Belief Echoes: The Persistent Effects of Corrected Misinformation

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Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)
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belief echoes
Political Science
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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--does not eliminate the effects of misinformation on attitudes. These lingering attitudinal effects, which I call "belief echoes," are created even when the misinformation is corrected immediately, arguably the gold standard of journalistic fact-checking. Belief echoes can be affective or cognitive. 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, on the other hand, 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. Experimental results suggest that while affective belief echoes are created across party lines, cognitive belief echoes are more likely when a piece of misinformation reinforces a person's pre-existing political views. The existence of belief echoes provide an enormous incentive for politicians to strategically spread false information with the goal of shaping public opinion on key issues. However, results from two more experiments show that politicians also suffer consequences for making false claims, an encouraging finding that has the potential to constrain the behavior of politicians presented with the opportunity to strategically create belief echoes. While the existence of belief echoes may also provide a disincentive for the media to engage in serious fact-checking, evidence also suggests that such efforts can also have positive consequences by increasing citizens' trust in media.

Diana Mutz
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