The Myth of a ‘Backfire Effect’ to Fact Checking

When someone debunks a claim or article through fact-checking,  does doing so generally produce a backfire effect where others commit even more strongly to the debunked notion?

No, not generally.

Laura Hazard Owen writes The “backfire effect” is mostly a myth, a broad look at the research suggests:

The growing stream of reporting on and data about fake news, misinformation, partisan content, and news literacy is hard to keep up with. This weekly roundup offers the highlights of what you might have missed.

“The backfire effect is in fact rare, not the norm.” Does fact-checking really make things worse? The U.K.’s independent fact-checking organization Full Fact looked at research into the so-called “backfire effect,” the idea (popular in the media) that “when a claim aligns with someone’s ideological beliefs, telling them that it’s wrong will actually make them believe it even more strongly.”

Full Fact research manager Amy Sippett reviewed seven studies that have explored the backfire effect and found that “cases where backfire effects were found tended to be particularly contentious topics, or where the factual claim being asked about was ambiguous.” The studies where a backfire effect was not found also tended to be larger than the studies where it was found. Full Fact cautions that most of the research on the backfire effect has been done in the U.S., and “we still need more evidence to understand how fact-checking content can be most effective.”

See Does the “backfire effect” exist—and does it matter for factcheckers?

A few remarks:

1. Fundamentally, one commits to fact-checking because the truth matters intrinsically, not merely for consequential reasons.

2. Liars or others who are loose with the facts would surely hope that they can say anything with impunity; it’s heartening to see that research, generally, refutes that dark hope.

3. Particular claims – the situational maneuverings of boosters, babbitts, and public-relations men – will always matter less than the weight over evidence collected over time.  In the relationship between maneuver and attrition, attrition is the more decisive force, as the weight of evidence and time leaves only dust in its path.

4. One hears sometimes that it’s easy to identify a problem or error but hard to fix one.  In politics, this is a platitude only: politicians, bureaucrats, lobbyists, fixers, development gurus, and lapdog reporters often speak and write falsely without ever being called out for their errors.

If fact-checking were truly easy, then it would be more common, as there is so much good work of refutation yet to be done.

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