The most troubling technological threat to civil, informed political discourse can be summed up in three words:
You’ve got mail.
A newly published study of Internet usage and political knowledge assuages one set of fears but raises another. R. Kelly Garrett of the Ohio State University School of Communication reports obtaining information from websites and blogs does not make people more likely to believe false rumors about prominent political figures.
However, those inaccurate, often malicious reports are spreading — and gaining unwarranted credibility — through the medium of e-mail. Compared to those mentioned on websites, “rumors e-mailed to friends and family are more likely believed and shared with others,” Garrett writes in the journal Human Communications Research.
“Although most individuals do not thoughtlessly forward every rumor they encounter online, they are prone to spread falsehoods that strike them as plausible and that are consistent with their political predispositions,” he writes, adding “this practice rapidly and repeatedly reinforces political biases.”
In other words, if you read online that President Obama is a Muslim, it probably won’t have much of an impact. But if you receive the same misinformation in an e-mail from a trusted pal, there’s a better chance you’ll take it seriously. That disturbing dynamic, in Garrett’s words, “may pose significant challenges to the democratic process.”
Garrett collected information from 600 Americans chosen at random between Nov. 6 and Nov. 20, 2008 — the weeks just after the presidential campaign. They were asked whether they had heard or read 10 specific rumors (eight false, two true) about the two major-party candidates.
“If respondents were familiar with a rumor, they were also asked whether they had encountered any information indicating that the statement was false, and what they believed the truth to be,” Garrett writes. Finally, they were asked about the sources they use to receive news, including traditional news websites, partisan blogs and personal e-mail.
Garrett found both exposure to, and belief in, the false rumors was generally low. Those who used the Internet for political information were more likely to have heard or read them. But they were also more likely to have come across a rebuttal, making the net effect of this exposure on belief very small.
“The Web promotes rumor circulation by virtue of the enormous reach of its online outlets, but it is not increasing credulity on the part of the public,” he writes.
However, politically minded e-mail contact between individuals did promote beliefs in false rumors, in part because the recipients were unlikely to also receive contradictory communications.
“E-mail rumoring appears to function as a reinforcing spiral,” he writes. “The more political e-mails that individuals received during the 2008 election, the more rumors they were likely to believe; and the more rumors individuals believed, the more political e-mails they sent.”
This dynamic threatens “to intensify partisan divisions and promote political extremity as individuals’ perception of what constitutes ‘fact’ increasingly reflects their political dispositions,” he adds.
Garrett reports the impact of this spiral is “modest to date,” but he fears it will not remain so. “The risk is that the more people come to rely on [social] networks for political information, the faster rumors will spread, and the more influence attitudinal biases will have on political beliefs,” he writes.
Whatever their faults, professional journalists have the ability and inclination to check out stories for their veracity — even those they might like to be true. If we increasingly get political information from e-mail correspondents and Facebook friends who can't or won't distinguish truth from fiction, we’re all in trouble. Spread the word.