The fact that Fox News — normally associated with a preference for Republican candidates — was so quick to provide such complete support for Jacobs’s account brought to mind recent research conducted by MIT political scientist Adam Berinsky, who studies the propagation of rumors and misinformation in U.S. politics — including the question of how the source of a repudiation of a rumor affects whether or not people actually update their beliefs after being confronted with information that contradicts that rumor. Berinsky was kind enough to answer a few of my questions about his work and its relationship to what happened yesterday in Montana. What follows is a lightly edited transcript of our conversation.
Joshua Tucker: Before we get into the details of what happened yesterday, can you provide us with some background about the general problem your research is intended to address?
Adam Berinsky: For the last eight years, I have been studying political rumors and misinformation more generally. Rumors have long been a fact of American political life. However, increasing partisan polarization in recent years has greatly expanded the spread and acceptance of false beliefs. As the parties have grown farther apart, their voters have developed increased tendencies to buy into rumors about their political opponents.
For instance, Republicans are more likely to question President Obama’s citizenship or religion, while Democrats demonstrated greater support for “truther” beliefs suggesting that the Bush administration was behind the September 11 terrorist attacks. In this era of “fake news” and “alternative facts,” we can expect rumors and conspiracies to expand. My research focuses on the spread of these rumors, as well as methods to counter them. What I’ve learned about rumors has general lessons for understanding how we can get partisans of all stripes to come to an agreement about what is true and what is false.
JT: In your recent experimental research, you’ve looked at the importance of what we call the “sender” of the information, or the person delivering the correction. Can you tell us what you found?
AB: Much of the existing literature on rumor correction suggests that most attempts to debunk rumors often fail, and that the mere act of repeating a rumor may in fact reinforce belief in that rumor. Those who have previously accepted a rumor as true may continue to buy into their theory, regardless of their exposure to new information.
In a previous Monkey Cage article, I discuss an experiment that I performed regarding the “death panel” rumor surrounding the Affordable Care Act. This rumor, initially suggested by 2008 Republican vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin, claimed, without merit, that health care would be limited for elderly and sick individuals on the basis of their societal value. This rumor quickly began to circulate among conservative media and politicians.
In my experiment, I randomized exposure to corrections from different sources — basically I varied the political identity of the person presenting “the truth.” Some of my respondents were exposed to an “authoritative” nonpartisan debunking of the rumor — by the American Medical Association and the AARP. Other respondents were presented with a correction from a Democratic source — Congressman Earl Blumenauer from Oregon’s Third District. Still others saw a similar quote from a Republican politician — Sen. Johnny Isakson from Georgia.
I found that while corrections by authoritative and Democratic sources had some effect on changing minds about the truth concerning death panels, these corrections quickly faded. By contrast, when corrections came from a Republican politician, respondents of both parties — Democrats and Republicans alike — were less likely to accept the death panel rumor, even after a period of time (though the power of the correction did fade somewhat).
My experiment demonstrates that when it comes to matters of fact, it is statements from people who speak against their apparent interests — in this case Republicans talking about policies advanced by a Democratic president and Congress — that are most surprising and have the most power.
JT: Turning to the events in Montana, what does your research suggest will be the impact of the fact that it was Fox News that confirmed — and, indeed, even added more detail to — Jacobs’s account of what happened?
AB: My previous studies suggest that when combating rumors, the political identity of the person debunking a rumor is just as important as how they do so. Initial reports on last night’s events may have had something of a “he said, she said” feel, with conflicting accounts from Gianforte’s campaign and Jacobs. But relatively soon a local Fox News crew confirmed Jacobs’s account, stating that Gianforte jumped on top of Jacobs and began punching him.
Moreover, members of the Fox crew wrote, “To be clear, at no point did any of us who witnessed this assault see Jacobs show any form of physical aggression toward Gianforte.” That’s a pretty clear correction. My research suggests that this statement by Fox News should be a more powerful signal of factual accuracy than a story from another member of the “liberal media.” Due to Fox’s perceived role as a conservative news outlet, we should expect that viewers across the political spectrum should be more likely to accept Jacobs’s account, especially given Gianforte’s attempt to brand Jacobs as an aggressive “liberal journalist.”
JT: From an academic perspective, what are the most pressing questions in this field going forward?
AB: We need to find a way to get everyone to agree on the facts, even if they have different opinions about public policies. I don’t think that we are in a “post-truth” age, but clearly we are living in a time when many of the basic facts of political reality are up for grabs. The instinct is to try to appeal to nonpolitical, nonpartisan sources of authority. But in today’s hyper-partisan world, it is difficult, if not impossible, to find groups that will fit the bill.
I think that we need to think more about how we can turn the power of partisanship on its head. When fighting false information — be it rumors, “fake news” or simply lies about the facts of an event, as we saw with the Gianforte incident yesterday — 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.