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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Fact-Checking Is Useless

Well, okay, they’re not actually saying that it’s useless. Just potentially counter-productive.

An article last September pointed to cognitive science research showing that debunking myths can have the effect of reinforcing the very myths you’re trying to refute. That’s because the human brain is hardwired with a lot of shortcuts. One of those shortcuts: Over time, we tend to forget the “not” part of a claim while retaining the rest. So “Iraq did not have weapons of mass destruction” becomes “Iraq had WMDs.”

Now, in a new article published yesterday, the Post warns again that correcting misinformation can actually strengthen beliefs in false claims, especially among those whose worldviews already incline them to believe the false information. So, for instance, debunking rumors about Sarah Palin can actually have a “backfire effect” that makes those who didn’t like Palin to start with more likely to believe that the rumors are true.

Those findings seem to be borne out in the presidential campaign. A Slate article published on Sept. 12 (which, incidentally, prominently features FactCheck.org and our colleagues at PolitiFact.com and the Post’s Fact Checker) backs up those findings, making the statement that even after he has released a string of deceptive, misleading and outright false claims, voters still see John McCain as more “honest and trustworthy” than Obama.

We take no position on which candidate is “most honest.” Brooks Jackson, FactCheck.org’s director, told Slate that we “have no objective way of measuring the degree of mendacity in any political statement, let alone in any campaign.” We have been happy to note that both campaigns have altered some of their false claims after we and others in the media pointed out their falseness. And we’ve been dismayed to note both campaigns continuing to use false or misleading claims long after we called them on it. We’re even more dismayed at the barrage of e-mail we receive from people who continue to believe claims that we’ve long since debunked.

But not so dismayed that we’re giving up the good fight. As we wrote last year in response to that very first WaPo article:

FactCheck.org, Oct. 17, 2007: Humans are not helpless automatons in the face of massive propaganda. We may initially believe whatever we hear, but we are fully capable of evaluating and rejecting beliefs that turn out not to be accurate. Our brains don’t do this naturally; maintaining a healthy skeptical attitude requires some conscious effort on our part. It also requires a basic understanding of logic – and it requires accurate information. That’s where this Web site comes in.

Read our full report on “Cognitive Science and FactCheck.org.” Meanwhile, we’ll (still) continue to bring you the facts. And you can keep on using them wisely.