Death Panels and the Challenges of Correcting Political Misperceptions

Context: Misperceptions are a major problem in debates about health care reform and other controversial health issues.

Methods: We conducted an experiment to determine if more aggressive media fact-checking could correct the false belief that the Affordable Care Act would create “death panels.” Participants from an opt-in Internet panel were randomly assigned to either a control group in which they read an article on Sarah Palin’s claims about “death panels” or an intervention group in which the article also contained corrective information refuting Palin.

Findings: The correction reduced belief in death panels and strong opposition to the reform bill among those who view Palin unfavorably and those who view her favorably but have low political knowledge. However, it backfired among politically knowledgeable Palin supporters, who were more likely to believe in death panels and to strongly oppose reform if they received the correction.

Conclusions: These results underscore the difficulty of reducing misperceptions about health care reform among individuals with the motivation and sophistication to reject corrective information.

That is the abstract of a new paper by Brendan Nyhan, Jason Reifler, and Peter Ubel.  A gated copy is here.  A neat graph is at Brendan’s blog.  It’s consistent with Nyhan and Reifler’s other research—e.g., here—that shows that correct information can backfire, especially among the people least likely to believe it in the first place.

[Cross-posted at The Monkey Cage]

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John Sides

John Sides is an associate professor of political science at George Washington University.