may in fact reinforce those rumors. Those individuals who accept a rumor as true may in fact become more certain of their false beliefs the more it’s repeated, doubling down if there’s new sources of information that either supports or denies it.
My own research suggests some solutions to this problem. In 2010, I conducted a pair of experiments on rumors surrounding the debate over the Affordable Care Act (ACA). I focused on the “death panel” rumor, which falsely claimed that elderly and sick individuals would be allocated health care based on their supposed worth to society. While demonstrably false, these rumors were widely disseminated by several conservative politicians and media figures and embraced by many members of the emerging tea party.
I exposed respondents to varying pieces of information about the death panel rumor. Some respondents were told only the rumor itself; others were exposed to the rumor but also different corrections to the rumor. In the “authoritative” correction, respondents were shown quotes from American Medical Association and AARP experts discrediting the rumor. In the “partisan” correction treatments, respondents were shown a quote from either a Democratic or Republican lawmaker similarly debunking the rumor.
These different corrections had very different effects. Quotes from “authoritative” sources debunking death panels managed to change some minds but quickly lost their power. Within a week, people exposed to this information had opinions that did not differ from the respondents who were given no information at all about the death panel controversy. Corrections from a Democratic politician similarly worked with some but then faded.
On the other hand, when I followed the death panel rumor with a Republican politician’s correction, the debunking worked. All the respondents — Republicans and Democrats alike — were far more likely to reject the veracity of death panels. And a week later, the citizens exposed to the quote from the Republican remained more likely to reject the death panel rumor — although again, the power of that correction faded.
The lessons of my study are clear. Just as important as how a rumor is debunked is who does the debunking. Politicians who support good public policy by speaking against their partisan interests — in this case, Republicans speaking out against the death panel rumors — are considered credible sources by citizens from across the ideological spectrum.
When fighting “fake news,” politicians and the media should present the right authority. In our politically polarized time, we may be able to harness the power of partisanship to stop the spread of misinformation.
Adam J. Berinsky is a professor of political science at MIT and serves as the director of the MIT Political Experiments Research Lab (PERL). Find him on Twitter @AdamBerinsky.