Fact Checks Curtail Misinformation Beliefs

A comparative, cross-country study led by SMPA’s Ethan Porter is among the first to examine how fact-checking can be an effective tool in combatting false claims.

Ethan Porter
Assistant Professor of Media and Public Affairs Ethan Porter
September 08, 2021

Fact-checking reduces belief in misinformation and leaves a more enduring mental imprint than false claims, according to a new study co-authored by Assistant Professor of Media and Public Affairs Ethan Porter.

The study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, shows fact-checking is an effective tool to combat misinformation across countries, cultures and political environments.

“While previous research has shown that factual corrections reduce false beliefs, even on politically charged topics, we’ve had precious little evidence about how fact checks work globally,” Porter said. “This study makes clear that fact checks can reduce false beliefs against misinformation around the world, and that the reductions persist for some time.”

Porter, who is also affiliated with the Columbian College’s Institute for Data, Democracy and Politics (IDDP), and Thomas Wood, a political science professor at the Ohio State University, examined 22 fact checks conducted simultaneously in Argentina, Nigeria, South Africa and the United Kingdom in September and October 2020. The research team partnered with fact-checking organizations operating in the countries where the experiments took place, with participants randomly assigned to see fact checks and then queried about their factual beliefs. The researchers investigated a broad array of topics, including COVID-19, local politics, crime and the economy. According to the study, fact checks significantly reduced belief in the false claims, while exposure to misinformation only minimally increased belief in the falsehoods.

Survey participants who were presented with fact checks often retained factual information for some time. Participants were still affected by the facts originally presented to them approximately two weeks after taking part in the initial experiment. Fact-checking generally increased accurate beliefs regardless of political affiliation, a trend that held firm even if the misinformation topic was politically salient. For example, fact checks about the COVID-19 pandemic and climate change increased accuracy in all countries.

“Throughout the pandemic we saw bad information put lives at risk,” said Will Moy, chief executive of Full Fact, a U.K.-based independent fact-checking organization that participated in the study. “This study shows the difference fact-checkers can make. Thanks to their work around the world, more people are able to recognize false claims and make informed decisions about their own health and communities.”

While the deliberate spread of false information is a global problem, most studies measuring the effectiveness of fact-checking focus on single-country experiments. By carrying out simultaneous experiments in four countries located in three continents, this study demonstrated that fact-checking is also a potent tool against misinformation in countries with different political issues, economic situations and ethnic compositions.

In addition to the U.K.’s  Full Fact, the study’s other fact-checking organizations include Africa Check (Nigeria and South Africa) and Chequeando (Argentina). Fieldwork and data collection were handled by Ipsos MORI and YouGov. The study was initiated by Full Fact with funding from IDDP and the international philanthropic organization Luminate.