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

The Washington Post Sunday - - OUTLOOK - Twitter: @b_schaffner @scluks Brian Schaffner is a pro­fes­sor of po­lit­i­cal science at the Univer­sity of Mas­sachusetts at Amherst. Saman­tha Luks is man­ag­ing di­rec­tor of sci­en­tific re­search at YouGov. A ver­sion of this ar­ti­cle ap­peared on The Wash­ing­ton Pos

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.

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