Fact-Checking and Presidential Elections

By: Kyle Morrison, Kelsey Bumgardner, Molly Foley, and Andreas Tockens

The second presidential debate occurred last Sunday. Both candidates vehemently attacked and defended themselves. This debate seemed to ask the following questions: What is the truth? Do we live in a post-truth era?

Do we live in a post-truth era?

Many newspapers state that we are in a post-truth era.1,2,3 People who state that we live in a post-truth era mention that people no longer care about politicians lying. For example, one study shows that “when non-political speakers are exposed to fact-checking as making an inaccurate statement, people have less favorable attitudes toward them. However, when politicians make statements that are corrected by fact-checking, there is no significant change in favorability.” 4




The politician’s favorability decreased a lot less in comparison to the non-political speaker. But, favorable attitudes might be driven by party affiliation. This study suggests that people do not care about politicians lying; however, fact-checking has increased in popularity.

The Trend of Fact-Checking

Fact-checking exploded in 2012 and has continued to increase. Websites dedicated to fact-checking, such as PolitiFact and FactChecking.org, have increased in popularity. PolitiFact received 3.5 million views 24 hours after the first presidential debate.5 Fact-checking stories increased by fifty percent from 2004 to 2008 and by 300 percent from 2008 to 2012.1 Furthermore, a survey by Monmouth University states that 60 percent of voters believe that the moderators should check candidates’ statements.6 Some might state that voters say they care about the truth when in practice few people seek out the truth (social desirability bias). However, the overwhelming evidence points to the fact that more people are paying attention to fact-checking. So, what is the effect of more people paying attention to fact-checking? Or is there no effect because we are too partisan? Before answering these questions we must consider how information is processed.

Processing Information 7

Researchers state that there is systemic processing and heuristic processing. Systemic processing is consciously evaluating and understanding a piece of information and whether or not that piece of information is true. Systematic processing is about considering multiple high quality arguments. Heuristic processing is about having a cognitive shortcut. If a candidate is democratic then you will vote for that candidate. In terms of evaluating the truth, the source of information and attractiveness of the truth will be considered.

Why is fact-checking powerful?

Fact-checking is very persuasive because multiple rational arguments are presented with what the candidate has said. Fact-checking generally uses data that anyone can access, so it is more powerful than a simple word against word argument. Generally, the source is more trustworthy. FactCheck.org is more trustworthy than an advertisement that has been paid by the candidate. Since fact checking is so powerful, it is also very dangerous. Television uses its own biases to fact check (MSNBC is more liberal and FOX is more conservative). Also, fact-checks have a negativity bias: fact-checks that state that the candidate was inaccurate will be more powerful and looked at more often than fact-checks that states that the candidate is telling the truth. Since fact checks are becoming extremely popular in the media, everyone is saturated with negativity. In particular, most people are saturated with negativity of the candidate who they are not voting for. FOX is more conservative and will do fact-checks on negative aspects of Clinton while MSNBC will do negative fact checks on Trump. If one gets news information from social media, the same results occur. For example, Facebook’s newsfeed delivers content that is similar to what you have liked and shared in the past.8 Your friends are also likely to have the same views as you. Therefore, the newsfeed acts as a confirmation bias or a place that simply confirms your already held beliefs. FactCheck.org is better than these two because they have negative reporting on both candidates, with a more thorough analysis and description of where they found their sources. However, FactCheck.org is not perfect and cannot be taken as the ultimate truth.

How does fact-checking influence individuals? 7

During the second presidential debate, Hilary Clinton stated that people should go and fact-check Donald Trump. She clearly believes that fact-checking influences ones vote. In a study looking at the influence of fact-checking on citizens, researchers found that citizens’ levels of sophistication about politics, individuals’ tolerance toward negative campaign messages, and people’s partisan attachments influenced people’s attitudes towards a fact-check.4 Researchers looked at the U.S. senate race in Ohio (2012) between Sherrod Brown (democrat) and Josh Mandel (republican) and asked survey questions to 452 people. Researchers found that individuals who had a small tolerance for negativity were more likely to view negative ads critically and more readily accepted a fact-check. Politically knowledgeable individuals were more hesitant to accept a negative ad and much more likely to engage in systematic processing. This means that politically knowledgeable individuals were more likely to distinguish if a fact-check was biased or not as well as if the attack ad was biased or not. Republicans are less likely than democrats to accept a fact-check that states a republican was wrong. Finally, fact-checks that challenged the negative advertisement were more powerful than fact-checks that validated claims in a negative advertisement. Overall, fact-checks were found to influence individuals’ perceptions of a negative advertisement. This in turn could influence an individual’s vote.


We do not live in a post-truth era given the ubiquitous nature of fact-checking and its influence on individuals. The problem may be that we seek one biased source and not an aggregate (we go to FOX or MSNBC or social media). When we solely rely on heuristic processing and not systematic processing, we become partisans who cannot change, and we end up with two candidates who have very low favorability ratings. Let’s start to fact-check and engage in systematic processing so that we can hold our politicians accountable.


1 https://www.washingtonpost.com/posteverything/wp/2016/06/16/why-the-post-truth-political-era-might-be-around-for-a-while/?utm_term=.3faf3864e475

 2 http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2016/03/21/the-internet-of-us-and-the-end-of-facts?mbid=social_twitter

3 http://www.nytimes.com/2011/12/23/opinion/krugman-the-post-truth-campaign.html?_r=0

 4 https://www.americanpressinstitute.org/fact-checking-project/new-research-on-political-fact-checking-growing-and-influential-but-partisanship-is-a-factor/.

5 https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/fact-check-this-is-not-really-a-post-fact-election/2016/10/07/7ef5f8fa-85c0-11e6-92c2-14b64f3d453f_story.html?utm_term=.249139b82a56

6 http://www.monmouth.edu/polling-institute/reports/MonmouthPoll_US_092616/

7  http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/10584609.2014.914613

8 http://www.poynter.org/2016/can-fact-checkers-break-into-facebooks-echo-chambers/408610/



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