Can Aggressive Fact-Checking Correct Health Care Misinformation?
Researchers conducted an online experiment to determine if more aggressive media fact-checking could help to correct false beliefs about the ACA. The study focused on “perhaps the most prominent example of misinformation about health reform”—Palin’s 2009 claim that the ACA would create a “death panel” in which bureaucrats would determine whether seniors are “worthy of health care.”
One group of survey participants read a news article reporting on Palin’s “death panel” claim. The other group read the same article, but with an additional paragraph stating that “non-partisan health care experts have concluded that Palin is wrong.”
Participants were then asked about their belief in death panels and support for the ACA. Responses were compared for participants with favorable versus unfavorable views of Palin and for those with differing levels of political knowledge, which was measured using a simple five-question test (e.g., How many times can a person be elected President?).
The participants’ feelings toward Palin and their political knowledge both affected their responses to the correction. Among participants who viewed Palin favorably but had low political knowledge, the paragraph correcting the death panel myth led to reduced misperceptions and increased support for the ACA.
But the correction had the opposite effect among Palin supporters who scored higher on political knowledge. “Specifically, among high-knowledge respondents with very positive Palin feelings, corrective information about death panels made misperceptions worse and opposition to ACA stronger,” Nyhan and colleagues write.
Difficulties in Overcoming ‘Motivated Reasoning’
Factual misperceptions are a major problem in debates over controversial health issues, especially health care reform. Several years after passage of the ACA, many people still believe Palin’s claim about death panels, even though it has been repeatedly debunked.
Some have argued that the media should be more aggressive in correcting misinformation about health policy. One problem is the difficulty of overcoming “motivated reasoning”—people have a bias toward uncritically accepting claims that agree their pre-existing attitudes and beliefs, while resisting information that contradicts those attitudes.
The new results suggest that, even with more aggressive fact-checking, it’s hard to overcome motivated reasoning. Among partisans who are more politically sophisticated, attempting to correct misperceptions may have opposite of the intended effect, increasing misperceptions about death panels and disapproval of the ACA.