How Behavioral Science Can Help Truth Triumph Over Baseless Accusations


Caption: Trump and Obama graphic (Wikimedia Commons)


Regardless of their political affiliation, most who follow politics in any depth easily dismissed Donald Trump’s series of grave Twitter accusations on March 4 that Barack Obama ordered Trump Tower wiretapped before the 2016 election. Trump offered no evidence for his wiretapping claims, but instead used inflammatory language such as calling Obama “sick” and “bad,” and requested that Congress conduct an investigation into the Obama administration.


Behavioral science suggests that despite Trump offering no substantive facts for his claim, the mainstream media’s current coverage will get him what he craves. Fortunately, we can use the same research to reframe the narrative to help truth trump Trump’s evidence-free accusations.


To understand why current coverage helps Trump get what he wants, let’s consider some typical examples of how the accusations have been covered so far. CNN’s story described in the first sentence how “Trump made a stunning claim” about the wiretapping, and added that he did not offer any evidence. Next, the story featured 3 screenshots of Trump’s tweets, and a breakdown of the claims. Following that, the article continued with rebuttals of Trump’s claims by Obama’s spokesperson and US intelligence officials, and then went into an analysis of how the tweets are representative of Trump’s wild and often false accusations.


The article on this topic by AP News, republished in many local newspapers and used by radio and TV stations, also started by describing Trump’s “startling allegation of abuse of power,” and noted that it was offered without evidence. The story continued with Obama’s denial of the claim, and then went into the details of Trump’s accusations, followed by a broader analysis of Trump’s frequent allegations backed by “alternative facts.”



Caption: Meme with message "A LIE by any other name STILL STINKS #AlternativeFacts" (Jane Gordon, made for Intentional Insights).


These articles offered sophisticated political observers the appropriate context for Trump’s evidence-free accusations in the analytic part of each piece. Yet research on news consumption shows that most people don’t usually read the analysis. Only 41% of Americans go beyond simply skimming the headline, and, among these few, most only go into the first or second paragraph.


So what do the 6 in 10 who only read headlines get from the AP News headline: “Trump Accuses Obama of Tapping His Phones, Cites No Evidence,” and from the CNN headlineWhite House Requests Congress Investigate Whether Obama Administration Abused Power?

What do most of the rest get from the CNN story that starts with a thorough description of Trump’s accusations?


Those who have a strong partisan perspective will likely not change their opinions, due to what psychologists term “confirmation bias,” the tendency to misinterpret new information in light of our current beliefs as opposed to objective facts. However, research shows that many moderates and independents, who do not suffer from confirmation bias but are not sophisticated political observers, will also likely be swayed to believe Trump’s claims.


Their engagement with the headline and the initial paragraphs, which focus on the accusations by Trump, will cause them to experience “anchoring.” This well-established reasoning error results from the way in which we process information we first encounter about a topic. That initial information influences the entirety of our perspective on an issue, coloring all the content we receive moving forward, even after we get more complete information. The most information that people will retain from such coverage consist of a vague impression of Trump as unjustly wiretapped by the “bad” and “sick” Obama, a conclusion also supported by research on the availability heuristic. This fallacious thinking pattern causes us to focus on information with emotional overtones, regardless of whether it is factual or relevant.


Likewise, shallow news skimmers may be influenced by the halo effectanibeatricesargin@gmial.com, a phenomenon of perception in which positive associations with one aspect of an individual cause us to perceive all aspects of that individual in a positive light. Most Americans have a default positive association with the office of the President; thus they tend to give its occupant the benefit of the doubt. To that end, statements by Trump appear more believable to the public simply because he occupies an office that typically signifies credibility, and also has access to secret information unavailable to most Americans. For the same reason, Trump’s request to Congress to launch an investigation will appear credible, leading people to believe there is a good reason for such an inquiry, regardless of the evidence.


These thinking errors will cause the majority of Americans to develop a mistaken impression of Trump’s wiretapping claims as legitimate, despite the lack of evidence, just as so many found the baseless “birtherism” accusations launched at Obama legitimate, or the idea that George Bush was behind 9/11. Consider Trump’s evidence-free but often-repeated claim that millions of illegal ballots cast for Hillary Clinton cost him the popular vote, an allegation rated false by fact-checkers, and criticized by fellow Republicans such as Paul Ryan. Nonetheless, Trump launched an investigation in February 2017 of supposed voter fraud, just as he is now asking Congress to do in regard to the Obama administration’s use of investigative powers.


The consequences of Trump’s evidence-free claims are stunning in their impact. A Qualtrics poll in December 2016 showed that over half of all Republicans believe that Trump won the popular vote, as do 24 percent of independents and 7 percent of Democrats. This distribution shows the impact of confirmation bias, with Republicans much more likely to believe Trump’s evidence-free claims. However, Trump’s tactics and the nature of media coverage lead even some independents and Trump’s political opponents to buy into Trump’s claims. Incidentally, the poll suggests that more sophisticated political observers are less likely to believe Trump, with only 37 percent of Republicans who had a college degree accepting Trump’s baseless allegations about millions of illegal votes.


Would you be surprised if Trump’s current claims about wiretapping will be rated “false” by fact-checkers just as his voter fraud claims were? Would you be surprised if the investigation of wiretapping will find nothing, just as the investigation of voter fraud has not found anything? Yet Trump keeps making such claims with no evidence, and will keep doing so, because he gets exactly what he wants--millions of people believing his baseless allegations.


Reframing the media coverage of Trump’s claims, using techniques informed by behavioral science, would disincentivize Trump from making such baseless statements, instead of rewarding him. Rather than focusing on relating the details of the specific claims made by Trump, news headlines and introductory paragraphs could foreground the pattern of our President systematically making accusations lacking evidence.


For instance, in the case of this specific news item, AP News could have run the headline “Trump Delivers Another Accusation Without Evidence, This Time Against Obama.” CNN could have introduced the story by focusing on Trump’s pattern of making serial allegations of immoral and illegal actions by his political opponents without any evidence, focusing this time on his predecessor. Then, deeper in the article where the shallow skimmers do not reach, the story could have detailed the allegations made by Trump. This style of media coverage would make Trump less inclined to make such claims, as he would not get the impact he wants.


You can make a difference when media venues publicize Trump’s evidence-free accusations by writing letters to the editor encouraging them to reframe their reporting. By doing so, you will help create appropriate incentives for all politicians--not just Trump--to make such claims only when they are supported by evidence.

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