Much work on political persuasion maintains that people are influenced by information that they believe and not by information that they don’t. By this view, false beliefs have no power if they are known to be false. This helps to explain frequent efforts to change voters’ attitudes by exposing them to relevant facts. But findings from social psychology suggest that this view requires modification: sometimes, false beliefs influence people’s attitudes even after they are understood to be false. In a trio of experiments, I demonstrate that the effect is present in people’s thinking about politics and amplified by party identification. I conclude by elaborating the consequences for theories of belief updating and strategic political communication.
In essence, if you hear that Hillary Clinton had Vince Foster murdered, this lowers your opinion of her. If you later find out that she did not, in fact, do this, your opinion improves. But not back up to its original level. And the effect is especially strong if you’re a Republican (and conversely if the target of the smear is a Republican). In essence, the damage done by years of ludicrous anti-Clinton smears cannot be repaired even if everyone comes to know the truth and the same is true of the newer, but possibly more virulent, made up emails about Barack Obama being an America-hating Muslim.
Which gets at one of the less fortunate ambiguities of the past several years of progressive institution-building. One major goal of the institution-building impulse has been to more effectively counter the Republican Noise Machine. The honorable and decent way to do this, of course, is with counterpunching efforts that identity and aggressively push back against dishonest smears. Bullock’s research indicates that while this sort of thing can be helpful, it still leaves you at a structural disadvantage. If 100 percent of the population hears your opponent’s smears, and then later 100 percent of the population hears your debunking of the smear, you still find up at a disadvantage even if everyone finds the debunking convincing.
To be competitive in the smear wars, it seems, it’s actually necessary to fight fire with fire and produce your own lies and distortions. That, however, doesn’t make for a very good fundraising pitch especially since the best thing a fundraiser for a progressive cause can offer to a potential donor is typically a sense of enhanced self-righteousness (thus requiring an honorable purpose) rather than anything appealing to direct material interests.