Trump supporters & truth: A reply to Rider University’s Michelle A. Amazeen

Last week I posted in reply to Politico’s Jack Shafer, who suggested in an article that Trump supporters don’t care if Trump does not tell the truth. We responded with a post suggesting Trump supporters have reason to distrust fact checkers such as PolitiFact. We tagged Shafer in a tweet highlighting our reply and Shafer retweeted it.

Meanwhile Michelle A. Amazeen of Rhode Island’s Rider University, a recognized expert on fact-checking, weighed in on Twitter in reply to a Shafer tweet about his article on Trump and fact-checking:


Shafer had expressed doubt that Trump supporters could be unaware of the fact-checkers’ dim view of Trump, so perhaps Amazeen was offering support for that part of Shafer’s argument.

But Amazeen’s source, upon closer examination, offers mixed support at best for the public reach of fact checking.

In Estimating Fact-checking’s Effects, researchers Brendan Nyhan and Jason Reifler used an opt-in pool of respondents to question a representative sampling of Americans on their attitudes toward fact-checking. Their results were more complex than Amazeen’s comment might have suggested:

As Figure 2(a) demonstrates, approximately half of the public is still unfamiliar with fact-checking, including 29% who report being “very unfamiliar” (29%). While familiarity may be low, Figure 2(b) shows that favorability towards the “fact-checking movement” is quite high. More than eight in ten Americans (84%) say they have a favorable view of fact-checking, including 37% who say they have a “very favorable” view. Finally, awareness and favorability appear to be at least somewhat related—respondents who report being familiar with fact-checking are significantly more likely to have favorable attitudes towards fact-checking (94%) than those who are unfamiliar (73%, p <.01).


Responses were recorded in 2014.

Note that Amazeen rightly says the research found 80 percent of Americans held a favorable view toward fact-checking. But she left out some important information. About half the survey sample had little familiarity with fact checking, but at the same time viewed it favorably.

Republicans carried a more skeptical view of fact-checking regardless of familiarity:

Just 34% of Republicans with high knowledge have very favorable views of fact-checkers compared with 59% of high-knowledge Democrats


How does Amazeen’s factoid complement Shafer’s article?

Amazeen’s factoid does very little, if anything, to support Shafer’s hypothesis about Trump voters.

Shafer says media coverage makes it nearly certain that Trump supporters know how the fact-checkers have panned Trump’s truthfulness. The data from Nyhan and Reifler suggest many Americans continue to have low familiarity with fact-checking.

Shafer says he does not accept that the fact checkers do not know what they’re talking about. The survey data from Nyhan and Reifler leave plenty of room for public skepticism, especially from a Republican audience. So Republicans, and perhaps likewise Trump supporters, may not accept that fact checkers know what they’re talking about.

But what about Amazeen’s specific claim about Americans’ favorable view of fact-checking?

Americans’ low familiarity with fact-checking weighs against the relevance of Amazeen’s factoid.

Republican skepticism about fact-checking weighs against the relevance of Amazeen’s factoid.

And finally, the nature of the research by Nyhan and Reifler weighs against the relevance of Amazeen’s factoid. The researchers gave their treatment group fact-checking examples that were unlikely to cause partisan objections.

Nyhan and Reifler mention that in their paper:

Another challenge is that the format of our study imposed some partisan balance in the fact-checks that respondents were shown and often showed them fact-checks about unfamiliar political figures (e.g., a governor in another state). In a more realistic context, people may be selective about which fact-checks they choose to read or may be [sic] encounter a unrepresentative set of fact-checks via other sources (television news, online links and citations, social media, etc.). As a result, the fact-checks people see under normal circumstances may be more polarizing or controversial than the ones participants saw in our study (which did not produce a differential response based on how consistent their conclusions were with people’s partisan views).


We think it likely the attacks on Trump that Shafer mentions would prove polarizing for Trump supporters.

We find Nyhan and Reifler’s research consistent with our criticism of Shafer’s position. Trump supporters may well lack familiarity with fact checker attacks on Trump. Trump supporters may reject fact checker attacks as suspect. And Trump supporters, just like supporters of other candidates, may forgive their candidate’s inaccuracies so long as they judge the candidate represents their interests better than the other candidates do.

Amazeen says 80 percent of Americans see fact-checking favorably. But if that number includes a high percentage who are unfamiliar with fact checking then how does it significantly affect observations such as Shafer’s?

Perhaps Amazeen will explain one day.

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