EDITORIAL NOTE: Due to a copyediting error, the original version of the following summary incorrectly cited the number 20 in both the title and first sentence of the text. The correct number – which is now reflected below – is 240. We apologize for the error.
In a six-month study of more than 1,000 Americans, R. Kelly Garrett and Robert Bond found that U.S. conservatives were less able to distinguish truth from falsehoods in 240 viral political news stories that appeared online between January and July 2019. Differences in the political orientation of these stories may help explain this observation, the researchers note, writing that "we find that high-profile true political claims tend to promote issues and candidates favored by liberals, while falsehoods tend to be better for conservatives." Two-thirds (65%) of the high-profile true stories were characterized as benefiting the political left, compared with only 10% that were described as benefiting the political right. Among high-profile false stories, 45.8% were perceived to benefit the political right while 23.3% benefited the left. While there has been a widespread perception that U.S. conservatives are likely to believe in false political news, most research in this area has focused on a narrow set of "hot-button" issues such as climate change and weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Garrett and Bond sought to assess this idea systematically by measuring responses to a richer dataset of political information. They used a social media monitoring service to identify 10 true and 10 false viral political stories and asked the people in their study about their beliefs about those stories in 12 waves over the course of six months. The researchers then assigned 5 Democrats and 5 Republicans recruited through Amazon's Mechanical Turk service to evaluate the political slant of these belief statements. The study found that conservatives' propensity to hold misperceptions is partially explained by the political implications of widely shared news; socially-engaging, truthful claims tended to favor the left, while engaging falsehoods disproportionately favored the right. "In such an environment, the belief accuracy of liberals and conservatives would be expected to diverge even if ideological bias is symmetrical," the authors say. "Collectively, these results underscore the importance of policies designed to ensure that news shared in the political information environment is reliable and factually accurate," Garrett and Bond conclude. They note several limitations of their study, including - as with studies before theirs - the inability to provide definitive evidence as to whether bias is ideologically asymmetrical.