Study: Do people trust governments less when ‘fake news’ proves real?

People remember when governments lie to them and it lowers their satisfaction in government officials.

fake holding newspaper on fire
  • A recent study measured how the public's trust in government differs when exposed to rumors, government denials, and subsequent verification of the initial rumors.
  • The study, conducted in China, also examined whether any changes in trust lasted over a three-week period.
  • The results suggest that governments that deem negative information as "fake news" may persuade some people, but over the long term it can cost them in credibility and public satisfaction.

In late 2019, Dr. Li Wenliang, an ophthalmologist at the Wuhan Central Hospital in China, sent messages to colleagues warning of a potential SARS-like outbreak. Soon after, screenshots of the messages appeared elsewhere online. Li was reprimanded by Chinese officials for "spreading rumors," and he signed a police document publicly stating that his comments "were not factual and broke the law."

It didn't take long for the public to learn the truth. By early February, at least 600 people in China had died of COVID-19, including Li. The Chinese government later declared him a martyr.

How much did this reversal cost the Chinese government, in terms of public trust? More broadly: Do governments lose credibility over the long term when what they call "fake news" later proves to be real?

That's the key question of a new study titled "When 'Fake News' Becomes Real: The Consequences of False Government Denials in an Authoritarian Country."

Both democratic and authoritarian governments have been known to label certain negative information as "fake," the researchers noted. But it's especially concerning when authoritarian governments do it, because their citizens tend to have less fact-checking capabilities, and because it can be a way for violent regimes to silence dissenters.

Dr. Li Wenliang memorialReactions In Hong Kong After Death of Coronavirus Whistleblower Doctor

Credit: Anthony Kwan/Getty Images

"The ability to label claims and explanations that the authorities deem objectionable as fake has long been regarded as a power," the researchers wrote. "Because the revelation of the falsehood of government denials could erode the government's power, it is important to investigate its consequences, particularly in the authoritarian setting."

In the study, the researchers conducted a survey on three groups of participants. Each group was shown different information regarding a new automobile registration policy, and they were also asked general questions about demographic information and political interests. The study explains:

"The first group was exposed to a rumor regarding the government's automobile registration policy (rumor group), the second group was exposed to the government's denial of the rumor (denial group), and the third group was exposed to an event in which the rumor initially denied by the government was verified as true (verification group)."

Each group then reported how much they believed in the initial rumor and the government denial. The denial and verification groups were also asked to rate their satisfaction with the government's handling of automobile registration.

The results showed that government denial effectively decreased belief in the rumor, compared to the group that was exposed only to the rumor. Meanwhile, being exposed to a verification of the rumor increased belief in the rumor and decreased belief in the denial. Also, the verification group reported being slightly less satisfied with the government.

Design of survey 1

Credit: Wang et al.

But do these effects last? After all, past research suggests that the effects of persuasive communication — say, a negative political ad smearing a candidate — tend to disappear within days.

To find out, the researchers conducted a follow-up survey three weeks after the first. This time, the survey included only two groups: the verification group from the first survey, and a group of new participants. Both groups were exposed to a rumor and then a government denial.

"The difference between the two groups was simply that one of them had previously experienced the revelation of the government's false denial of an online rumor, while the other group did not have such an experience," the researchers wrote.

The results showed that the verification group — that is, people who had weeks earlier been shown that the government had lied to them — was much less likely to believe in the government's denial. What's more, the verification group was also less satisfied with the government.

Design of survey 2

Wang et al.

The findings suggest that governments can lose credibility over the long term when they call something "fake news" but it later proves true.

"As discussed earlier, while authoritarian countries can be awash with rumors and fake news, it is less frequent for the government's false denials to be caught due to the lack of independent news media and fact-checking organizations," the researchers wrote.

"It is therefore a vivid and memorable experience to see the government's denial bluntly shown to be false. Unsurprisingly, such an experience would make people less willing to believe a new denial from the government, especially if it is somewhat similar to the one that had been shown to be false."

Ultimately, calling "fake news" on negative information does seem to persuade some people. But it seems to be a costly short-term strategy, one that comes with the added cost of a dissatisfied public.

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