After years of investigations, the special counsel Robert Muller send his written report on conspiracy and obstruction to William Barr on March 22, 2019. On March 24, William Barr, the US Attorney General wrote a now infamous four-page letter to Congress describing what he said were the report’s principal conclusions in terms that were relatively favorable to Trump. The Attorney General also held a press conference on April 18, 90 minutes before the redacted report was released to the public, in which he stated that “the evidence developed by the Special Counsel is not sufficient to establish that the President committed an obstruction-of-justice offense.” Once the report was released, both the preliminary letter and the conference were proven deliberately inaccurate. But the goal of the letter and the press conference was not to represent the investigation in a transparent way, but to set the tone of the press coverage and to appease the president. And it worked perfectly. The media ran with his message of no collusion, the president celebrated, and now we know that Robert Muller disagreed with Barr’s letter stating that “it did not fully capture the extent, nature and substance of this office’s work”, and that “Now, there is public confusion about critical aspects of this investigation”. Based on what we know on the effect of fake news and false statements in public opinion, no amount of fact checking after the initial announcement would undo the shift in public opinion that the first impression gave,
According to a recent study1 the effect of fact checking is not enough to completely get rid of the false information brought up by false facts. Furthermore, even when fact checking changes the particular believes of the people with respect to the facts, it has little effect in the support of a candidate. In the study there was a false statement said by a politician, and a real fact stated immediately after. There was an effect observable over several different conditions that was rather paradoxical. On one hand, being exposed to a fact check had a significant effect on the actual knowledge of the policies, but it also boosted support for the candidate that had said the false claims in the first place. Another study2 found a similar pattern. People take fact-checks literally, but not seriously, and the main conclusions that people make when exposed to information cannot be changed easily.
However, these experiments do not completely capture the effect that Barr’s letter had on the public perception of the investigation. We are not talking about immediate availability of conflicting information like is the case in the studies mentioned earlier. There was almost a month between the time in which the letter from the attorney general was released and the release of the redacted report, and there will be even more time before the full report is released. That is a long time for a single person to completely control the narrative to his desires without any accountability. The only reason why there is some sort of accountability is because the Muller letter was released showing his disagreement with Barr’s memo.
In these scenarios, the idea was to give incorrect priors to as many people as possible before getting the real information out. In the best-case scenario for the Attorney general, the people who get their information exclusively from media sources closely allied to the Trump administration will believe the alternative facts and never be exposed to the reality. The people who have a more varied media consumption will form strong priors based on the alternative facts, and maybe correct the policy implications but not their political support based on facts. And recent polls support that interpretation. A recent poll showed that 76% of Americans did not change their opinion with respect to Trump, and 10 percent said Mueller’s report changed their minds in favor of Trump.
The main problem here is that it is very difficult to create barriers towards misinformation and the deliberate spread of false information when the real information is not available. Even in retrospective it is hard to see how this could be avoided. For almost a month there was nobody outside of the justice department that had any ability to publicly and reliably claim that Barr’s letter to congress was not true. He had complete control over the flow of information, and he used it masterfully with a goal of setting a narrative that would then need to be disproved. And this strategy will continue to be used, because it simply works.
1. Rodriguez, Oscar David Barrera, Sergei M. Guriev, Emeric Henry, and Ekaterina Zhuravskaya. “Facts, Alternative Facts, and Fact Checking in Times of Post-Truth Politics.” SSRN Electronic Journal, 2017. doi:10.2139/ssrn.3004631.
2. Nyhan, Brendan, Ethan Porter, Jason Reifler, and Thomas J. Wood. “Taking Fact-Checks Literally But Not Seriously? The Effects of Journalistic Fact-Checking on Factual Beliefs and Candidate Favorability.” Political Behavior, 2019. doi:10.1007/s11109-019-09528-x.