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Fact Checking Might Make Politicians More Honest

Political scientists warned politicians to be on their best behavior— and it looks like it worked.
(Photo: Minerva Studio/Shutterstock)

(Photo: Minerva Studio/Shutterstock)

Everyone is entitled to their own opinion, the late Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan once said, but not to their own facts. That observation may have inspired the growing number of fact-checking websites, television segments, and newspaper columns aimed at "keeping them honest," as Anderson Cooper puts it. But does fact checking really change anything? According to recent experiments, it does—knowing that they're being watched by a fact-checking eye may cut politicians' propensity for dishonesty in half.

Distortion and even outright lies are nothing new in politics, but over the years political scientists have learned just how tenacious some of these half-truths can be. Case in point: the continuing belief that Barack Obama is a Muslim. In general, misinformation is notoriously hard to kill—even after retractions—because people are apt to avoid or reject information that goes against what they already believe. In other words, there's not much hope that fact checking helps the average voter.

"Fact-checking's role as a monitor of elite behavior may justify the continued investment of philanthropic and journalistic resources."

But if fact checking doesn't help correct voters' misapprehensions, Brendan Nyhan and Jason Reifler wondered, could it at least keep politicians from planting the seeds of misinformation in the first place?

To find out, Nyhan and Reifler went to the source, so to speak: They sent letters to state legislators in nine states to see if they could get them to be more honest with their constituents. A total of 1,169 politicians were assigned at random to one of three conditions. In the first, the researchers sent three letters in the fall of 2012, reminding legislators of the electoral risks they'd be taking if they chose to dissemble. To control for (the very real) possibility that politicians might change their behavior simply because researchers were watching them, a second group got "placebo" letters announcing that researchers were studying politicians' accuracy, omitting any specific mention of fact checking. A third group received no letters. Afterwards, Nyhan and Reifler tracked legislators' claims and their accuracy using PolitiFact and news accounts to see what effect their letters had.

While the overall likelihood of fact-checkers and other reporters questioning a politician's statements was quite low, the letters Nyhan and Reifler sent seemed to have some impact. PolitiFact and other news media took issue with 2.8 percent of politicians who got the placebo letters or none at all, compared with just 1.3 percent of those who got the fact-checking one. And that's just the effect of sending the letters—Nyhan and Reifler couldn't be sure whether anyone read their correspondence, so the real effect might be larger.

"While fact-checking may be ineffective at changing public opinion, its role as a monitor of elite behavior may justify the continued investment of philanthropic and journalistic resources," Nyhan and Reifler write in the American Journal of Political Science. "Indeed, given the very small numbers of legislators whose accuracy is currently being questioned by fact-checkers or other sources, one could argue that fact-checking should be expanded in the United States so that it can provide more extensive and consistent monitoring."

Quick Studies is an award-winning series that sheds light on new research and discoveries that change the way we look at the world.