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Matter of Fact: Measuring How Much People Care About the Truth in Politics

Blocks spelling out 'Fake' or 'Fact'

Research has shown that Americans are rarely swayed by the clarifying information provided by fact-checkers when assessing political candidates or issues. A new study by AU School of Public Affairs (SPA) Professor David Barker, however, finds that such appraisals of truthfulness can make a difference to certain voters––specifically those who are comparing candidates within a given party, over time. 

Barker––with Danielle Joesten Martin and Kim Nalder, his former colleagues at California State University-Sacramento––recently published the article “Aggregated Fact-Checks, Partisanship, and Perceptions of Candidate Honesty” in the Journal of Elections, Public Opinion and Parties (JEPOP).

Little research had considered the specific characteristics that may condition voters’ willingness to be persuaded by fact-checkers. To address this deficit, Barker, Martin, and Nalder used survey data collected just before the 2016 California Democratic presidential primary to determine the persuasive impact of an infographic, based on fact-checks performed by Politifact over time, comparing candidates’ factual accuracy.  

The researchers discovered that the summary information did not alter inter-partisan candidate appraisals (by Republicans or undecided voters), but it did affect Democratic primary voters, indicating an intra-partisan effect.

The treatment (learning about the relative truthfulness of the candidates) appeared to significantly change perceptions of Hillary Clinton among Bernie Sanders’ supporters, in the face of pre-existing perceptions. When viewing the infographic presenting objective facts, Sanders’ supporters considered Clinton to be more trustworthy. 

These results suggest that aggregated (rather than atomized, or single-instance) fact-checking information might influence voters’ impressions of candidates.  When considered as a progression on his book One Nation, Two Realities: Dueling Facts in American Democracy, published in April by Oxford University Press, Barker said, the paper’s findings were encouraging. 

“These results add some clarity regarding the conditions under which fact-checking can influence voter decision-making,” Barker wrote.

This aggregated fact-checking infographic, with its consistent pattern of evidence over time, may be harder for news consumers to dismiss—at least in situations that aren’t partisan and among voters who tend to distrust mainstream media. Barker noted that Democrats are disproportionately “open,” psychologically speaking, which might mean that they are more willing to consider evidence that seems to contradict their points of view. 

Barker cautioned that the study should be replicated nationally or tested in another setting before any firm conclusions are drawn. In the future, he would like to examine, for instance, the influence of fact-checking by Fox News in a Republican nominating contest, to see if the effect would mimic the findings of this analysis of the California Democratic primary. 

“If we can document more broadly this idea of intra-partisan comparisons, that offers a glimmer of hope or promise,” Barker said. “I’m interested in the problem of misinformation or what some people refer to as a ‘post-truth political environment’ and what that means for our ability to function as a democracy.”