The Echo Chamber Effect

This is downright fascinating:

Political scientists Brendan Nyhan and Jason Reifler provided two groups of volunteers with the Bush administration’s prewar claims that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. One group was given a refutation — the comprehensive 2004 Duelfer report that concluded that Iraq did not have weapons of mass destruction before the United States invaded in 2003. Thirty-four percent of conservatives told only about the Bush administration’s claims thought Iraq had hidden or destroyed its weapons before the U.S. invasion, but 64 percent of conservatives who heard both claim and refutation thought that Iraq really did have the weapons. The refutation, in other words, made the misinformation worse.

A similar “backfire effect” also influenced conservatives told about Bush administration assertions that tax cuts increase federal revenue. One group was offered a refutation by prominent economists that included current and former Bush administration officials. About 35 percent of conservatives told about the Bush claim believed it; 67 percent of those provided with both assertion and refutation believed that tax cuts increase revenue.

In a paper approaching publication, Nyhan, a PhD student at Duke University, and Reifler, at Georgia State University, suggest that Republicans might be especially prone to the backfire effect because conservatives may have more rigid views than liberals: Upon hearing a refutation, conservatives might “argue back” against the refutation in their minds, thereby strengthening their belief in the misinformation. Nyhan and Reifler did not see the same “backfire effect” when liberals were given misinformation and a refutation about the Bush administration’s stance on stem cell research.

Now there’s a few possible explanations for that, but to me it seems obvious what’s going on. The right of the political spectrum has constructed an echo chamber of radio hosts, magazines, newspapers, and even a cable television network, to constantly reinforce wrong beliefs. Additionally, they’ve put a lot of effort into driving home the idea that literally every source of authority on issues, from the media to universities to think tanks, and even to government agencies, are biased against conservatives and therefore not really an authority. So the effect is, as th study finds, to reinforce an individual’s gut instinct, no matter how wrong, by sheer fact of opposition. To the talk radio listener, anyone other than a set of pre-approved sources has a latent liberal bias, and so any refutation from such an outlet is merely proof that they’re right. It’s obviously a dangerous effect on society, but it’s one that has worked tremendously well for the Republican party and conservative movement. After all, if refuting a wrong belief will only further convince the person that they’re right, you’ve got a shock trooper for life who can not be convinced they’re wrong. The center-left is going to have to figure out how to marginalize these people in order to achieve the policy ends we need to improve the state of the country.

(h/t Kevin Drum)