OnlySky Quick Take

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Disinformation and misinformation have dominated the last few U.S. election seasons, and they will likely present major problems for election officials and campaigns going forward. While both misinformation and disinformation are false information, those spreading misinformation are often misled and don’t know what they are spreading is false. While disinformation is knowingly false and spread deliberately to push the general public in a specific direction. Many media companies have deployed fact-checkers to stop disinformation. But these efforts have limited effects. Research has shown that fact-checking doesn’t actually change most peoples’ inaccurate beliefs.

So why doesn’t fact-checking work?

The failure of fact-checking is largely tied to the way our brains function.

The failure of fact-checking is largely tied to the way our brains function. We too rarely make any attempt to support our beliefs with evidence. Instead, we use motivated reasoning: a term used by psychologists to describe how individuals accept false evidence if it leads to a conclusion that is more emotionally comforting. 

We are also more siloed than ever, with Americans mostly living with and communicating with their co-partisans. Psychologist Julie Beck noted that: “These silos are also no longer geographical, but ideological and thus less diverse. A recent study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that analyzed 376 million Facebook users’ interactions with 900 news outlets reports that “selective exposure drives news consumption.” As Americans consume more partisan media and have limited contact with the other side, this increases the likelihood that they’ll accept disinformation.

The acceptance of disinformation can also become an important part of group membership. Denying the efficacy of vaccines or masks, for instance, goes against known science. But it also has become a marker of being a conservative “in good standing.” That means that people will fight to defend disinformation if the psychological and group membership benefits are greater than the ones received for acknowledging reality. 

Fact-checkers are looking at disinformation from a logical, scientific point of view when that is not how most people view and interpret the world. Most people are looking at the world through an emotional and “moral” lens and asking if the information presented conforms with their worldview. That is why engaging with disinformation on a factual level has little effect on what the general public believes. The best thing that social media and traditional news sites can do is ban disinformation and push it away from the public discourse. By making disinformation harder to find and consume, its impact can be limited. Fact-checking simply doesn’t change many minds. 

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Marcus Johnson

Marcus Johnson is a political commentator and a political science Ph.D. candidate at American University. His primary research focus is the impact of political institutions on the racial wealth gap.