Acting as a scholar in the public sphere and speaking out on political issues is a complicated matter; particularly as a political scientist. Taking a public stance on political issues may endanger your credibility as a neutral scholar (the great documentation on the scholar and radical Israel-critic Norman Finkelstein gives insights into this tension). However, in times like these, remaining in the academic armchair is even harder to justify. This is not the place to elaborate in greater detail, but in my view of the current state of political affairs, we do not live in ordinary times. Consolidated liberal democracies face unprecedented challenges, and some of these challenges come from within our own societies.
In the past months I have witnessed on twitter that some of those scholars that I know and respect for their methodological or theoretical contributions to my academic subfield (such as Charles Taber, Brendan Nyhan, Thomas Leeper) took public and unequivocal stances on political issues; particularly on the erosion of liberal norms under US-President Trump. Personally, I found that very encouraging. Donald Trump epitomizes the normalization of lying as an ordinary tool of political communication. In the past months, many journalists declared the beginning of the post-truth-era. Yet, to function democratic political discourse requires a common basis of mutually accepted facts. For these (and other) reasons, public disregard and disdain for the inquire for truth is worrisome.
In the past months I have been working with old and new friends on a project that stands up to the normalization of lying and tries to maintain the quality of the political discourse in my home country, Germany. Following the example of 113 fact checking projects in 50 countries, we launched an independent non-profit fact-checking platform for Germany: stimmtdas.org (German for: isthistrue.org).
stimmtdas.org is a non-profit project run by volunteers. Journalists, scientists, creative people joined forces to hold politicians to account in the run-up to the German federal elections 2017 (and beyond). We check public statements of German politicians and verify their veracity. By calling out false statements and by confirming those that are true, we hope contribute to the quality of public discourse in Germany.
Fact-checking from a scholarly perspective
As a scholar, I am well aware of the mixed evidence on the effectiveness of fact-checking. Several experimental studies show that fact checking effectively reduces misperceptions while other studies report that exposure to fact-checks improves knowledge but does not have subsequent effects on attitudes. Yet, most prominently (and depressingly), Brendan Nyhan and others have shown that fact-checking might even elicit back-fire effects (Study, Podcast). Ironically, just like me, early in his career Brendan Nyhan himself ran a fact-checking website before he has gotten into academic political psychology, only to demonstrate the dubious effects of fact-checking. Recently, however, he walked back on the backfire-effect (or the boomerang effect) in view of more convincing evidence for the effectiveness of belief corrections. Apparently, fact-checking works but it may backfire under some circumstances which we have not yet entirely understood .
[The backfire effect is closely related to the well-known scholarly concept of motivated reasoning (or: dissonance reduction, confirmation bias and so on). Recently on twitter, I saw conversations about a potential publication bias on motivated reasoning and people asking for unpublished studies on motivated reasoning. I chipped in our field-experimental experience on political persuasion. Our large-N study could be regarded as a most-likely case for motivated reasoning but fails to find any moderating effects of pre-treatment attitudes on attitude change. Because motivating reasoning and boomerang effects are sexier than mere persuasion change it is a plausible speculation that 1) there are a lot of unpublished studies with uniform attitude change in academic file drawers and 2) the strength of motivated reasoning is either smaller then previously though or more dependent on unknown individual or contextual contingencies. However, just speculating…]
Checking false and true political statements: stimmtdas.org
So, while there is still a lot left to understand about how fact-checking works from a scholarly perspective, we put fact-checking into practice. And the response is overwhelming. More than 20,000 visits in the first couple of days and reports in several news outlets about our small project. Among those is a long story in Germany large newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung. If you have any feedback, let us know and, please, share the news.