Republican US presidential hopeful Donald Trump’s claim that Arab Americans cheered during the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks is just the latest in a string of claims from across party lines that fact checkers dispute.
Carly Fiorina said the US was preparing to accept 250,000 Syrian refugees; former US secretary of state Hillary Rodham Clinton said that her handling of e-mails through a private server was “permitted” by the US Department of State; US Senator Marco Rubio said that welders earn more than philosophers; US Senator Bernie Sanders said “climate change is directly related to the growth of terrorism”; and Ben Carson said that no signatories of the Declaration of Independence had elected office experience.
Such claims, which fact checkers have said are not true, are part of political life.
The Republican campaign for next year’s election has been notable for incendiary claims, most notably by Trump.
“There is no rigorous way to quantify deception being better or worse over time, but I do think it’s fair to say Donald Trump is on the verge of melting down the fact-checking sites with what he is saying,” said Brendan Nyhan, a Dartmouth College political scientist who follows fact-checking and campaigns.
Trump earlier this year said the US unemployment rate was as high as 42 percent.
More recently, he tweeted a graphic showing that 81 percent of white people killed in homicides were killed by black people.
The Web site PolitiFact said the correct figure from US Department of Justice statistics was 15 percent.
Asked by Fox News about the mistake, Trump said: “I didn’t tweet, I retweeted somebody that was supposedly an expert... Am I going to check every statistic?”
The New York Times on Tuesday said in an editorial that the past week of the campaign had been “dominated by Donald Trump’s racist lies.”
Politicians in many cases have stood by their claims — including Trump arguing that he saw thousands cheering the 2001 attacks.
Trump even fired back at the Washington Post, which disputed his claims about the attacks, tweeting: “I want an apology! Many people have tweeted that I am right!”
“There have definitely been times when I scratch my head wondering how could they say something when it is so obviously false and then not acknowledge that it is false, but I’m not a psychologist and don’t try to figure out why people say these things,” said Bill Adair, a founder and contributing editor of PolitiFact and a journalism professor at Duke University.
Republican candidate Jeb Bush claimed for example that “Florida led the nation in job creation” while he was governor — a statement given a “four Pinocchios” rating as false by the Washington Post’s fact-checker.
US Senator Ted Cruz maintained that Hispanic unemployment and teen unemployment has gone up under US President Barack Obama, while FactCheck.org found statistics showing the contrary.
Carson — who repeated Trump’s claim about people cheering on Sept. 11, 2001 — also said that US border patrols released many people attempting to enter the nation who were from Iraq, and Somalia and Russia.
FactCheck said that people arriving from those countries were less than 1 percent of the total.
Boston College political scientist Emily Thorson said that “misinformation” can often have lingering effects even if a falsehood is quickly corrected.
For example, if people are told a restaurant has an infestation, they might feel squeamish about the place even if they learn it was a mistake, she said.
“It’s hard to undo the initial effects,” she told reporters. “Misinformation gets out there and gets repeated.”
Thorson’s research on the topic showed that when people hear negative things about a candidate that turn out to be false, a correction only “mutes” the impact.
Researchers also say that backers of candidates are rarely swayed by fact-checkers.
“There is a group of people who won’t believe a correction if you have a subject that ties into their partisan identities,” Thorson said.
Nyhan said that fact-checking “can often be ineffective or counterproductive when it comes to the most controversial political issues.”
When confronted with facts about such hot issues, “people tend to resist information that runs counter to their pre-existing beliefs and attitudes,” he said.
Nonetheless, Nyhan said it would be wrong to diminish the value of fact-checking political candidates.
“The threat of fact-checking can help constrain politicians from making misleading statements,” he said. “And so it’s reasonable to assume that if we didn’t have fact checking, things would be worse.”
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