The Effects of Fact-Checking Threat: Results From a Field Experiment in the States

  • By Brendan Nyhan, Assistant Professor in the Department of Government, Dartmouth College and Jason Reifler, Senior Lecturer, Department of Politics at the University of Exeter
October 8, 2013 |
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In the United States, politicians are coming under increasing scrutiny from organizations like PolitiFact, Factcheck.org, and the Washington Post Fact Checker. Too often, traditional news organizations report what public officials say without evaluating the accuracy of their statements or attempting to arbitrate between competing factual claims. As a result, political figures are frequently allowed to make misleading comments in the press without challenge. By contrast, fact-checkers carefully scrutinize the claims made by candidates and elected officials and weigh them against the available evidence.

This sort of journalistic fact-checking has become much more common in recent years, but we know very little about the effects of this expansion. One possibility is that fact-checking helps members of the public become better informed. Social science research suggests, however, that people often avoid or reject unwelcome information about politics. As a result, it is often difficult to change people’s minds about controversial issues.

Fact-checking might have other benefits, however. In particular, it might help to deter the dissemination of misinformation, particularly among candidates and legislators below the presidential level. Politicians may refrain from making inaccurate claims that would attract the attention of fact-checkers to prevent possible damage to their electoral prospects or political reputation. Previous research suggests that elected officials tend to be highly risk-averse and concerned about potential threats to re-election, including critical media coverage.

To test this hypothesis, we conducted a field experiment (an experiment conducted in a real-world setting rather than the laboratory) to test the effects of being reminded about the threat posed by fact-checking. Specifically, our study compared the behavior of a group of state legislators who were sent letters warning of the reputational and electoral threats from fact-checking with a comparable control group of legislators. This experimental design allows us to make credible causal inferences about the effects of these reminders on legislators’ behavior.

The results of our experiment indicate that politicians who were sent reminders that they are vulnerable to fact-checking were less likely to receive a negative PolitiFact rating or have the accuracy of their statements questioned publicly. These findings, which we describe further below, suggest that fact-checking can play an important role in improving political discourse and increasing democratic accountability.

Click here to read the full paper.

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