The importance of fact-checking in a post-truth world

Oxford Dictionaries’ International Word of the Year for 2016 was “post-truth,” defined as “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.” Use of the word in English language text spiked 2,000 percent in 2016 compared to the previous year. Oxford said in its news release that the spike was driven “by the rise of social media as a news source, and a growing distrust of facts offered up by the establishment.”

Numerous scientific studies have confirmed what is obvious to anyone who has discussed politics with a committed partisan: facts rarely matter to an ideologue who has made up his or her mind.

Most of us are familiar with the concept of cognitive bias, where people seek only information that confirms their preconceived opinions. Even when shown neutral news coverage of a political issue, partisans are likely to view the coverage as biased and hostile to their viewpoint, choosing to focus their attention on the parts of the story that don’t conform to their way of thinking. In the same way that a sports fan evaluates a referee’s call, based upon which team the call favors, political activists will reject factual evidence that casts doubt on the claims of their party’s leaders.

Politicians are notorious for telling voters what they want to hear. This is because the most partisan political activists simply are not persuaded by the facts. Social psychologist Jonathan Haidt puts it this way: “If you ask people to believe something that violates their intuitions, they will devote their efforts to finding an escape hatch — a reason to doubt your argument or conclusions.”

This is the problem facing fact-checking organizations today. The audience that most needs to hear the fact-checkers’ conclusions — the ideological partisans — often are the people least likely to believe them.

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