Why inaccurate political information spreads

And why partisanship makes it difficult for people to accept corrections

By Jonathan Ladd, with Alex Podkul

We know that trust in the media is at an all-time low, and that what confidence there is in the press is polarized across party lines. Some pundits have pointed to the decline in trust overall in institutions, but the press appears to be a special case.

Looking closely at the data, we can see that while confidence in the press declined among both parties in the 1980s and 1990s, a large and still growing gap opened between the parties after 2000.

A probable explanation: the fragmentation of the media. Since 1980, news choices have expanded to explicitly conservative and liberal sources on cable and the internet. When people, surveyed with open-ended questions, discussed Fox News Channel or conservative talk radio programs, they contrasted them with “the media” or “the press.” Many people seem to see partisan and conventional media outlets as very different, almost opposites. Liking one goes with disliking the other.

In one study, when participants were asked about their own media, the approval rating was nearly 75 percent, but when they were asked about “the press”…the approval rating dropped to below 40 percent. People like their media, just not the media. Furthermore, a wide swath of the public develops opinions about the news media second- or third-hand, when they hear about it from friends, neighbors, politicians and pundits–not because they consume these news sources themselves.

Such dynamics are repeated when we look at how misinformation spreads. The problem of misinformation didn’t start in the present fragmented media era. False beliefs, conspiracy theories and inaccurate political rumors have spread among the public for all of American history, and possibly all of human history.

[P]eople are more likely to believe a correction if it comes from a source for whom it runs counter to personal and political interests.

But there are certain conditions in our current era that contribute to the spread of misinformation and the difficulty of correcting it. First, when false information spreads, people are more likely to believe a correction if it comes from a source for whom it runs counter to personal and political interests. Second, while some initial studies showing that sometimes corrections can reinforce misperceptions have failed to replicate, it nevertheless is true that offering a simple correction alone rarely works. Finally, even when people accept corrections, other studies show a taint persists — called a “belief echo” — by which the false belief continues to affect attitudes.

These trends are exacerbated as people turn increasingly to social media as a source of news. During the 2016 elections, fake news — that is, false, fabricated stories — spread rapidly on social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter. One study from Oxford University looking at Twitter accounts from Michigan voters in the first 10 days of November 2016 discovered that fake news was the most shared type of political content, finding that “the number of links to junk news alone is roughly equivalent to the number of links to professionally researched journalism.”

In terms of consumers processing these news stories, evidence from the 2016 election demonstrates that the effectiveness of fake news is conditioned on both source credibility and familiarity.

Just as people tend to favor “their” news over “other” news, they were more likely to believe a story if the source was somebody they already agreed with. Trump-supporting Republicans were more likely to believe claims of misinformation when Trump’s name was attached to them than otherwise. Similarly, Democrats were less likely to believe factual information when Trump’s name was attached to it, according to a study published in Royal Society Open Science.

Familiarity plays a role as well: one study showed that, although real news was perceived to be more accurate overall than fake news, familiar fake news had a higher perceived accuracy rating than unfamiliar real news. In other words, if a fake story goes viral on social media — as they often do — people may perceive it as more accurate simply because it’s flashing across their screens so frequently.

Ultimately, America needs more responsible news outlets and more responsible political parties. Both are necessary to clamp down on political misinformation. America’s parties and partisan media outlets need to cut down on the most destructive partisan impulses, whether it is trying to attack and delegitimize the news media or winking and nodding at false news stories that attack their opponents. These things degrade the quality of democracy for everyone.


This piece is adapted from The spread of inaccurate political information in the era of distrusted news media,” part of a white paper series on media and democracy commissioned by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. Read the complete paper and learn more about how information spreads and why polarization contributes to conditions making it difficult to correct falsehoods.

Jonathan Ladd is an associate professor in the McCourt School of Public Policy and the department of government at Georgetown University and a nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. His book, “Why Americans Hate the Media and How It Matters,” won the Goldsmith Book Prize from Harvard University’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy.

Alex Podkul is a Ph.D. candidate in the department of government at Georgetown University.

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