There is rarely a day that goes by when the following cry isn’t heard: ‘Voters are woefully misinformed on this issue, we need to educate them and dispel these myths!’ If you assumed I was referring to social security, immigration, public spending cuts or a host of other issues, you’d be right – a variation of this plea is ubiquitous cry across the left, usually with good reason.
It is also, almost certainly, a futile exercise; myth-busting or fact-checking rarely work. Worse, some hardened activists say that such an approach can be counter-productive to whatever cause they are trying to promote.
There are several reasons for this, and it’s important for us to find new ways of reaching out to the public if we want to convince them.
Firstly, the impact of fact-checking is usually very limited to some media commentators and those actively looking to get informed. This is mostly because they’re limited to a few websites or perhaps a leftwing newspaper. That alone isn’t enough.
Our brains rarely absorb ideas and facts in one instance: they have to be repeatedly hammered to stick. But, of course, newspapers aren’t going to continually run fact-checks on common myths around an issue. Plus, to state the obvious, leftwing newspapers and media don’t have the wide circulation that rightwing media does.
Rightwing newspapers are very good at hammering the same narrative with small variations: just take immigration or the ‘welfare scroungers’ coverage as an example.
Secondly, our brains are usually terrible at remembering numbers and facts, let alone the analytical arguments that follow. We are much more likely to remember/prefer personal stories that invoke emotion or a personal connection.
This means that even if a reader is exposed to two completely opposing articles: one with an anecdote of a person abusing the social security system, and another fact-checking the initial piece, they are still more likely to remember the former than the fact-checking. So we already start off at a disadvantage.
The third disadvantage we start off from is that accusing others of not knowing the facts – by pointing them at myth-busting articles – can easily come across as an insult. It is implying that they are stupid or ignorant in one way. And whether we like it or not, that impression makes it much less likely that they will want to pay attention and listen to us.
For many of us on the left, these are all significant and practical problems. We may invest a lot in fact-checking but if it is not having much of an impact then it may very well be a waste of time.
During the presidential campaign in 2008, President Obama had a similar problem: he was constantly accused of being a secret Muslim. To compound that problem, his campaign found (via testing) that refuting that statement: ‘Barack Obama is not a practicing Muslim’ – simply reinforced the initial lie in people’s minds because the main points they remembered were ‘Obama’ and ‘Muslim’. Instead, the campaign decided to counteract with an affirmative message: ‘No, President Obama is a practising Christian’ (put aside the implication that being a Muslim is bad in itself, for now).
This isn’t to say that fact-checking is not important at all, but I think it’s safe to say that the impact is limited.
A much more productive approach may be to try and disrupt the initial conversation: by using extreme examples as a way to highlight an issue, or perhaps by focusing on personal stories. If we don’t test and evaluate the success of our own efforts then we fail to accept why so many people don’t necessarily subscribe to leftwing views.