The Bad News About Correcting Myths

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"The Bad News About Correcting Myths"


In light of Frank Gaffney’s latest efforts to hype up the “Obama is a secret Muslim” myth, Brendan Nyhan draws my attention to the fact that he and several collaborators have a working paper (PDF) that specifically looks at this myth to test some larger ideas about how to correct political misinformation. The conclusions, unfortunately, are not all that encouraging:

In this paper, we address the question of how to counter political misperceptions, which are often difficult or impossible to eradicate. One explanation for this difficulty is that corrections frequently take the form of a negation (i.e. “Tom is not sick”), a construction that may fail to reduce the association between the subject and the concept being negated (Mayo et al. 2004). We apply this approach to the persistent rumor from the 2008 presidential campaign that Barack Obama is a Muslim, comparing the effectiveness of what we call a misperception negation (“I am not and never have been of the Muslim faith”) with what we call a corrective affirmation (“I am a Christian”), which should be more effective. As expected, we find that the misperception negation was ineffective. However, our hypothesis that the corrective affirmation would successfully reduce misperceptions was only supported when a non-white experimental administrator was present, suggesting a strong social desirability effect on the acceptance of corrective information. In addition, three-way interactions between the corrective affirmation, race of administrator, and party identification suggest that social desirability effects were more prevalent among Republicans. When nonwhite administrators were absent, the corrective affirmation not only failed to reduce Republican misperceptions but caused a backfire effect in which GOP identifiers became more likely to believe Obama is Muslim and less likely to believe he was being honest about his religion. We interpret this reaction as being driven by Obama’s embrace of Christianity, which may provoke cognitive dissonance among Republicans.

In other words, in politics getting your allies to lie about your opponents can be a very effective political tactic. Similarly, people who care about honesty ought to consider themselves very seriously obligated to reprimand people who are deliberately spreading misinformation. At the end of the day, it’s extremely difficult to actually counter misinformation, and so society needs there to be disincentives to spreading it.

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