Which photo has more people? Depends on how you voted.
In Brian Schaffner and Samantha Luks’s study, 15 percent of Trump supporters got the answer wrong
On the first full day of the Trump administration, White House press secretary Sean Spicer admonished the news media for reporting that the crowd that witnessed Donald Trump’s presidential inauguration was smaller than other recent inauguration crowds, claiming, “This was the largest audience to ever witness an inauguration — period — both in person and around the globe.”
What made this attempt by a Trump staffer to spread misinformation particularly egregious was the abundance of clear photographic evidence proving Spicer’s statements false. So, how far are Trump supporters willing to go to accept his administration’s argument?
A significant portion were willing to go quite far.
Last Sunday and Monday, we surveyed 1,388 American adults. We showed half of them crowd pictures from two inaugurations and asked which was from Trump’s ceremony and which was from Barack Obama’s 2009 swearing-in.
If the past is any guide, we would expect that Trump supporters would be more likely to claim that the picture with the larger crowd was the one from his inauguration, as doing so would express and reinforce their support for him. Further, as some respondents had never seen these photos, uncertainty about the right answer would probably lead them to choose the photograph that would be most in line with their partisan loyalties.
For the other half, we asked a simple question with one clearly correct answer: “Which photo has more people?” Some of these respondents probably understood that the image on the left was from Trump’s inauguration and that the image on the right was from Obama’s, but admitting that there were more people in Obama’s photo would mean they were acknowledging that more people attended his inauguration — and contradicting the Trump administration’s claims.
In both cases, people who said they voted for Trump in 2016 were significantly more likely to answer the questions wrong than those who voted for Hillary Clinton or those who said they did not vote at all.
For the question about which image went with which inauguration, 41 percent of Trump supporters gave the wrong answer; that’s significantly more than the wrong answers given by 8 percent of Clinton voters and 21 percent of those who did not vote.
But what’s even more noteworthy is that 15 percent of people who voted for Trump told us that more people were in the image on the left — the photo from Trump’s inauguration — than in the picture on the right. We got that answer from only 2 percent of Clinton voters and 3 percent of nonvoters.
Even when the photographic evidence was directly in front of them and the question was straightforward, 1 in 7 Trump supporters gave a clearly false answer.
To many political psychologists, this exercise will be familiar. A growing body of research documents how fully Americans appear to hold biased positions about basic political facts. But scholars also debate whether partisans actually believe the misinformation or whether some, as in our survey, knowingly give wrong answers to support their partisan team (a process called “expressive responding”).
An incorrect response to our survey question about which photo shows the larger crowd could really only arise from that second process. If there were no political controversy, any respondent who took the time to look at the photographs would see more people in the image on the right than in the one on the left. Clearly, some Trump supporters in our sample decided to use this question to express their support for Trump rather than to answer the survey question factually.
Some people may find it reassuring that at least some Trump supporters may not really believe the misinformation they express in surveys. But this administration has taken to accusing others of producing “fake news” and instead offering its own (false) “alternative facts.” If a significant portion of Trump supporters are willing to champion obvious fabrications, challenging those fabrications with facts will be difficult.
The inauguration of President Trump, left, on Jan. 20, and the inauguration of President Barack Obama on Jan. 20, 2009, right, as seen from the Washington Monument around the same time of day.