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Listen Web extra: Farhad Manjoo on the effectiveness of fact-checking Web sites
Listen Web extra: Shankar Vedantam on what really guides our pick for president
Researchers for the Web site FactCheck.org aren't all that different from the writers over at Consumer Reports. But instead of test-driving cars and trying out kitchen appliances, FactCheck staffers put political candidates to the test.
The non-partisan, non-profit scours speeches, debates and advertisements looking for untruths. It can tell if you if Republican John McCain really crashed five different military planes.
And it will answer reader emails like, "Is Democrat Barack Obama truly a U.S. citizen?"
"We hope that voters are interested in finding out what is being said and whether it's true or not true," says Viveca Novak, the deputy director at FactCheck.org.
It's Novak's job to point out when the presidential candidates say things that don't clear the fact threshold.
"We've seen McCain talking about Obama's tax plan in misleading ways and Obama talking about what McCain would like to do to social security also in misleading ways," she says. Fact checkers put the spotlight on political tall tales. But Novak admits their work has done little to stop candidates from telling untruths in the first place.
"It doesn't matter if it's skewed or if it's really kind of even false. If it's the way you want to portray your opponent, you're going to keep saying it."
Farhad Manjoo agrees.
"It's easier these days for politicians to lie because their partisan supporters don't really call them on it," he says.
Manjoo, a staff writer at Slate, is the author of True Enough: Learning to Live in a Post-Fact Society. It's extremely unlikely for decided voters to dump their candidate over lies alone, he says. Yet many are obsessed with examples of the opposing candidate being less than accurate.
"If you're an Obama supporter and you think John McCain is lying, you go to the fact-checking site when you see a claim from the McCain campaign. And you're elated when you see that the claim is disproven by the fact checking site," he says.
"But you don't really go for all of the facts you encounter. You don't go when the Obama campaign makes a statement that might not be true."
Selective fact checking isn't the only challenge to the truth. As it turns out, correcting false information may actually be more harmful than letting the lies go.
"This process of bringing up something that isn't true, even in the context of debunking it, ends up strengthening the misinformation in people's minds," says Shankar Vedantam, a national reporter and columnist at the Washington Post, who has spent a lot of time researching how the brain works.
In order for fact checkers to correct a piece of misinformation, they first have to repeat it. Scientific studies show this essentially reinforces the misinformation. And, very often, the misinformation is the only thing the brain ends up remembering -- not the correction, according to Vedantam.
"The other way that researchers have thought about this is that when you correct misinformation, you might end up correcting people's knowledge of the information, but you don't ended up correcting the attitude that the misinformation caused. In other words, if I tell you that Barack Obama is a Muslim and then correct it and say, 'No, Barack Obama is not a Muslim,' you may say in your mind, 'All right, now I know the correct fact. I know that he's not a Muslim.' But if you have a bias against Muslims and you were initially predisposed to think less of Barack Obama when you heard he was a Muslim, even though the information has been corrected, your negative attitude to Obama often doesn't get corrected," he says.
"There is a lot robust evidence that shows this is the case with both Republicans and Democrats. The negative attitudes that are provoked or triggered by negative advertising and slurs and rumor campaigns, those negative attitudes persist."
Voters sincerely believe they're taking in the truth, that it's facts that lead them to choose a candidate. Extensive bodies of research, however, say otherwise. They show that we pick candidates we feel an emotional connection to. In fact, we'll even change our views on the issues to bring them in line with the candidates we have an affinity for. And we do this without even knowing it.
So with all that in mind, just how much does truth, actual truth, really matter this election season?
"Historically 15 to 20 years down the road, it's pretty clear that the truth eventually does win," Vedantam says. "Of course, 15 or 20 years down the road makes no difference to a political election because what matters in a political election is the short term, not the long term. And in that domain, well, does the truth win? Not so much."