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From alternative conceptions of honesty to alternative facts in communications by US politicians

The spread of online misinformation on social media is increasingly perceived as a problem for societal cohesion and democracy. The role of political leaders in this process has attracted less research attention, even though politicians who ‘speak their mind’ are perceived by segments of the public as authentic and honest even if their statements are unsupported by evidence.

By analysing communications by members of the US Congress on Twitter between 2011 and 2022, we show that politicians’ conception of honesty has undergone a distinct shift, with authentic belief speaking that may be decoupled from evidence becoming more prominent and more differentiated from explicitly evidence-based fact speaking.

We show that for Republicans—but not Democrats—an increase in belief speaking of 10% is associated with a decrease of 12.8 points of quality (NewsGuard scoring system) in the sources shared in a tweet. In contrast, an increase in fact-speaking language is associated with an increase in quality of sources for both parties. Our study is observational and cannot support causal inferences.

However, our results are consistent with the hypothesis that the current dissemination of misinformation in political discourse is linked to an alternative understanding of truth and honesty that emphasizes invocation of subjective belief at the expense of reliance on evidence.

J. Lasser, S.T. Aroyehun, F. Carrella, A. Simchon, D. Garcia, S. Lewandowsky, From alternative conceptions of honesty to alternative facts in communications by US politicians, Nature Human Behaviour 7 (2023) 2140–2151.

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