Last week, Twitter tried something new. Then President Trump tweeted that “There is NO WAY (ZERO!) that the ballots will be anything but materially fraudulent,” Twitter added this message to Trump’s tweet: “Get the facts about ballots” – which in turn is linked to a page with the heading“Trump makes unfounded allegations that postal votes will lead to voter fraud.”
Given the dangers that misinformation poses to both democracy and public health, many social media platforms believe in the responsibility to monitor and correct misinformation before it spreads. But can corrections like these also work? And what role should social media platforms play in combating misinformation?
Well, it turns out that there is evidence that fact checking is do work. Several studies have shown that a significant proportion of people update their beliefs when confronted with a correction.
Political scientists Ethan Porter and Thomas J. Wood conducted a comprehensive number of fact-checking surveys on more than 10,000 participants and 13 studies covering a range of political, economic and scientific topics. They found that 60 percent of the respondents gave accurate answers when they received a correction, while only 32 percent of the respondents who did not receive a correction expressed accurate beliefs. This is good evidence that fact checking can work.
But Porter and Wood have found that, along with many other fact-checking researchers, some methods of fact-checking are more effective than others. In general, the most effective factual checks have in common:
- It comes from many credible sources (with extra credit for those who do too) surprising, such as Republicans who contradict other Republicans or Democrats who contradict other Democrats).
- They provide a new framework for thinking about the issue (that is, they do not dismiss a claim simply as ‘wrong’ or ‘unfounded’).
- They do not directly challenge one’s worldview and identity.
- This happens early before a false narrative gets stuck.
Despite some studies suggesting that fact checking can cause misinformation more predominantly (especially a widely quoted article by political scientists Brendan Nyhan and Jason Reifler in 2010, which made the concept of the “backfire effect” popular), the overwhelming majority of studies found that fact-checking does work – or at least, Do not damage. However, some pieces of misinformation are harder to fight than others. And this episode with Trump has several features that could make Twitter’s ‘get the facts’ approach not very effective.
First, there is the source: Donald Trump. Trust him or doubt him. Chances are you have an opinion on the president. And if you already trust him, who are you going to trust more in this particular disagreement? Trump? Of CNN and the Washington Post (the two sources that Twitter mentions in its fact-checking)?
But given Trump’s notoriety, his misinformation can only be harder to combat. In one of Porter and Wood’s experiments, they commented on Trump and corrected two versions of the piece: one (correctly) attributed to Trump and one attributed to Senate Leader Mitch McConnell. The authors found that McConnell’s fact checking moved significantly more respondents to the accurate position than Trump’s fact checking.
Next up is the fact that Twitter referred to articles by CNN and the Washington Post to correct the record. Research shows that an unlikely, surprising source for dissolving misinformation, such as a fellow Republican criticizing Trump, is only much more effective at making a correction than a more predictable and surprising source (such as CNN or the Washington Post, whatever Trump casts as his enemies).
A Trump-backed reader might take a closer look if he is told that Republican government officials in Idaho and Washington have complete confidence in the security of voting by mail, or that a comprehensive 17-month investigation into law enforcement on voter fraud in Florida , a state governed. by fellow Republican Ron DeSantis, found no evidence of misconduct. This combination of surprise and credibility will, in theory, give a closer look – the kind of attention needed for spiritual updating.
And while Republicans have not massively criticized Trump’s tweet equated by voter fraud by mail, one recent example of a surprising debunk (and thus perhaps a more effective fact-checking) is the editorial of the Wall Street Journal that Trump’s allegation decreases. that cable news presenter Joe Scarborough was responsible for the death of a female staff member while he was a Republican congressman in Florida. The WSJ editorial has written that Trump’s proposal ‘that the talk show host be involved in the woman’s death is not a political hard ball. It’s a smear. ‘
But Trump’s fact-checking is also further hampered by the fact that he’s really good at making allegations – whether misleading or completely unfounded. Do you remember Trump’s bizarre allegation that the hacker who released the DNC emails was not someone in Russia, but instead ‘someone sitting on their bed weighing 400 pounds?’ You probably do. It was an unforgettable, specific image and catchy enough that ‘400poundhacker’ appeared briefly on Twitter. And as a memory expert will tell you, the more specific and scandalous the image is, the more likely you are to remember it. This latest tweet was no exception. And that makes the refutation of Trump’s claim by simply dismissing it as ‘not true’ particularly ineffective. Political scientist Emily Thorson calls this phenomenon an ‘eco of faith’, or the phenomenon that even when an idea is rejected as false, it can still continue to form attitudes.
Think of someone like President Nixon who says, “I’m not a crook” in response to allegations that he oversaw a burglary at the Watergate Hotel to eavesdrop on his political opponents. By refuting the claim, he also repeats it and makes it more memorable. And the more evocative and colorful the original claim is, the stronger the echo, Thorson finds, if the rejection also repeats the claim. “Unfortunately, this means that the times when we are most tempted to repeat misinformation – a horribly inaccurate graph, an offensive remark in a debate – are also the times when it is likely to create religious illusions,” Thorson said. writing.
Instead of simply saying that there is no evidence to support Trump’s claim that the postal vote will lead to widespread voter fraud, effective fact checking can provide an alternative explanation for why voting does not cause voter fraud. A good fact check, for example, may state that many governors vote by mail to protect vulnerable family members from getting sick from the coronavirus, not because they think it will benefit their party politically. Or it can provide details on all the specific measures that governors take to ensure a safe process, such as signature matching and ballot tracing.
But this brings us to perhaps the most difficult obstacles regarding effective corrections in this situation: bias and worldview. Research shows that people can easily incorporate new information – even if it is inaccurate – as long as it fits into an existing worldview. Take over Trump’s misrepresentation by post ballot causing voter fraud. While there is no evidence to support this, it already fits into an existing story that many Republicans believe – that voter fraud is widespread and that Democrats are helping to uphold it. This is what makes the problem of fighting wrong information so challenging.
When persons are known (e.g. Democrats continue voter fraud), it is easier to take new information uncritically, especially not when there is bias. Partisans are usually much more receptive to facts that make their side look good and facts that make the other side look bad. Similarly, they are likely to reject facts that make their side look bad and the other side look good.
In practice, this meant that as Democrats and Republicans merged into separate information streams, they not only incorporated different worldviews but also different sets of facts to support those worldviews. The more bias itself becomes an identity, the more intense this motivated reasoning becomes.
But there is one thing that could possibly make this correction effective: it was issued simultaneously with the misrepresentation. And research has shown that the most effective remedies are immediate responses. A team of researchers led by Nyhan recently found that ‘disputed’ tags, such as the one issued by Twitter, successfully diminished belief in fake stories on social media.
However, there is a very big question as to how much these technological platforms are must control over what we do – and do not see. Facebook, for example, has so far taken a different approach than Twitter. Mark Zuckerberg, founder and head of Facebook, criticized Twitter’s new policy, saying, “I just strongly believe that Facebook should not be the arbiter of the truth of everything people say online.” Twitter and Facebook are also two of the few places where both Democrats and Republicans seek news, even though their feeds rarely overlap.
Finally, even effective fact-checking may not make the difference that policymakers hope for in political attitudes. Although it is possible to change fact checks, attitudes are much harder to change and much more resistant to fact checking.
In other words, even if some Twitter users now know that the vote by mail does not cause voter fraud, it is unlikely that their attitude about Trump will change, let alone their attitude about the postal vote (they may find other reasons to oppose it, or still be concerned about the possibility of fraud, even if they do not think it is widespread). In our two-party system, after all, it’s still a huge leap for a Trump supporter to vote for a Democrat. Fact-checking can help with updating and correcting prior knowledge, but breaking the hyper-bias that cherishes misinformation in the first place will require a lot more work.
The more aggressively Twitter fights misinformation from Trump, the more it risks the anger of the Trump administration and a possible loss of angry Republican users. A more comprehensive corrections section that controls virtually all public figures (not just Trump) could put criticism from the right to the point that Twitter is biased against conservatives. But it would also cost money to hire more fact-checkers, and it could still disproportionately correct conservative voices if they shared more misleading information than liberals. If that is the case, the information echo chambers could break even further, with liberals and conservatives seeking their own platforms even more. This can make fact checking even more difficult.
Social media companies will have to balance competing claims to decide exactly how – and how much – they want to correct misinformation. The good news is that fact checking does work. But the bad news is that it will take a lot of hard work to make a difference – and even that may not be enough.