This article was written by Brendan Nyhan and Jason Reifler. It is adapted from Misinformation and Fact-checking: Research Findings from Social Science (PDF), a New America Foundation Media Policy Initiative report they co-authored that was released Tuesday in Washington, DC.
Citizens and journalists alike are concerned that the prevalence of misinformation in our politics may pollute democratic discourse, make it more difficult for citizens to cast informed votes, and limit their ability to participate meaningfully in public debate. In particular, we know that many political myths are difficult to correct once they become established. So how can journalists most effectively counter the misleading claims that are made in the 2012 campaign?
Unfortunately, available research in this area paints a pessimistic picture: the most salient misperceptions are typically difficult to correct. This is because, in part, people’s evaluations of new information are shaped by their beliefs. When we encounter news that challenges our views, our brains may produce a variety of responses to compensate for this unwelcome information. As a result, corrections are sometimes ineffective and can even backfire (PDF).
And even if people are not actively engaged in resisting unwelcome facts, the limitations of human cognition can hinder the correction of misperceptions. For example, once a piece of information is encoded in memory, it can be very difficult to undo its effects on subsequent attitudes and beliefs. Trying to correct a false claim with a negation (e.g., “John is not a criminal”) can also lead people to more easily remember the claim you are trying to negate (“John is a criminal”). Finally, people may use the familiarity of a claim as a heuristic for its accuracy. If corrections make a claim seem more familiar, we
may be more likely to see the underlying—and incorrect—claim as true.
Nonetheless, there is reason for cautious optimism. In our report (PDF), we identify several strategies that show at least some promise in experimental studies. Based on these findings, we offer a series of practical recommendations for journalists and citizens about what to do and what not to do when trying to counter misperceptions:
1. Get the story right the first time. Once an error is communicated and stored in people’s memories, it is difficult to undo. Even when people are exposed to a correction and acknowledge that the initial claim was false, the errant information may continue to influence their attitudes. In addition, people may misremember the false claim as true over time.
2. Early corrections are better. News organizations should strive to correct their errors as quickly as possible and to notify the media outlets that disseminated them further. It is difficult to undo the damage from an initial error, but rapid corrections of online articles or video can ensure that future readers and other journalists are not misled.
3. Beware making the problem worse. While prompt corrections are valuable, it’s important to recognize the risk that corrections can increase the prevalence of misperceptions. First, news reports seeking to correct a misperception may expose more people to false information and thereby increase belief in the myth rather than reduce it. Corrections may also increase the prevalence of a misperception if people who hold it are provoked to defend their prior beliefs. Finally, even if people initially accept that a given claim is false, they may suffer from an “illusion of truth” over time and come to believe that the claim is accurate. A careful balance must be struck between the desire to correct misperceptions and the risks of popularizing them further.
4. Avoid negations. Stating a correction in the form of a negation may reinforce the misperception in question. Research and theory suggests that corrective affirmations (“John is exonerated”) are likely to be more effective than trying to negate a misperception (“John is not a criminal”).