Why Fact-Checking Donald Trump Backfires

Psychologists explain his enduring support despite his gaffes and lies.

Trump supporters cheer
Donald Trump supporters cheer for their candidate during a campaign rally on Oct. 14, 2015, in Richmond, Virginia. Even in the face of facts, they may not change their minds.

Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

When you Google “Republican establishment,” the top search completion is “vs Trump,” the second is just “Trump,” and the fourth is “hates Trump.” Establishment Republicans are at war with Donald Trump, and so far they’re losing. “Everyone that attacks him gets clobbered,” Democratic strategist James Carville told me.

And every time Trump is criticized, his supporters hug him tighter.

A few weeks ago, Republican pollster Frank Luntz spent hours showing a focus group of Donald Trump supporters television ads that criticized their candidate. The Washington Post’s Dave Weigel described one ad as “not so subtly comparing the Republican front-runner to Adolf Hitler.”

Those attacks on Trump made him stronger. Supporters’ “confidence only grew as Trump’s alleged gaffes and mistakes were laid out,” wrote Weigel. For months, Luntz and other members of the Republican establishment have failed to deflate Trump. “Normally, if I did this for a campaign,” Luntz said, “I’d have destroyed the candidate by this point.”

Luntz may not understand why Trump’s supporters are so persistently devoted, but their behavior is similar to what I’ve seen from people who are committed to anti-science beliefs.

In a 2014 study, Brendan Nyhan and several other researchers found that when parents with negative feelings about vaccines were presented with evidence that vaccines do not cause autism, they actually reported being less likely to vaccinate their children. The corrective information had a negative effect.

(During the September GOP debate, by the way, Donald Trump falsely blamed vaccines for autism and said a vaccine “looks just like it’s meant for a horse, not for a child.”)

I asked Nyhan, a political scientist at Dartmouth College, about Trump’s strength in the face of attacks. “For highly controversial issues and political figures, there’s a risk that correct information is not only ineffective, but can make misconceptions worse,” Nyhan said. “People who are exposed to correct information in the context of a debate over a controversial issue can end up believing more strongly in the misperception than people who never saw the correct information.” This phenomenon is known as the “backfire effect.”

People often reject information about science, and politics, because they engage in motivated reasoning, according to Emily Thorson of Boston College, who studies the lingering effects of misinformation on people’s opinions.* “People’s pre-existing attitudes just invariably shape what they choose to believe, what facts they actually believe, what facts they actually retain, whether or not they actually believe corrections,” said Thorson. She gave me the example of Donald Trump supporters who have fallen through the gaps in the U.S. economy. “We know that in general, the unemployment rate is pretty good, the economy is doing well, but for somebody who doesn’t have a job, it doesn’t feel like that for them,” she said. “That’s going to shape what they choose to believe.”

Trump supporters have their own narrative about the economy. Carville told me he thought Trump’s supporters’ affection, while distasteful, was “understandable,” because Trump made sense of why they couldn’t find good jobs. “Trump has an explanation: ‘Stupid politicians have betrayed you to immigrants,’ ” Carville said, “What’s Jeb’s explanation? Their decision to support Trump is not irrational.”

Thorson agreed. “As much as the things that Trump is saying are wrong, there is an internal coherence to them that I think is compelling to [his supporters],” she said. And it’s hard to correct these misconceptions.

Another reason accurate information can backfire is because of mistrust for the source. In November, Trump claimed that American Muslims celebrated the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the World Trade Center.* “I watched in Jersey City, New Jersey, where thousands and thousands of people were cheering as [the World Trade Center] was coming down,” Trump said. This was incorrect and has been debunked repeatedly by fact-checkers—but the corrections might not help. “The Republican Party has told their base: You can’t trust the mainstream media,” said Nyhan. “When the media tries to debunk a Trump falsehood, it doesn’t work, and because of how the backfire effect works, sometimes it makes it worse.”

Thorson’s research shows that even people who accept the corrections may still retain the attitude they took from the incorrect information. “Initial misinformation has a stronger effect,” she told me. “We hear [someone say] Muslims celebrating [Sept. 11] and we have this gut reaction. We hear the correction and intellectually we know it’s false, but it doesn’t bring our attitudes back down in a symmetrical way. These belief echoes persist.” So even for Trump supporters who accept that he was wrong on this issue, many of them likely still hold just as tightly to the same pro-Trump, anti-Muslim, attitudes.

Which still leaves the Republican establishment with a huge problem: How do they stop Trump?

In statements made after his focus group, Luntz acted as if Donald Trump was unique in his appeal. Thorson told me that while she thought Trump was “absolutely unique” as a candidate because of disregard for the establishment and his rejection of the “norms of politics,” she said, “I think the way that voters are responding to him is not necessarily unique.” It’s not unusual for people to reject corrections and stand by a candidate they believe in.

Nyhan believes Trump’s name recognition has made it harder to change people’s opinions about him. “The closest analogue … from my research is Sarah Palin,” Nyhan said. “[Palin had] become so controversial among Republicans that how people responded to hearing she was wrong varied based on how they felt about her,” with supporters maintaining their support no matter her mistakes.

But well-known candidates still lose. “Republicans keep saying, if this happened to any other candidate, they would be destroyed, going back to the John McCain quote months ago that people thought might end his campaign,” Nyhan said, referring to when Trump said Sen. McCain was “not a war hero.” But Nyhan says establishment that Republicans have “overstated” the extent to which they have challenged Trump and that Trump has received more positive news coverage than people recognize.

When it comes to best practices for dealing with backfire effect, Nyhan suggests people looking to correct misconceptions use sources that are credible to their target audience. He pointed to a news article examining the myth that Obamacare funds “death panels.” The story included the information that doctors, as well as health policy experts who oppose the Affordable Care Act, agree that the act does not promote death panels. Attributing factual information to trusted sources, such as doctors and the likely political allies of people who have encountered the myth, makes for a more persuasive fact check.

And, of course, family and friends are also a trusted source for information, for better or worse. “The most effective persuader is always going to be someone you know well,” said Thorson.

So in 2016, Republicans against Trump must resolve to tell Grandpa not to vote for him.

*Correction, Dec. 30, 2015: Due to an editing error, this article originally misstated that the attacks on the World Trade Center occurred on Sept. 11, 2011. (Return.)

*Correction, Jan. 4, 2016: This article originally misstated the current affiliation for Emily Thorson. She is now at Boston College, not George Washington University. (Return.)