From a new Monkey Cage post co-authored with my former students Sasha Dudding and Heather Szilagyi:
Last month, the House Intelligence Committee released a previously classified section of the 2002 congressional inquiry into the September 11 attacks known as the missing “28 pages.” The U.S. government allegedly kept this document confidential to protect its relationship with Saudi Arabia. Instead, the move ended up fueling a massive controversy centered on claims of a cover-up by the U.S. government intended to suppress evidence of Saudi complicity in the 9/11 attacks.
Our research helps explain why withholding information from government documents like the “28 pages” is so often counterproductive. In a new article (written with co-authors at Dartmouth College) in the Journal of Experimental Political Science, we show how the use of redactions can undermine the effectiveness of documents intended to reduce belief in conspiracy theories. Keeping information from the public can create the perception of a cover-up even when none exists.
Our post is based on our new article in the Journal of Experimental Political Science (ungated), which was co-authored with the students in my 2014 Experiments in Politics seminar:
Classified or Coverup? The Effect of Redactions on Conspiracy Theory Beliefs
Brendan Nyhan, Franklin Dickinson, Sasha Dudding, Enxhi Dylgjeri, Eric Neiley, Christopher Pullerits, Minae Seog, Andy Simpson, Heather Szilagyi and Colin Walmsley
Conspiracy theories are prevalent among the public. Governments frequently release official documents attempting to explain events that inspire these beliefs. However, these documents are often heavily redacted, a practice that lay epistemic theory suggests might be interpreted as evidence for a conspiracy. To investigate this possibility, we tested the effect of redactions on beliefs in a well-known conspiracy theory. Results from two preregistered experiments indicate that conspiracy beliefs were higher when people were exposed to seemingly redacted documents compared to when they were exposed to unredacted documents that were otherwise identical. In addition, unredacted documents consistently lowered conspiracy beliefs relative to controls while redacted documents had reduced or null effects, suggesting that lay epistemic interpretations of the redactions undermined the effect of information in the documents. Our findings, which do not vary by conspiracy predispositions, suggest policymakers should be more transparent when releasing documents to refute misinformation.