A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

‘Optimism’ That Fact-Checking Can Work


The American Press Institute published two new studies that it said are “a cause for optimism that fact checking in journalism can lead to a better-informed public.”

  • One of the studies found that even though false claims on Twitter hugely outnumber attempts to correct them, fact-checkers nevertheless appear to help Twitter debates become “more accurate” over time.
  • Another study found that even though large numbers of Americans confidently believe things that aren’t correct, some of them will shed their misconceptions when exposed to accurate information just once.

These new studies were released by API’s “Fact-Checking Project” just one week after it published three other studies, which we covered in our April 22 item “Fact-Checking Is More Popular than Politicians.” The API is the nonpartisan, nonprofit research and educational affiliate of the Newspaper Association of America.

#TwitterLies

Five years ago we noted that politicians were using Twitter to mislead the public. We dubbed these bogus messages “mis-tweets.” We also regularly use Twitter to spread our own findings about false or misleading political claims, as do other journalistic fact-checkers.

Now a study by political scientist Andrew Guess of Columbia University finds that “tweets correcting falsehoods or pointing to a correction are completely swamped by tweets making or repeating the [false] claim.”

Nevertheless, Guess also found that the relative share of corrective tweets increases as these social-media “frenzies” eventually fizzle. “The role of fact checkers in this process is clear: they provide much of the source material with which Twitter users confront mistaken beliefs,” he wrote. “[T]he messages they promote appear to help make debate on the platform more accurate.”

Confidently Wrong

Another study documented that many Americans not only believe things that aren’t true, but are “very confident” that their false notions are correct.

Emily Thorson, an assistant professor of media and public affairs at George Washington University, used a combination of survey data and personal interviews to probe several commonly held but incorrect perceptions. What she found:

  • U.S. Debt: Over 68 percent of those surveyed believed — wrongly — that China holds the majority of the U.S. government’s debt, and 29 percent said they were “very confident” that this false belief was correct. But any way you measure it, China has never held close to half the debt.
    As of the most recent report by the Treasury Department, China held just over $1.2 trillion in U.S. debt at the end of February, which was only 9.4 percent of all U.S. debt held by the public on that date.
    The fraction is even smaller when measured as a portion of total debt, including money the government owes to itself. That fraction is under 7 percent now, down from 8 percent as of late 2013 when we posted an “Ask FactCheck” item identifying the major holders of U.S. debt. Since then, China has fallen behind Japan as the largest foreign holder of U.S. debt.
  • Welfare: Nearly 52 percent believed — incorrectly — that there isn’t any federal limit on how long a person can receive welfare (TANF) benefits, and 14 percent were “very confident” that their false belief was accurate.
    In fact, TANF stands for “Temporary Assistance for Needy Families.” A five-year time limit was a key provision of the major welfare restructuring act passed in 1996, replacing the old system, which had no time limit. Furthermore, according to the study’s author, many states have imposed even stricter time limits.
  • Social Security: Just over 40 percent said they believed Social Security benefits are paid from some sort of nonexistent “savings account” rather than from “taxes on people who are currently employed.” Over 23 percent were confident they were correct about that. But they all are mistaken.
    In fact, as the National Academy of Social Insurance states: “Social Security is largely a pay-as-you-go program.” As a practical matter, benefits for current beneficiaries are financed primarily by the payroll taxes collected from those currently working. Since 2010, Social Security has been paying out more in benefits than it collects in payroll tax revenue, as we first noted four years ago.
    No money is put into “savings accounts” for individuals. President George W. Bush proposed to allow a portion of those taxes to be put into personal accounts, but his efforts failed in 2005.

This study also tested whether fact-checking could correct these mistaken beliefs, and we found the results somewhat encouraging. About a month after the initial survey, the study gave the correct answers once, “only briefly” and “with no justifying information,” to most of those who had answered incorrectly. And the study found “a significant decrease in misperceptions” in those who were told the correct information.

The API said the two most recent studies “suggest that people’s erroneous beliefs can be changed; and that, with persistence, journalists have the ability to successfully battle bad information in social media.”

It added, “Both findings are a cause for optimism that fact checking in journalism can lead to a better-informed public.”

— Brooks Jackson