This blog post, written by Dr. Terry Flynn and Tim Li, is based on a research paper by Brendan Nyhan, Dartmouth College; and Jason Reifler, University of Exeter.  

Key Findings

  • Denying misleading claims can reduce misperceptions, but it is often limited because people fall back on debunked information in the absence of alternative explanations
  • Providing an alternative causal explanation as a counterargument to misinformation is more effective than denying the false claims alone.

Implications for Public Relations

Public relations professionals should include alternative causal explanations in their communications when trying to correct misperceptions. Stakeholders may still rely on rumors or other misleading claims when assessing a situation if corrections leave gaps in their understanding. Even providing credible sources with evidence that corroborates a denial appears insufficient. Denying rumors or accusations are not enough to eliminate the impact of these claims on people’s perceptions. Corrective communications should focus on explaining what actually happened instead of bolstering the negation of the claim.

Summary

Misinformation can have a persistent influence on people’s attitudes and beliefs even after it is debunked. People still use information that they have been told is untrue if they lack a suitable replacement to fill gaps in their understanding of an issue or situation.

Nyhan and Reifler examined if providing an alternative causal explanation as a counterargument to political misinformation could further reduce the impact of false claims. They presented participants with a scenario about a fictional politician’s retirement with varying amounts of information, including rumors of bribery (misinformation), denials of such rumor (correction), and clarification that they retired to take a new position elsewhere (causal explanation). Whereas stating that the misinformation was false through a denial had a limited effect on reducing false belief, presenting a causal explanation eliminated the misperceptions caused by the rumour.

These findings support the notion that attempts to correct misinformation should point out the inaccuracies and fill the resulting gaps in understanding. Without a new explanation, people will likely not revise their beliefs and fall back on erroneous information instead.

Blog post compiled by Dr. Terry Flynn and Tim Li of McMaster University.

Citation

Nyhan, Brendan, & Reifler, Jason. (2015). Displacing misinformation about events: An experimental test of causal corrections. Journal of Experimental Political Science, 2(1), 81-93. http://doi.org/10.1017/XPS.2014.22

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Heidy Modarelli handles Growth & Marketing for IPR. She has previously written for Entrepreneur, TechCrunch, The Next Web, and VentureBeat.
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