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Studying the birthers

debunking helps

A new report. “Echoes of a Conspiracy: Birthers, Truthers, and the Cultivation of Extremism.” has been published in the January-March edition of the journal Communication Quarterly by university researchers Benjamin R. Warner and Ryan Neville-Shepard studying the effects of the media on belief in conspiracy theories. Two theory types were selected for the study: birthers and truthers (9/11 conspiracy theorists).

In the study, carried out separately for truther beliefs and birther beliefs, subjects were exposed only to the conspiracy theory or the conspiracy theory plus debunking material or just unrelated stuff. Their level of belief was measured before and after. The study tested what we often call the “echo chamber” in comparison to more open competition of ideas. Media included magazine/newspaper reports, videos and blog comments (alas not from here).

The results were, to say the least, surprising.

First, among birther material, debunking was markedly effective in reducing belief, unlike the truther results where belief increased even when debunked. In the real world birthers tend to be conservative and truthers liberal, but in this study belief change proved unrelated to party affiliation, suggesting partisan filtering was less a factor.

I was interested in the criteria for measuring birther belief. They used three statements that mirror definition of a birther:

  • President Barack Obama was born inside the United States (Reversed);
  • Obama’s birth records were faked to cover up his Kenyan birth;
  • Obama is not constitutionally eligible to be president because of his birth status.

There were 147 participants in the birther study, aged 17-30, were recruited from universities (in Missouri and Indiana). It would be interesting to see of the results held for the older, less educated individuals who make up a disproportionate share of actual birthers.

The Science 2.0 web site has an article about the study, and I left the following comment there (the only one so far):

Birthers on average are less educated and older than the persons selected for the study here. It certainly would be interesting to see how folks of another generation and outside universities respond.

Probably the most interesting result to me was that political affiliation didn’t affect the results, suggesting that partisan filtering was not a factor; however, in order to hear the debunking message, one has to be exposed to it, and the folks who frequent Alex Jones or Atlas Shrugs 2000 are not going to be listening to CNN.