Political Rumors: Why We Accept Misinformation and How to Fight It
Adam Berinsky, Mitsui Professor of Political Science, MIT
Abstract: Political rumors and misinformation pollute the political landscape. This is not a recent phenomenon; before the currently rampant and unfounded rumors about a stolen election and vote-rigging, there were other rumors that continued to spread even after they were thoroughly debunked, including doubts about 9/11 (an “inside job”) and the furor over President Obama’s birthplace and birth certificate. If misinformation crowds out the truth, how can Americans communicate with one another about important issues? In this book, Adam Berinsky examines why political rumors exist and persist despite their unsubstantiated and refuted claims, who is most likely to believe them, and how to combat them. Drawing on original survey and experimental data, Berinsky shows that a tendency toward conspiratorial thinking and vehement partisan attachment fuel belief in rumors. Yet the reach of rumors is wide, and Berinsky argues that in fighting misinformation, it is as important to target the undecided and the uncertain as it is the true believers. We’re all vulnerable to misinformation, and public skepticism about the veracity of political facts is damaging to democracy. Moreover, in a world where most people simply don’t pay attention to politics, political leaders are often guilty of disseminating false information—and failing to correct it when it is proven wrong. Berinsky suggests that we should focus on the messenger as much as the message of rumors. Just as important as how misinformation is debunked is who does the debunking.
Adam Berinsky is the Mitsui Professor of Political Science at MIT and serves as the director of the MIT Political Experiments Research Lab (PERL). He is also a Faculty Affiliate at the Institute for Data, Systems, and Society (IDSS). Berinsky received his PhD from the University of Michigan in 2000. He is the author of In Time of War: Understanding American Public Opinion from World War II to Iraq (University of Chicago Press, 2009). He is also the author of Silent Voices: Public Opinion and Political Participation in America (Princeton University Press, 2004) and has published articles in many journals. He is currently the co-editor of the Chicago Studies in American Politics book series at the University of Chicago Press. He is the recipient of multiple grants from the National Science Foundation and was a fellow at the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences. Berinsky was appointed a John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation Fellow to study how political rumors spread and how they can be effectively debunked.