New Study Researches How People Process Political Misinformation and Tries to Shed Light on the Trump Phenomenon


Voters in the U.S. rely heavily on their pre-existing views when deciding if politicians’ statements are true or not, in spite of the objective reporting and fact checking produced by major media outlets. This was the finding of a new study co-authored by MIT scholars.

The study was conducted during the U.S. presidential primaries for the 2016 election. The researchers used a series of statements that were made by Donald Trump to determine how prior beliefs and prejudice interacted with evaluations of objective fact. The researchers looked at statements Trump made, both true and false. They then surveyed voters from both parties and found that for members of both parties, the source of the claim was significant.

One example quoted is when Trump falsely suggested that autism was caused by vaccines. Although scientists reject this claim, Republicans were less likely to believe the claim when it was presented without attribution than they were when the claim was attributed to Trump.

When Trump on the other hand correctly stated the financial cost of the Iraq War, Democrats were more likely to believe it when the claim was presented in unattributed form than they were when the same claim was attributed to Trump.

Adam Berinsky, a professor of political science at MIT and a co-author of the paper commented that it wasn’t just the case that Republicans were less likely to reject misinformation attributed to Trump. When Trump said something that was true, Democrats were less likely to believe it if it was attributed to Trump.

When asked to assign a score on a scale of 0-10, Republicans who were surveyed gave Trump’s false statements an overall collective “belief score” of about 4.5 when those statements were not attributed to him. With attribution, the belief score rose to about 6 out of 10.

On the other hand, Democrats gave Trump’s true statements a belief score of about 6 out of 10 when those statements were attributed to him, but when the statements were unattributed, the collective belief score rose to about 7 out of 10.

The researchers conducted the study by surveyed 1,776 U.S. citizens during the fall of 2015. The participants were presented with four false statements from Trump as well as four true ones.

The researchers corrected the false statements and then asked the respondents if they were less likely to support Trump as a result. They did however find that the candidate’s factual issues were largely immaterial to the respondents’ voting choices.

Berinsky noted that it simply did not affect the support for Trump. Saying things that are factually wrong does not gain him any support, but it does not cost him support either.

Berinsky has published a series of papers on political rumors, facticity, and biased beliefs. In one of his previous papers, he showed that corrections of political rumors tend not to be effective unless the corrections are made by people that support the same political party as the intended audience does. In other words, rumors about Republicans that are popular among Democrats voters are most effectively shot down by other Democrats, and vice versa.

Berinsky believes that solutions to matters of falsehood and truth in the current political climate may need to have a similar partisan structure because of the storm of claims and counterclaims about falsehoods, truth, fake news and more. He explained that the solution to misinformation in a partisan time has to be partisan, because there are simply no authorities that will be recognized by both sides.

The full peer reviewed study was published in the journal Royal Society Open Science.