The Fate Of Fact-Checking: Does The Truth Still Matter To Campaigns?

Dec 7, 2015

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Sticking to the facts doesn’t seem to be a top priority in the race for the White House.

Fact-checking groups have been busy debunking the claims of candidates on both the left and right.

But what happens when candidates refuse to budge from assertions that have been deemed false?

For example, Republican frontrunner Donald Trump has been sticking to his claim he saw thousands of people in New Jersey celebrating on 9/11.

PolitiFact has rated the claim "Pants on Fire." The Washington Post gave it "Four Pinocchios."

Brendan Nyhan, an assistant professor of government at Dartmouth College, joined NHPR’s Morning Edition to look at this issue.

Well, let’s start with Trump. He continues to stick by his claim about 9/11 and other controversial statements, and there hasn’t been any real impact on his poll numbers.

So does the truth still matter in campaigns?

I’d like to hope so. Trump’s a very difficult case. He’s a perfect storm for fact checking. He’s almost completely indifferent to the scrutiny the media provides and he’s running in a race for the Republican nomination where the people he’s trying to appeal to are often very distrustful of the mainstream media, so it is harder to change their minds. But we shouldn’t let that dissuade us from the value of fact-checking. I think it’s fair to say that politicians would be more irresponsible if there weren’t fact checking. The fact someone like Donald Trump keeps making these statements doesn’t mean that fact-checking isn’t helping dissuade him from making even more, and that applies to all the other candidates in the race, too.

But when someone is talking to Donald Trump and you are trying to counter what he is saying and he’s doubling down, how do you handle that?

It’s a no-win situation. If you cover the falsehood, you run the risk of amplifying it. If you confront Trump, you run the risk of turning the factual dispute into an emotional confrontation where people will naturally gravitate towards their own political tribe.

Republican Presidential candidate Donald Trump addresses supporters during a political rally at the Phoenix Convention Center on July 11, 2015 in Phoenix.
Credit Getty Images

And that speaks to supporters of a candidate. Can anything really sway them? Does fact-checking really sway someone who is a die-hard supporter of a particular candidate?

My research suggests that it’s very hard to change peoples’ minds about these very controversial issues and political figures. And in some cases, corrective information can actually make the problem worse.

In what way does that make it worse?

Giving people corrective information can sometimes provoke them to double down; to think of reasons why something they’d like to be true might still be valid even when it’s been called into question. That won’t happen for everyone, but for certain people who are especially motivated to defend a claim, we can see that response, and that might apply for instance to people who feel very strongly about Donald Trump, especially when the correction is coming from the mainstream media. If the question is whether you trust Donald Trump or the mainstream media, for a lot of Republican primary voters, the answer is going to be Donald Trump.

And certainly we’re talking a lot about Donald Trump, but this is something that applies to both sides of the aisle, correct?

It does. It really is a fundamental aspect of human psychology to want to believe something even if it may not be true. It’s hard for us to admit that we’re wrong and that our side is wrong. We’re all tribal in that way and as human beings, it’s just very difficult for us to admit that we’re wrong, and so what we’re seeing with Trump is representative of something that happens across the political spectrum. Now, Trump is unusual in how frequently he makes these misleading claims and how unwilling he is to revise his statements. But the way people are responding to that information isn’t specific to Trump at  all.

There’s plenty of time left in this election. Is there any way fact checking can have more of an impact going forward?

I think it’s important to be realistic about the effects of fact checking. The job of fact checkers is to set the record straight, not to change people’s minds about who they’re going to vote for necessarily. But at the same time I think we can do a better job with fact checking of making the information in them credible to people who might otherwise be skeptical. One important way to do that is to draw on information that’s going to be credible the audience we might expect to resist the fact check. For example, drawing on evidence from experts who would be credible to a Republican primary audience might be more effective than telling them some liberal academic thinks what Trump said isn’t true.

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