Fact-checking Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton might be backfiring

Fact-checking politicians claims may be backfiring, because research finds supporters of Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton are unlikely to be swayed at this point in the race.
(Image credit: Ross Kinnaird/Getty Images)

Does being told that Hillary Clinton lied when she claimed she landed under sniper fire in Bosnia make you bristle? When people point out that Donald Trump's assertion that Clinton "doesn't do very well with women" is ridiculously incorrect, do you want to prove them wrong? Then you might be guilty of falling under what political scientists call "the backfire effect."

Two such political scientists, Brendan Nyhan and Jason Reifler, put in the time to prove that once someone believes a false statement, trying to show them said statement isn't actually true is incredibly difficult. Nyhan and Reifler's research found that sometimes fact-checking can even make a person more sure of the false statement in question. This is particularly important during election seasons, when supporters of any given candidate have "a tendency to counterargue," as FiveThirtyEight explains. "They draw on the available considerations, malign the source of unwelcome information, and generate ways to buttress the position they are motivated to take. As a result, they can end up becoming surer of their misconceptions," Nyhan said.

In the case of the 2016 race, this is even more likely because "motivated reasoning" flourishes in environments of mistrust — and supporters in both parties have plenty of that. "These are the two most dislikable candidates ever to run — so the temperature is turned up. People on the left say that Trump is a moral abomination and he lies all the time, and you can take these things and imagine someone on the right saying them about Clinton," said Peter Ditto, a psychologist at University of California at Irvine.

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In conclusion, there might be nothing at all you can do to change your uncle's mind about Trump (or your cousin's about Clinton). But if you still want to give it a try, learn about what you're up against at FiveThirtyEight.

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Jeva Lange

Jeva Lange was the executive editor at TheWeek.com. She formerly served as The Week's deputy editor and culture critic. She is also a contributor to Screen Slate, and her writing has appeared in The New York Daily News, The Awl, Vice, and Gothamist, among other publications. Jeva lives in New York City. Follow her on Twitter.