Donald Trump

How Trump's Big Lie Technique Works—"Belief Echoes" from Disinformation

Politicians have an enormous incentive to "strategically spread false information" otherwise known as "lie."


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Boston University political scientist Emily Thorson has published a new article, "Belief Echoes: The Persistent Effects of Corrected Misinformation" in the journal Political Communication. The article appears to be based on the research she did for her dissertation. From the dissertation abstract:

The omnipresence of political misinformation in the today's media environment raises serious concerns about citizens' ability make fully informed decisions. In response to these concerns, the last few years have seen a renewed commitment to journalistic and institutional fact-checking. The assumption of these efforts is that successfully correcting misinformation will prevent it from affecting citizens' attitudes. However, through a series of experiments, I find that exposure to a piece of negative political information persists in shaping attitudes even after the information has been successfully discredited. A correction—even when it is fully believed—does not eliminate the effects of misinformation on attitudes. These lingering attitudinal effects, which I call "belief echoes," are created even when the misinformation is corrected immediately, arguably the gold standard of journalistic fact-checking. …

The existence of belief echoes provide an enormous incentive for politicians to strategically spread false information with the goal of shaping public opinion on key issues.

Translation: Strategically spread false information = lie.

Sunday's Washington Post published a fascinating (and frustrating) op-ed by Professor Thorson about belief echoes and how to handle them in political discourse. From the op-ed:

Belief echoes can arise through several processes. First, if the misinformation is vivid and emotionally affecting, it has a strong initial effect on attitudes. In contrast, the correction has a much smaller emotional impact….

The second process through which misinformation creates belief echoes is driven by our brains' instinct to create plausible causal narratives. In the few seconds after participants read about the accusation, their minds automatically went to work recalling facts that matched that narrative … After they learned that the misinformation was false, those memories remained, and they could continue to affect attitudes.

Her advice on how to handle Trump and his lies?

The existence of belief echoes means that if we want to minimize the impact of misinformation on attitudes, it is critical not to repeat it. Sometimes this might be unavoidable — for instance, fact-checking sites need to repeat the original statement in order to correct it. But when we spread a correction, whether it's through tweeting or conversation, we should do our best to avoid repeating the false information.

So, as frustrated as we might be when Donald Trump makes things up on the campaign trail, the best advice may be to deal with him the same way we're told to deal with bees, small children throwing tantrums and Internet trolls: Just ignore him.

Believe me, I am trying my best to ignore the lying SOB. For example, when the organizers of FreedomFest ill-advisedly invited Trump to speak at their event in July, I walked out of the room. To his credit, my colleague Matt Welch had a stronger stomach; see his "The Idiocracy Candidate" for an accurate summation of Trump's expostulations.

Or perhaps better yet, take Thorson's advice and just move on whenever Trump is mentioned. (I am not saying that other politicians don't lie; of course they do. It's just that Trump is the most enthusiastic political liar to come along in some time.)

In any case, Thorson's whole op-ed is worth reading. For more background, see my post "Donald Trump and the Big Lie Strategem." See also Reason TV's terrific interview with Dilbert creator Scott Adams on Trumps' "Linguistic Kill Shots."