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Fact checking fibbing politicians works, study finds

Sydney, Australia | AFP | Researchers in Australia say that fact checking can reverse the views of even the most dyed-in-the-wool partisans, and over time could cause voters to shun an often-lying candidate.

Scientists from the University of Western Australia, the United States and Britain found that Aussies did change their minds about false statements — even from politicians they support — when corrected.

In findings that offer hope that “post-truth” politicians and a rash of disinformation from state-actors like Russia can be checked, the authors found voters from across the political spectrum would change their minds when presented with facts, and were turned off by persistent lies.

“This study’s findings are encouraging regarding both the potential effectiveness of fact checking and the importance of veracity to voters,” they said.

The study presented 370 Australians with a series of false and true claims from conservative Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Labor leader Bill Shorten and a corresponding fact check for each claim.

Unlike earlier studies, the false claims outnumbered the true, allowing researchers to measures whether a pattern of debunked false claims had a longer-term impact on the politician’s appeal.

The authors found that, while right-wing voters were slightly more likely to believe false claims as a whole, left wing participants were more likely to believe their own side.

But for both sides “corrections strongly reduced myth beliefs” and participants’ support for politicians “did decline” even if participants’ political views did not change.

“It appears that veracity does matter to voters,” they said.

The “results suggest that fact checking could serve as a genuine threat to the electability of politicians who regularly make false statements.”

But there were some notes of caution: In the real world not every lie is fact checked, not everyone sees or seeks out those checks, and false claims could go unchecked for a long time.

And there could be cultural differences from country to country, particularly in places that do not have compulsory voting or in deeply polarised countries like the United States.

“Our results suggest that the impact of politicians’ false statements on the level of support they receive may differ between the USA and Australia,” they said.

Some earlier studies have suggested that misinformation continues to affect memories, beliefs and reasoning even after it had been corrected.

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