The Power of Political Misinformation
Posted: 16 September 2008 12:42 PM
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http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2008/09/14/AR2008091402375.html?sub=AR

    The Power of Political Misinformation
    Monday, 11 a.m. ET: Science: Department of Human Behavior

As the presidential campaign heats up, intense efforts are underway to debunk rumors and misinformation. Nearly all these efforts rest on the assumption that good information is the antidote to misinformation.

But a series of new experiments show that misinformation can exercise a ghostly influence on people’s minds after it has been debunked—even among people who recognize it as misinformation. In some cases, correcting misinformation serves to increase the power of bad information.

In experiments conducted by political scientist John Bullock at Yale University, volunteers were given various items of political misinformation from real life. One group of volunteers was shown a transcript of an ad created by NARAL Pro-Choice America that accused John G. Roberts Jr., President Bush’s nominee to the Supreme Court at the time, of “supporting violent fringe groups and a convicted clinic bomber.”

A variety of psychological experiments have shown that political misinformation primarily works by feeding into people’s preexisting views. People who did not like Roberts to begin with, then, ought to have been most receptive to the damaging allegation, and this is exactly what Bullock found. Democrats were far more likely than Republicans to disapprove of Roberts after hearing the allegation.

Bullock then showed volunteers a refutation of the ad by abortion-rights supporters. He also told the volunteers that the advocacy group had withdrawn the ad. Although 56 percent of Democrats had originally disapproved of Roberts before hearing the misinformation, 80 percent of Democrats disapproved of the Supreme Court nominee afterward. Upon hearing the refutation, Democratic disapproval of Roberts dropped only to 72 percent.

Republican disapproval of Roberts rose after hearing the misinformation but vanished upon hearing the correct information. The damaging charge, in other words, continued to have an effect even after it was debunked among precisely those people predisposed to buy the bad information in the first place.

Bullock found a similar effect when it came to misinformation about abuses at the U.S. detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Volunteers were shown a Newsweek report that suggested a Koran had been flushed down a toilet, followed by a retraction by the magazine. Where 56 percent of Democrats had disapproved of detainee treatment before they were misinformed about the Koran incident, 78 percent disapproved afterward. Upon hearing the refutation, Democratic disapproval dropped back only to 68 percent—showing that misinformation continued to affect the attitudes of Democrats even after they knew the information was false.

Bullock and others have also shown that some refutations can strengthen misinformation, especially among conservatives.

Political scientists Brendan Nyhan and Jason Reifler provided two groups of volunteers with the Bush administration’s prewar claims that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. One group was given a refutation—the comprehensive 2004 Duelfer report that concluded that Iraq did not have weapons of mass destruction before the United States invaded in 2003. Thirty-four percent of conservatives told only about the Bush administration’s claims thought Iraq had hidden or destroyed its weapons before the U.S. invasion, but 64 percent of conservatives who heard both claim and refutation thought that Iraq really did have the weapons. The refutation, in other words, made the misinformation worse.

A similar “backfire effect” also influenced conservatives told about Bush administration assertions that tax cuts increase federal revenue. One group was offered a refutation by prominent economists that included current and former Bush administration officials. About 35 percent of conservatives told about the Bush claim believed it; 67 percent of those provided with both assertion and refutation believed that tax cuts increase revenue.

article continues:  http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2008/09/14/AR2008091402375.html?sub=AR

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Posted: 16 September 2008 05:32 PM   [ # 1 ]
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Of course, what the study shows is that if you don’t refute the false information, then even more people will believe in it than if you do refute it.  So you might as well point out where things are wrong, unless you actually want people to be mistaken.

Or you could just shoot everyone who disagrees with you, and that way you’ll have your refutation result in 0% of the survivors believing or being negatively influenced by the information.

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