The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

What you remember about Jan. 6 may be colored by partisanship

Trump supporters during the attack on the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021. (Jose Luis Magana/AP)

It probably goes without saying that Americans’ views of the riot at the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, vary widely and often differ by party. Most Democrats view the day as the violent culmination of weeks of dishonesty from President Donald Trump aimed at blocking Joe Biden’s inauguration as president. Many Republicans see the riot as an aberration, an expression of frustration that doesn’t necessarily detract from the rioters’ core complaints.

New research suggests that the partisan lens through which we consider the riot burrows a bit deeper: into our memories of what happened.

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Let’s start with a quiz. Below, you’ll be presented with five statements about the Jan. 6 attack. It’s up to you to determine whether the presented statement is true.

Think you can separate fact from fiction related to Jan. 6?

How’d you do? Did you get some of the questions wrong? Do you think the test effectively captured a way in which your view of the day’s events might be shaped by how you view the riot?

Each of those questions is taken from research conducted by a team at California State University at San Marcos. Its members presented a group of people with statements that fell into four categories: true statements that would be more appealing to Democrats, false stories that would appeal to Democrats and true and false stories aimed at appealing to Republicans.

The questions in our quiz probably make more sense now. They come from that research, having been pulled from social media conversations about the riot. The intent of the experiment was to measure how likely people were to describe as true things that appealed to their partisan point of view. And, the research team reports, they had success in doing so.

Study participants, the researchers write, “remembered more stories supportive of their political party than stories that supported the other major political party in the United States.” The graph below depicts that: Democrats were more likely to describe false pro-Democrat stories as true; Republicans were more likely (to a lesser extent) to describe false pro-Republican stories as true.

The researchers note that the results “may have reflected actual differences in participants’ memory or partisan cheerleading.” It’s an important point: Whether something derogatory about the political opposition is accurate, it may simply be the case that respondents think that the claim certainly may be true. Particularly in a low-stakes scenario like our quiz. (The researchers note that paying people for accurate responses might increase accuracy.) This is particularly likely given the increase in partisan hostility over time.

But consider what that means for casual consideration of the riot. We may remember things about that day that didn’t happen or, presented with new claims, believe them more readily than we should if they comport with our politics. We see this pattern all the time in politics, of course. Often, though, those beliefs don’t overlap as neatly with demonstrated, verifiable facts.

Unconsidered by the researchers is a corollary to that last point: Many Americans never come into contact with those demonstrated, verifiable facts. And that is another problem entirely.