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Disinfo Wars: Part II

We live in a golden age of professional fact-checking. Unfortunately, we also live in a golden age of political lying.

Words: Sam Ratner

This analysis was featured in Critical State, a weekly newsletter from Inkstick Media and The World. Subscribe here.

Last week, Critical State looked at new research on whether “disinformation” — in the form of elite rhetoric — actually moves the needle on people’s understanding of their political world. This week, Critical State delves into research on people who insist that we are all under threat from the lies politicians tell in the course of their work and that the only way to combat that threat is by interjecting at every turn to say “well, actually.”

We are in a golden age for professional fact-checkers, with researchers working overtime at the Washington Post, CNN, and elsewhere to expose every made-up statistic or erroneous accusation that passes US political leaders’ lips. Yet, according to those same fact-checkers, despite all that checking we also live in a golden age of political lying.

Social scientists Alexander Bor, Mathias Osmundsen, Stig Rasmussen, Anja Bechmann, and Michael Petersen begin to investigate that paradox in a new working paper. They look at a particular subset of fact-checkers — organizations that make snazzily-produced videos urging viewers to improve their media literacy to avoid being taken in by disinformation. Their research approach was simple but effective: They gathered six of the best of those videos, and randomly assigned them to 1,600 Twitter-using respondents. Then they asked the respondents to tell truth from fiction to see how well the videos worked.

Disinformation serves as a tool for people to achieve discrete political goals — some of which their neighbors would like to believe are merely the result of mass delusion.

The results, of course, depend on your definition of “worked.” The videos did make people better at sorting factual claims and compelling lies. In fact, watching the videos had about as much an effect on what the researchers called a respondent’s “truth discernment score” as whether the respondents had graduated from college. Those saddled with student debt may not appreciate those apples, but for fact-checking advocates, it’s a very positive result.

If you think that improved self-knowledge translates to a change in behavior around disinformation, however, think again. Bor et al. tracked the respondents’ Twitter behavior after showing them the videos and measured the amount of disinformation the respondents shared in the three months before and nine weeks after the study. The people who had seen the videos — the same ones who improved their ability to discern truth — shared 55% more disinformation in the weeks after seeing the videos than the researchers predicted based on what they’d shared beforehand. That measure is statistically noisy due to the high variation in people’s Twitter behavior, but the upshot is this: There was no evidence that watching fact-checking videos actually made people less likely to spread disinformation.

That result, the authors suggest, calls into question the idea that disinformation sharing and truth discernment are particularly related. Within the study sample, Bor et al. found no significant correlation between truth discernment score and disinformation sharing. Instead, they found that age was the number one predictor of sharing disinformation on Twitter — older people are hugely more likely to post disinformation than younger people. That was true despite the fact that there is no age distinction whatsoever in truth discernment scores. Older people are just as able to tell truth from fiction as younger people, but it apparently has no effect on their willingness to spread false information.

Former President Barack Obama last week said, “If we do not have the capacity to distinguish what’s true from what’s false, then by definition the marketplace of ideas doesn’t work.” Yet, as the Bor et al. results show, it seems unlikely that we are in a true “epistemological crisis” where people of different political stripes are living in distinct realities. Instead, disinformation serves as a tool for people to achieve discrete political goals — some of which their neighbors would like to believe are merely the result of mass delusion.

Sam Ratner


Sam Ratner is a contributing editor at Zitamar News, where he covers southeast African security issues, and a founding editor of Fellow Travelers Blog. He earned his MPA in international security policy from Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs. He tweets at @samratner.


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