Reading lots of partisan news online makes you more likely to hold inaccurate beliefs even if you are aware of the prevailing evidence, according to a study published this month in the Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication.
The study was conducted ahead of the 2012 presidential election with support from the National Science Foundation. The researchers had a polling firm ask a representative sample of 1,004 Americans whether they were aware of experts’ conclusions on four political misconceptions, whether they believed them and which online news outlets they consumed.
The outlets described by the study to respondents as favoring liberal positions included MSNBC, Daily Kos, The New York Times and The Huffington Post. Those favoring conservative positions included The Wall Street Journal, Fox News and Drudge Report.
The result? Frequent conservative online news consumers had a 33 percent chance of being wrong about President Obama’s birth certificate despite knowing what most journalists had concluded about it. Only 3 percent of those not reading conservative news held that same belief.
Conversely, a frequent liberal online news user had a 10 percent chance of being wrong about Mitt Romney outsourcing jobs during his tenure at Bain even though they correctly indicated what fact-checkers findings were.
The study’s authors note that a limitation of their research is a dependence on self-reported data; respondents may well be overestimating their news consumption. Proximity to the 2012 elections may have also heightened what a previous study has called “partisan cheerleading” in factual responses.
Nonetheless, the study’s conclusion that there may be a relationship between partisan media use and political misconceptions is one that should be taken seriously.
The study will no doubt find its way into think pieces declaring (again) the dawn of a “post-fact” era. Yet it is worth noting again that the study was conducted years before the Brexit referendum and Trump nomination usually accused of precipitating this situation.
If the spread of misconceptions is worsened by partisan news consumption, a more balanced media diet could provide one way out of the tunnel. For one, frequent users of conservative news outlets were more likely to believe the correct information about Romney’s outsourcing record than any other group.
This ties with a research paper published in 2013 noting that readers may trust corrections originating from sources that do not ideologically benefit from the fact check more than others. So a New York Times correction of Hillary Clinton and a Fox News correction of Donald Trump would yield stronger results than the reverse.
Pushing partisan outlets to fact-check all sides of the debate may sound like a futile effort. Yet this hypothetical own-team fact-checking has happened in this election, if rarely.
A final note: Concerns about large swathes of the population holding political misconceptions ought to be placed in context. That so many voters hold misconceptions on widely debunked claims is not indissolubly linked to Trump, Nigel Farage or any other bugbear of the post-facters: The study also notes that only 75 percent of Americans are certain that the Earth revolves around the Sun, a topic not (yet) victimized by lying politicians.
Fact-checking and debunking should be seen as a battle to reduce the presence of misperceptions rather than through a futile black-and-white prism that expects the elimination of all falsehoods from the public sphere.
Media watchers have long theorized that partisan echo chambers are not beneficial for public understanding of the facts. The study seems to indicate they may be onto something.