It Takes More Than Fact Checks to Beat Populists

Research increasingly shows that even when voters know the facts, they buy a compelling narrative.

What is ... an ineffective campaign strategy?

Photographer: Scott Wintrow/Getty Images

Voting-behavior researchers are increasingly convinced that while fake news influences voting intentions, fact-checking it doesn't correct that shift. A recent paper based on material from this year's French presidential election, however, goes further than that: It shows that voters presented with the actual facts pertaining to a populist politician's pet subject become more likely to vote for the populist.

The finding -- and the other recent research into voter behavior -- presents a challenge both to mainstream media figures and to politicians trying to hold the fort against populist rivals. They shouldn't assume the mantle of ignorance fighters: They lose voters when they're uncharismatic and inept at building convincing narratives.

The paper, by four Paris-based economists -- Oscar Barrera, Ekaterina Zhuravskaya, Emeric Henry and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development's chief economist Sergei Guriev -- describes an experiment involving 2,480 potential voters and three misleading statements on immigration by Marine Le Pen, who made it to the run-off round of the French election. 

Le Pen said her impression from looking at photographs of refugees arriving in Europe was that 99 percent of them were men -- so, if they left their families at home, how could they be fleeing security threats rather than seeking economic advantage? She also maintained that because only 5 percent of immigrants coming into France have a work contract, 95 percent of them ended up unemployed and on the government dole. And she argued that, while during World War II "there were surely many French, believe me, who had good reasons to flee the Germans and yet, they went to fight against the Germans" -- so today's Syrian refugees, too, should have stayed and fought.

In fact, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, the share of men among refugees crossing the Mediterranean into Europe in 2015 only reached 58 percent. According to French official statistics, almost the same share of immigrants and native-born French was in the workforce (54.8 percent and 56.3 percent respectively) and unemployment among immigrants was 18.1 percent compared with 9.1 percent for the native-born. During World War II, a quarter of the French population crossed from the German-occupied part of the country to the South, which avoided the invasion.

Le Pen's "alternative facts" were of the same variety populists have been using throughout Europe and in the U.S. As elsewhere, French papers hastened to correct the record after Le Pen's remarks were reported; as with Donald Trump in the U.S., there was a lot of talk during the French campaign about the media's duty to keep the electorate accurately informed in these post-truth times.

The researchers divided the subjects into four groups -- one that was only given the Le Pen statements, one that received both these statements and the actual facts, a third one that only got the facts and a control one that was given no new information. Voting intentions were measured before and after they reviewed the information. The team checked whether any shifts in Le Pen's favor were just cheap talk by having the subjects play a game in which they were asked to share money with a Le Pen voter: Previous research shows people are more willing to share with like-minded individuals.

Exposure to Le Pen's rhetoric -- with or without the fact-checking -- resulted in a 7 percentage point shift in voting intentions in Le Pen's favor. That's consistent with recent American findings about the uselessness of fact-checking Trump by a team led by Dartmouth's Brendan Nyhan. Both in the U.S. and in France, most people learned the actual facts and could answer questions about them -- but that didn't affect their resolve to support the populists who had contradicted the facts. "Respondents -- particularly Trump supporters -- took the corrections literally, but apparently not seriously," Nyhan and collaborators wrote. 

The more surprising finding in the French study was from the group that only viewed the actual facts from official sources. They were 4.6 percent more likely to vote for Le Pen. The researchers ascribe that to "the backfiring of the factual information on voting intentions through raising the salience of the populist agenda." Some voters who never given a thought to immigration statistics are clearly unhappy about a majority-male immigration wave that results in twice the unemployment rate of the native-born French; they don't need Le Pen to exaggerate the problem, and they're not told why immigration might be good for them -- for example, to counteract a population decline, maintain economic growth, fill many service jobs that would otherwise remain vacant. That might also explain why fact-checking Le Pen doesn't work: People already convinced by lots of negative material about immigration don't tend to change their mind when they hear that the statistics are exaggerated.

"Our results suggest that confronting alternative facts with correct numbers is not enough," the Paris team wrote in a Vox.eu article describing their research. "To be effective, fact checking needs to be more than a journalists’ or pundits’ enterprise. The correct facts need to be embedded in a narrative with persuasive argumentation and conclusions – and delivered by a charismatic politician. The result of the 2017 French presidential election is consistent with this conjecture."

That, of course, is a reference to the election's winner, Emmanuel Macron, who managed to package his narrative more convincingly than Le Pen and whose charisma was at least on a par with hers. That's a lesson for Americans still traumatized by the Trump victory: A candidate up against a populist rival needs considerable personal magnetism to win, even when facts are on that candidate's side. There's nothing post-truth or social media-driven about that: In the 21st century, political talent still matters at least as much as substance, if not more.

The takeaway for us in the media is more complex. It's natural for journalists to seek objectivity by only reporting facts and not taking sides with politicians. But when a charismatic, telegenic or merely outrageous populist politician hogs coverage, as Trump does, and as populists do everywhere, voters get more of his narrative, and any commentary -- even fact-checks that reveal the populist's lies -- increases the salience of his pet subjects. True objectivity during a political campaign requires giving equal exposure to eloquent counter-narratives. That is, if they exist. 

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

    To contact the author of this story:
    Leonid Bershidsky at lbershidsky@bloomberg.net

    To contact the editor responsible for this story:
    Mike Nizza at mnizza3@bloomberg.net

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