Does Fact Checking Undo the Effects of Fake News?

From a recent study:

Fake news or ‘alternative facts’ have become a key ingredient of Western political discourse. They are skillfully used by populist candidates to leverage fears and frustrations of the voters. The fake news efforts are often successful. For example, as Ipsos’ 2016 Perils of Perception survey shows, in all Western countries voters greatly overestimate the Muslim population in their countries. In France (where the gap between perception and reality is largest), the perceived share of Muslim population is 31% while the actual share is only 7.5%.

Can this sway elections? Recent work by Allcott and Gentzkow (2017) suggests that, even though false rumors about Hilary Clinton were more likely to be shared on social media, it is not clear whether they were pivotal in the 2016 US presidential election. In a recent paper (Barrera et. al. 2017), we show that misleading statements used by a populist politician can have substantial effects on voting intentions. Moreover, while fact checking of the populist’s misleading ‘alternative facts’ improves voters’ factual knowledge, it does nothing to undo the effect of these statements on policy views and voting intentions of voters. 

Image result for fake news gif

During the 2017 French election, the researchers surveyed 2,480 participants “on political preferences and factual knowledge.” These participants were divided into 4 groups:

  • Group 1 (“Alt Facts”) read some of Marine Le Pen’s statements, including the one mentioned above. All the quotes had a similar structure: misleading statements were used as part of a logical link to reach a desired conclusion.

  • Group 2 (“Fact Check”) read the same Le Pen quotes along with the facts from the official sources on the very same issues; these facts were strikingly different from Le Pen’s misleading numbers.

  • Group 3 (“Facts”) read only the facts from the official sources without any ‘alternative facts’.

  • Group 4 (“Control”) didn’t read any text.

They found that inaccurate statements about migrants made by far-right politician Marine Le Pen were “highly persuasive, regardless of whether they were subsequently corrected. Both participants in the Alt Facts and Fact Check groups were 7% more likely to report intentions to vote for MLP.”

Our result that fact checking of a populist’s statements does not change the voters support of the populist candidate is consistent with findings of concurrent research conducted in the context of the 2016 US presidential election (Swire et al. 2017, Nyhan et al. 2017).

Does this mean that voters do not believe the corrections or do not trust the source? The answer is no. The majority of respondents in the Fact and the Fact Check groups answered the questions about facts at the end of the survey correctly…The Alt Facts treatment moved respondents away from the truth, but only slightly. Overall, we find strong evidence that respondents learn the facts and trust official sources more than Le Pen.

So what gives?

Overall, our results imply that once voters have learned the conclusions, correcting the fake facts can no longer shift their policy views.

Furthermore, it turns out that providing the facts may increase the salience of the immigration issue and by making voters more worried, can actually drive them toward Le Pen. We find that even participants in the Facts group are 4% more likely to vote for Le Pen than the control group – a significant difference – even they are not even reminded about the candidate during the experiment. (Immigration was a prominent issue in Le Pen’s campaign – much more so than for other politicians.)

Our results suggest that confronting alternative facts with correct numbers is not enough. To be effective, fact checking needs to be more than a journalists’ or pundits’ enterprise. The correct facts need to be embedded in a narrative with persuasive argumentation and conclusions – and delivered by a charismatic politician. The result of the 2017 French presidential election is consistent with this conjecture.