Political misinformation is harder to correct than health misinformation – especially among the educated

New research indicates that corrections have a moderate influence on belief in misinformation. The findings are published in the journal Communication Monographs.

“The alarming growth of misinformation and the limited repercussions for non-institutional actors for knowingly or unknowingly misleading the public turned misinformation and its correction to one of the most pressing issues in the social sciences,” said study author Nathan Walter, a Ph.D. Candidate in the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism at the University of Southern California.

“As communication scholars, correction of misinformation offers an extremely challenging context to examine the limits of media effects and persuasion. Unlike other areas of research that deal with the ability of messages to shape or reinforce public perceptions, this study examines the ability of messages to attenuate the influence of incorrect information.”

For their study, the researchers conducted a meta-analysis of 65 previous studies on correcting misinformation about science, health, politics, marketing, and crime. The previous studies included a total of 23,604 participants.

Walter found evidence that corrections had a moderate effect on counteracting misinformation. However, misinformation about politics was harder to correct than misinformation about health, particularly among participants who were well-educated political partisans.

“We think that there are two ways to interpret the results. Optimistically speaking, while it is true that corrections can prove to be ineffective, or even counterproductive, most often, they work,” Walter told PsyPost.

“In particular, studies were very successful in correcting misinformation in the context of crime news and health information, in laboratory settings, when the effect of the correction was measured immediately after the intervention.”

“Realistically speaking, however, the results are also somewhat alarming because scientific and political misinformation is much harder to debunk, interventions outside the laboratory tend to produce weak effects and, as time passes, people seem to forget about the correction and remember the misinformation,” Walter explained. “Thus, it seems that the study offers enough ammunition both for the optimistic and the pessimistic points of view on correction of misinformation.​”

Appeals to coherence tended to be best at correcting misinformation, compared to fact-checking and source credibility. In other words, providing alternative explanations that were internally coherent was more successful than providing ratings of the accuracy of specific statements or highlighting the credentials of a source.

But the study — like all research — has some limitations.

“​Meta-analyses provide useful information at the aggregate level but they lack nuance. For instance, we still need to work on understanding the underlying mechanisms that explain the power of misinformation and its imperviousness to correction,” Walter said.

“In addition, the current study is Western-centric, focusing on correction of misinformation mainly in the U.S. context, while neglecting the fact that misinformation is a truly global and culturally bound phenomenon.”

“Finally, while the decision to focus on experimental designs helped us to assess the causal influence of corrective messages on misinformation, it also limited the scope of studies in our corpus. Given the centrality of various social media platforms to the spread of misinformation, it would be interesting to examine whether corrective messages can reduce misleading information in naturalistic settings,” Walter said.

“It is important to emphasize that this meta-analysis is meant to be read as an interim summary rather than as a definitive statement about correction of misinformation. There is much more research to be done on this topic, involving different contexts, diverse populations, and new methodologies.”

The study, “How to unring the bell: A meta-analytic approach to correction of misinformation“, was authored by Nathan Walter and Sheila T. Murphy.