Home > News > Fact checking may backfire when correcting populist politicians’ lies. But that doesn’t make it pointless.
148 views 9 min 0 Comment

Fact checking may backfire when correcting populist politicians’ lies. But that doesn’t make it pointless.

- September 27, 2017
Marine Le Pen, leader of France’s far-right National Front political party, attends the opening session of the French National Assembly on June 27 in Paris. (Charles Platiau/Reuters)

In 2016, both American and British politicians exploited the political value of “alternative facts” (as Kellyanne Conway, a member of President Trump’s staff, characterized one blatant misrepresentation of reality). While it’s difficult to know whether any individual lie was persuasive, the accumulation of Trump’s repeated use of inflated unemployment and crime numbers may have influenced some voters when they rejected Hillary Clinton. Similarly, the cumulative force of the pro-Brexit campaign’s inflated numbers about the cost of European Union membership may have won some votes. And in close contests, every vote matters.

Today much of the mainstream media are investing in fact-checking politicians’ speeches and programs, believing that falsehood is a threat to democracy — and fact-checking is an important line of defense.

But does fact checking change any minds?

In a new paper, which I wrote jointly with Oscar Barrera from Paris School of Economics and Emeric Henry and Sergei Guriev from Sciences Po, we analyze whether fact checking is effective against populist politicians’ falsehoods.

In short, not really. “Alternative facts” can be very persuasive in persuading citizens to vote for a populist politician. Fact checking does little to undo the effect of such “alternative facts” on citizens voting intentions or policy beliefs.

[interstitial_link url=”https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/monkey-cage/wp/2017/09/26/germanys-far-right-party-afd-won-the-facebook-battle-by-a-lot”]Germany’s far-right party AfD won the Facebook battle. By a lot.[/interstitial_link]

Here’s how we did our research

To ascertain whether fact checking is effective, we carried out an online experiment in the middle of the French 2017 presidential election campaign. One of the major candidates, the populist leader of the extreme-right party Marine Le Pen, relied on falsehoods about the European refugee crisis to promote her anti-immigrant agenda. The experiment was conducted Feb. 20 through March 10, less than two months before the first round of the presidential election. The 2,480 experiment participants were selected at random from the pool of French subscribers of the Qualtrics online platform, with age, gender and education quotas replicating the French voting-age population at large.

[interstitial_link url=”https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/monkey-cage/wp/2017/01/31/yes-there-are-alternative-facts-thats-different-from-falsehoods”]Yes, there are “alternative facts.” That’s different from falsehoods.[/interstitial_link]

Participants were randomly allocated to four equally sized groups. Each group read different statements about refugees.

The first group read some of Le Pen’s factually incorrect statements about immigrants. In these statements, she used fake numbers on the gender composition and employment rate of immigrants to convince the audience that refugees came to France for economic rather than security reasons and, in particular, to exploit France’s generous social welfare system.

The second group read the same Le Pen quotes, along with the facts from the official sources on the same issue, correcting Le Pen’s false numbers.

The third group read only the facts from the official sources without any “alternative facts.” (For the exact texts provided to the participants, see the paper).

The fourth group, the control group, didn’t read any text before taking the survey.

Hearing about refugees triggered anti-immigrant sentiments — whether the numbers given were true or false.

We found that Le Pen’s statements with “alternative facts” were highly persuasive. Regardless of whether Le Pen’s rhetoric was followed by the facts, those who read Le Pen’s statements were 7 percent more likely to say they would vote for her than those in either of the other two groups. Furthermore, even the stand-alone “real facts” backfired: the third group’s members, who read the facts without Le Pen’s statements, were 4 percent more likely to report that they intended to vote for her than the control group.

[interstitial_link url=”https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/monkey-cage/wp/2017/01/26/this-is-why-authoritarian-leaders-use-the-big-lie”]This is why authoritarian leaders use the ‘Big Lie'[/interstitial_link]

It’s not that those who read the real facts failed to retain them. The vast majority of voters in both the fact checking and facts-only groups answered correctly when we tested them on the facts at the end of the experiment. By contrast, voters from the “alternative facts” (with no correction) group often incorrectly guessed the facts. The control group also got the facts about refugees wrong but by a smaller amount.

This result is consistent with other studies in the literature, which show that fact checking does often help reducing misperceptions of voters about policy-relevant information.

But knowing the facts did not translate into supporting immigration. All three “treatment” groups had lower rates of disagreement with Le Pen on immigration policy than did the control group. And those anti-immigrant beliefs made them more likely to say they would vote for Le Pen.

Citizens make up their minds on emotions, not facts

Why? We concluded that, as suggested by a great deal of research, emotions rather than facts drive voting decisions. Simply referring to numbers about immigration — whether true or false — made voters think about the populist politician’s emotionally charged policy conclusions. And those policy conclusions set off emotional reactions. Even the facts alone, without the populist argument, made citizens think about the politician who put emotionally charged arguments about immigration at the center of her program. And when emotions take over, facts become less important.

Fact checking may correct knowledge, but that doesn’t necessarily inform policy conclusions and voting decisions.

Do our results mean that fact checking is pointless?

It is too early to say, at least for two reasons.

First, there are obvious limitations of experimental studies. Voters may behave differently in the real world than in an online experiment. And our study focused on only a single issue — and one on which voters may already have strong opinions that are somewhat impervious to new information.

Second, our evidence suggests only that fact checking is not effective when a charismatic politician competes against technocratic statisticians and/or objective journalists. Voters make decisions not based on numbers alone but on a narrative associated with those numbers. If the falsehoods are challenged by another politician who puts the correct facts in an emotionally persuasive argument, fact checking might be effective.

After all, in the end, Marine Le Pen and her emotional argument against immigration did not win the 2017 French election.

Ekaterina Zhuravskaya is professor of economics at the Paris School of Economics, where her research focuses on political economics and the economics of media and conflict.