New research contradicts claims of a post-truth world

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I’ve written before about how difficult it can be to persuade someone that a false claim is indeed false – and, what’s worse, trying to myth-bust can in fact reinforce their belief in the false statement.

Reassuring news then from the latest research about fake news, as reported by the New York Times:

The four of us decided to evaluate the effectiveness of corrective information in reducing misperceptions during this [US Presidential] election. It has been a deeply polarized campaign in which matters of fact are routinely disputed, so finding an example of misinformation was not difficult. We chose Mr. Trump’s Republican convention speech in July, when he falsely suggested that violent crime in the United States had increased substantially. In reality, although violent crime increased somewhat in 2015 versus 2014, it remains significantly lower than in previous years.

Consistent with other polls, a Morning Consult poll of registered voters that we conducted showed that Americans do indeed tend to believe that crime is rising over time. Among people who weren’t exposed to any new information, 75 percent of Trump supporters said violent crime had increased in the last 10 years, while 18 percent said it had stayed about the same. Misperceptions about crime were less common, though still widespread, among Clinton supporters — 58 percent said crime was up over the last decade, and 23 percent said it was about the same.

More important, we found that correcting Mr. Trump’s message reduced the prevalence of false beliefs about long-term increases in crime. When respondents read a news article about Mr. Trump’s speech that included F.B.I. statistics indicating that crime had “fallen dramatically and consistently over time,” their misperceptions about crime declined compared with those who saw a version of the article that omitted corrective information (though misperceptions persisted among a sizable minority). Specifically, beliefs that crime had increased over the last 10 years declined among both Trump supporters (from 77 percent to 45 percent) and Clinton supporters (from 43 percent to 32 percent)…

Despite all the hand-wringing, we do not seem to have entered a post-truth era.

One comment I’d add about the idea of a pre-post-truth world in the past. Sexism, racism and homophobia, not to mention many flavours of religious bigotry, were for centuries very widely accepted as normal views based on ‘scientific’ research.

It wasn’t an golden age of fact-based behaviour which thought women not up to having the vote, Afro Caribbean men undeserving of their freedom or homosexuals of being abhorrent.

Prejudiced-laced hatred and disinclination to be moved by the truth is not some new phenomena. And hence it is also not something that’s really about technology, or social networking in particular, either.


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