Former Australian prime minister Malcolm Turnbull and US president Donald Trump

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The US may have entered a “post-truth” era, but Australia has not. Researchers who asked people in the US their views on politicians who frequently bend the truth found that fact-checking had little impact, whereas for Australians it did change their political opinions.

The findings in Australia are positive and encouraging, says team member Stephan Lewandowsky of the University of Bristol in the UK. They suggest fact-checking is a genuine counter to politicians who regularly make false statements.

“People like a politician less if they find out they have been lied to a lot,” says Lewandowsky. “It’s a reasonably large effect.”

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But when the team did a follow-up study in the US, the size of the effect was ten times smaller. “We have a lot of information now suggesting American voters don’t really care about facts, in the sense that if you tell them a politician is dishonest it doesn’t really seem to matter,” says Lewandowsky.

In the Australian study, 450 people did an online test in which they were shown statements made by Bill Shorten and Malcolm Turnbull, who at the time were the leaders of the left-wing Labor party and right-wing Liberal party respectively.

Fact-checking

Some participants were shown an equal mix of true and false statements, while others were shown mostly false ones. They were asked about their belief in the statements, their feelings towards the politicians and their voting intentions. Then they were shown the statements again along with very short fact checks, and asked the same questions again.

The feelings and voting intentions of those shown mostly falsehoods changed significantly, while those of people shown an equal mix of truth and falsehoods did not. Surprisingly, fact checking was just as effective whatever people’s initial view of the politician making the statement.

A follow-up study in the US used statements from Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders. The full details have not yet been published, but the change in people’s feelings towards politicians who frequently made untrue statements was 10 times smaller than in Australia.

The team did not investigate the reasons for this difference, but they speculate that it has to do with the far more polarised nature of political culture in the US.

In Australia, voting is compulsory and there is a preferential voting system. “There are buffers against extremism in the Australian system that don’t exist in the US,” says Lewandowsky.

Journal reference: Royal Society Open Science, DOI: https://doi.org/10.1098/rsos.180593

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