Sunday October 02, 2016

Do political fact-checks matter?

A group of students stand in front of a CNN trailer with images of Hillary Clinton, and Donald Trump, ahead of the first U.S. presidential debate at Hofstra University in Hempstead, New York, U.S., on Sunday, Sept. 25, 2016.

A group of students stand in front of a CNN trailer with images of Hillary Clinton, and Donald Trump, ahead of the first U.S. presidential debate at Hofstra University in Hempstead, New York, U.S., on Sunday, Sept. 25, 2016. (Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg)

Listen 18:52

You don't have to be a political junkie to get the impression that fact-checking is the new black. 

Take the first U.S. presidential debate between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. It prompted all kinds of fact-checks and reality checks from outlets across the political spectrum.   

There was this from Fox News, this from CNN, this from CBC, and MacLeans did this. While it might seem like a reaction to the particulars of this year's presidential election, it's part of a decades long trend in journalism. 

Pushing back against the 'easy way out'

And it's one welcomed by Lucas Graves, author of Deciding What's True: The Rise of Political Fact-Checking in American Journalism

Lucas Graves

(provided by Lucas Graves)

Graves, a former reporter and now an assistant professor at the University of Wisconsin - Madison, argues traditional-style reporting — often characterized by what he calls "he said/she said" reporting — leaves too much room for abuse of the facts. 

"I understand why it always seemed safer to report both sides of the debate ... but clearly journalists aren't living up to their responsibility to the public if they take the easy way out and don't do their best to get at the truth."

'The truth' is controversial

But the truth — as you might imagine — is where things start to get sticky. 

Joe Uscinski

(provided by Joe Uscinski)

Joe Uscinski, associate professor of political science at the University of Miami, says while he believes in theory that fact-checking is a positive trend, he's critical of how it plays out in reality. 

"The problem we run into is that fact-checkers with their own ideologies are picking which statements they want to check, and what's dangerous about that is that journalists have ideologies just like everyone else — so they are going to ignore falsehoods that closer to home and focus on the falsehoods on the other side."

But most of us aren't journalists or fact-checkers and thanks to political scientists like Brendan Nyhan, Jason Reifler, DJ Flynn and David Redlawsk, there is data on how people react to fact-checks.

How do people react to political fact checks?

According to Redlawsk, it's important to remember that people, especially in the U.S, think about politics as identity. 

So instead of saying "I voted for a Democrat", they say "I am a Democrat" and when a person's identity is tied to their politics, it becomes very hard to change our politics. 

David Redlawsk

(provided by David Redlawsk)

More importantly, people filter information or facts, through their political lens. 

There was a paper released in September that showed some benefit to exposure to fact-checks, but overall when you look at a voting population in a country, it's unlikely that fact-checking efforts make people much smarter or even better informed about politics. 

Sometimes what occurs is a 'backfire effect' — essentially when people are presented with information that debunks falsely held beliefs, some people hold on tighter to those false beliefs.

DJ Flynn

(provided by DJ Flynn)

Flynn cites a researched example on the issue of weapons of mass destruction. The fact is that weapons were never found in Iraq after the United States of America invaded.

But Flynn says the findings showed that "if you provided information correcting the misperception that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction before the U.S invasion, conservatives actually became more confident in the misperception, that is they believed more strongly that weapons were there."

And just before you start scowling at the idiocy of those people, it turns out that reaction is due in part to a term psychologists call "motivated reasoning", a common behaviour most people engage in. 

Motivated reasoning

Skeptical? 

Peter Ditto

(provided by Peter Ditto)

Consider the example offered up by Peter Ditto, professor of psychology at University of California, Irvine. 

"It takes you one doctor to convince you, you're healthy, but it takes you four doctors to convince you you're sick," says Ditto. 

While we would all like to believe that we think like scientists, Ditto says we actually all think like lawyers. In other words, instead of weighing all the information, or facts, we really have a conclusion — often based on values and beliefs — and arrange and ignore facts if they are convenient. 

"Somebody might believe that enhanced interrogation like water boarding is morally acceptable. Other people think it's morally reprehensible. Now there's a separate judgment about whether or not it works — whether or not it produces actual intelligence....but almost everybody who think it's morally wrong thinks it's practically ineffective and everyone who thinks it's morally right think it's practically effective," says Ditto. 

In other words, our values shape our version of the facts.