Although the federal government is currently shut down as a result of Republican efforts to defund the Affordable Care Act, many important debates over health policy going forward will take place at the state level. Unfortunately, continuing public confusion over the law is likely to be exploited by opportunistic politicians if they aren’t fact-checked aggressively by the press.
The study is summarized in a New America Foundation report that is also being released today. Here's the executive summary:
Politicians in the United States are coming under increasing scrutiny from fact-checkers like PolitiFact, Factcheck.org, and the Washington Post Fact Checker, who examine the accuracy of public statements that are often reported without challenge by traditional news organizations. However, we know little about the effects of this practice, especially on public officials. One possibility is that fact-checking might help to deter the dissemination of misinformation, especially for candidates and legislators at lower levels of government who receive relatively little scrutiny and are sensitive to potential threats to re-election.
To test this hypothesis, we conducted a field experiment during the 2012 campaign evaluating the effects of reminding state legislators about the electoral and reputational threat posed by fact-checking. Our experimental sample consisted of nearly 1200 legislators in nine states with state PolitiFact affiliates. We found that legislators who were sent reminders that they are vulnerable to fact-checking were less likely to receive a negative PolitiFact rating or have the accuracy of their statements questioned publicly than legislators who were not sent reminders. These results suggest that the electoral and reputational threat posed by fact-checking can affect the behavior of elected officials. In this way, fact-checking could play an important role in improving political discourse and strengthening democratic accountability.
Finally, the full results of the study are presented in an academic working paper on my Dartmouth website - here's the abstract:
Does external monitoring improve democratic performance? Fact-checking has come to play an increasingly important role in political coverage in the United States, but research suggests it may be ineffective at reducing public misperceptions about controversial issues. However, fact-checking might in- stead help improve political discourse by increasing the reputational costs or risks of spreading misinformation for political elites. To evaluate this deter- rent hypothesis, we conducted a field experiment in nine U.S. states in which a randomly assigned group of state legislators were sent a series of letters about the risks to their reputation and electoral security if they are caught making questionable statements. The legislators who were sent these letters were substantially less likely to receive a negative fact-checking rating or to have their accuracy questioned publicly, suggesting that the threat posed by fact-checking can reduce inaccuracy in statements made by political elites.