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

20 March 2019 | Amy Sippitt

In our new briefing, Full Fact’s Research Manager Amy Sippitt takes an in-depth look at whether the so-called “backfire effect” really exists—and what it means for factcheckers.

You may have heard of something called the “backfire effect”—the idea 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.

This supposed effect is important for factcheckers, because it’s often taken to mean that factchecks are ineffective, or even counterproductive. Why bother correcting false or misleading information if it will only make someone double-down even more on inaccurate beliefs?

We decided to take a detailed look at the evidence. Our new review, published today, finds that the backfire effect is in fact rare, not the norm — and suggests factchecking does help inform people.

It finds that, while backfire may occur in some cases, generally debunking can make people’s beliefs in specific claims more accurate. We still need more evidence to find out how factchecking content can be most effective.

What we did

We looked at seven major studies that have examined supposed backfire effects.

Two studies, from 2010 and 2012, found some evidence of backfire in certain circumstances. These both focused on short debunks (for example in news articles) rather than full factcheck articles explaining the analysis. The cases where backfire effects were found tended to be particularly contentious topics, or where the factual claim being asked about was ambiguous.

None of the five more recent studies, from 2015 to 2019, found any evidence of the backfire effect. Those studies tested claims and debunks appearing on their own, as well as claims and debunks appearing in mock news articles.

The impact of debunks on our behaviour is more complicated. This briefing does not look at this in detail—it focuses on how debunks affect belief in the accuracy of the claim in question.

So what does this mean for factcheckers?

The studies we reviewed suggest that factchecks do help to inform citizens.

Political beliefs can still affect the extent to which debunking can be successful. We still need more evidence to understand this and other questions like how to ensure individuals continue to remember debunks, and more evidence on these topics in countries outside the USA.

At Full Fact, we want to make it easier for you to know who and what you can trust—and that means understanding how our factchecking content can be as effective as possible. We also want to understand how we can best use our work to hold those in power to account for the information they use. We’ll keep working to gather more evidence on this in the coming years.

Amy Sippitt is Full Fact’s Research Manager. She gathers practical evidence to help factcheckers make their work as effective as possible.

Read our full briefing, ‘The backfire effect: Does it exist? And does it matter for factcheckers?’.

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