In December, The Washington Post released an extension for the Google Chrome internet browser (and later Firefox) which fact-checks and provides vital context to President Trump’s numerous tweets, all right under the tweet itself.
Trump often traffics in conspiracy theories, and false narratives into the mainstream media. The Post’s browser extension is the first fact-checking device I’ve seen which functions within twitter, providing context and fact-checking directly adjacent to Trump’s tweets. While this is ground-breaking in some sense, I am skeptical of its potential to impact the effects of Trump’s main-streaming of provably false information to his followers, and the general public.
There are numerous studies in political science and psychology about how ineffective fact-checking actually is when it comes to moving people to discard bad information for newer, better, and more correct information. It is also particularly ineffective when the challenger information comes from a source that a person doesn’t align with ideologically, a situation bound to happen if a Trump supporter is reading a publication like The Washington Post.
A Yale research paper titled “Motivated Numeracy and Enlightened Self-Government,” by Dan Kahan, found that the more information a person had on a given subject, the more well-equipped they were to defend their partisan position on that subject, and thus less likely to be persuaded by any newer, better information which might change their mind. People who believe any falsehoods perpetuated by Trump are thus likely to entrench themselves in their belief of those falsehoods, using their accumulation of old (and sometimes false) information to defend themselves from the new information or context which might be presented by The Post in their fact-checking.
Similar findings on the subject of partisan news media were found by the studies of Arceneaux and Johnson in their book, “Changing Minds or Changing Channels.” They found that people who actively seek news (and thus had an ample supply of political information already accrued) were less likely to be persuaded by news media to change their position on a partisan issue, and typically became more entrenched in their positions, especially when presented with information from a counter-attitudinal news program. A conservative who reads from a news source which is left-leaning, and sometimes even centrist, is unlikely to change their position on an issue, and vise-versa. This is true even if the information from the counter-attitudinal news sources is more correct.
In the paper “When Corrections Fail: The Persistence of Political Misperceptions,” by Nyhan and Reifler, a phenomenon called “The Backfire-Effect” is observed. They show that when a person who holds a false belief comes into contact with information which should debunk that belief, the person can actually become more convinced that their false belief is actually true. Someone who already believes false information that Trump has told them is thus unlikely to persuaded to discard that information, despite evidence from The Post.
While normally these issues affect liberals and conservatives equally, they are especially exasperated for the right because of their current Republican presidents’ persistent perpetuation of falsehoods and conspiracy theories. The issue is also more salient in general because the President is not just the leader of the Republican party, but of the country, and indeed the free world.
Social media is a main source of news for many Americans, and given the amount of false information circulating around on social media platforms, the fight to make factual evidence matter is a worthy one. I applaud the Post’s efforts in that fight, but I assert that this fact-checking extension for Twitter is severely limited in its capabilities to make the truth more relevant than falsehoods. I hope to see more research in this area, and as we learn how to push truth above the political fray effectively on social media I am confident that great news sources like The Washington Post will innovate to do just that.
– Dallas Schwab, @schwabsyy