Emily A. Thorson

CV Research About

The Consequences of Misinformation and Corrections

Committee: Diana Mutz (chair), Joseph Cappella, Michael X Delli Carpini, Marc Meredith

My dissertation is comprised of three separate but closely related papers examining how exposure to misinformation and corrections affects citizens' attitudes.

1. The Persistent Effects of Successfully Corrected Misinformation

The omnipresence of political misinformation in the today’s media environment raises serious concerns about citizens’ ability make fully informed decisions. In response to these concerns, the last few years have seen a renewed commitment to journalistic and institutional fact-checking. The assumption of these efforts is that successfully correcting misinformation will prevent it from affecting citizens’ attitudes. However, through a series of experiments, I find that exposure to a piece of negative political information persists in shaping attitudes even after the information has been successfully discredited. A correction—even when it is fully believed—only reduces the attitudinal effects of exposure to negative information by roughly half. I call these lingering attitudinal effects “belief echoes.” In addition to affecting evaluations, the results also show that exposure to corrected misinformation affects perceptions of candidate viability.

Click on the image above to watch me present my work on belief echoes at a conference on September 26th, 2012, sponsored by the Annenberg Public Policy Center. The conference, entitled The Role of Journalism in Debunking Deceptions and Holding Campaigns Accountable, was broadcast on C-SPAN2.

2. The Creation of Belief Echoes

This paper argues that belief echoes can be created through either an affective or cognitive process. Affective belief echoes are created through a largely unconscious process in which a piece of negative information has a stronger impact on evaluations than does its correction. Cognitive belief echoes are created through a conscious cognitive process during which a person recognizes that a particular negative claim about a candidate is false, but reasons that its presence increases the likelihood of other negative information being true. I present experimental evidence that tests for the existence of cognitive and affective belief echoes, focusing on the conditions that have real-world effects. I find that affective belief echoes are created across party lines. Cognitive belief echoes, however, are more likely when a piece of misinformation reinforces a person’s pre-existing political views. of journalistic fact-checking. Instead, my experiments suggest that belief echoes are created by the spontaneous affective response generated by a piece of negative information—an affective response that continues to affect attitudes even if the misinformation is corrected immediately.

3. The Consequences of Misinformation and Fact-Checking

In this paper, I examine the real-world consequences of correcting misinformation for three separate groups: citizens, the press, and politicians. First, I speak directly to the current debate in journalism over how the media should respond to false claims made by political actors. Over the past few years, three separate approaches have been advocated: reliance on external institutions such as fact-checking organizations, a renewed commitment to fact-checking by journalists themselves, and a “he-said/she-said” approach that gives a voice to both sides of factual disputes rather than arbitrating between them. I find that while the first two approaches are equally effective at correcting misperceptions, the third largely fails. Even when the evidence demonstrating that a claim is false is identical, it is less effective when it comes from a candidate. This holds true even when the candidate is of a person’s own party. Second, I examine how reading corrections affects citizens’ trust in media, and find that they increase trust in the media outlet that published the correction but decrease trust in media more generally. Finally, I find that politicians are only minimally punished for making false claims.