Facts and Counterfacts
In a recent post (“The Post Truth Era?”) I wrote about what seems to be the dwindling prospects for public dialog based on actual facts. As I mentioned there, one problem is people’s resistance to being convinced of the veracity of details that oppose their more general world view and self-image. There is a long history of investigation into this confirmation bias, but in the current polarized political climate, the consequences appear more dire. With people getting their online news and information mostly from websites run by their ideological comrades, what if you could break the viral cycle of rumor with immediate fact checking? A few years ago, On The Media had a story about an researcher at Intel who created a Firefox extension to do just that. Dispute Finder is meant to provide a mechanism for information online to be annotated in a way that highlights disputed factual claims and provides a means to jump to more primary sources. I have to admit that I haven’t actually tried it, but you have to wonder, since it is crowd-moderated, how it would not devolve into another forum for snarky flame wars. But assuming the crowd-moderated fact checking were somehow perfect, would it actually work? Would it actually change the opinion of someone who was predisposed not to believe the particular correction? Imagine someone saying, “What? Obama’s birth certificate is real!? Oh, well that straightens everything out.” Can’t imagine that? Neither can I.
Nonetheless, there are people out there with more vivid imaginations. As profiled in Psychology News, a conference paper to be presented at Computer Supported Cooperative Work and Social Computing (caveat emptor: conference papers are held to a much lower standard of review than journal articles) looked at whether immediate or delayed correction online had any effect on false beliefs. It was a setup about electronic health records and whether or not various third parties could access them. Turns out, delayed correction was about as good at correcting misconceptions as immediate notice. But for people who were predisposed against electronic health records to begin with, the corrections had no effect whatsoever. Reasonably, the authors speculated that these people discounted the credibility of the correction because it was inconsistent with their previous beliefs. Classic confirmation bias.