Tuesday, May 15, 2012
4:00 pm

Ulric B. and Evelyn L. Bray Seminar in Political Economy

Rumor, Truths, and Reality: A Study of Political Misinformation
Adam Berinsky, Associate Professor of Political Science, Massachusetts Institute of Technology
This paper represents a preliminary investigation into two critical questions relating to political rumors: who believes them, and what can be done to correct false information in a democratic society?

I report the results of a series of experiments which employ strategies to counter rumors. I focus on rumors surrounding the health care reforms enacted by Congress in 2010, in particular the notion that the reforms creates “death panels” which have the authority to determine whether or not a gravely ill or injured person should receive medical treatment. I find that effectively countering rumors is a difficult task. There is no proven method to correct mistaken political beliefs. Rumors tend to be sticky and merely repeating a rumor – even in the context of debunking that mistruth – increases its power. For instance, I find that mentioning the possibility of “death panels” increased the uncertainty in subjects’ belief in the existence of such panels even if the rumor was immediately discredited. These beliefs, in turn, decreased support for health reform. Thus, the attempt to correct a mistruth may only lead to a widespread confusion regarding its factual accuracy. Some strategies may, however, prove effective. Countering a rumor with statements from an unlikely source can, under the right circumstances, increase the willingness of all citizens to reject rumors regardless of their own political predilections. Specifically, I find that contrasting the death panel rumor with a counterargument from a Republican politician increased rates of rumor rejection for both Democrats and Republicans.

Link to paper: http://web.mit.edu/berinsky/www/files/rumor.pdf

Contact Edith Quintanilla edith@hss.caltech.edu at Ext. 3829
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