Published: March 4, 2024 By

Why do people support politicians who make blatantly false statements?

A forthcoming study dug into this phenomenon and found that people knowingly support falsehoods when it aligns with their personal politics. 

Ethan Poskanzer.

Ethan Poskanzer

“A lot of people's support for politicians who say things that aren't true isn't because they believe those statements per se, but they view that misinformation as supporting political goals that they believe in,” said Ethan Poskanzer, an assistant professor of strategy and entrepreneurship in the Leeds School of Business and co-author of the study, which will be published in the American Journal of Sociology in June.

The research, led by Minjae Kim of Rice University’s Jones Graduate School of Business and co-authored by Oliver Hahl of Carnegie Mellon University’s Tepper School of Business and Ezra W. Zuckerman Sivan of Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Sloan School of Management, sought to discern why people support politicians who disseminate information that is not truthful. 

Based on the results of six surveys of U.S. voters during and after President Donald Trump’s administration, researchers found a disconnect between what people believe to be “factual” and what they believe to be “true.” Each survey gauged voters’ reactions to false statements by politicians, including Trump, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, President Joe Biden and Democratic Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York.

For example, one study asked respondents about then-President Donald Trump’s 2018 tweet: “Sadly, it looks like Mexico's Police and Military are unable to stop the Caravan heading to the Southern Border of the United States.”

“That was not grounded in facts, but people said it was true in the sense that they believed U.S. immigration policy should be stricter,” Poskanzer said. “So they supported the disinformation because it fits this deeper truth they believed in.”

Moral flexibility

A big upshot of the study, according to Poskanzer, is that fact-checkers aren’t always useful in fighting misinformation disseminated by politicians “because people know that it's not true, but they want it to be out there and it fits their agenda.”

In the surveys, both Republican and Democratic voters used moral grounds to justify politicians’ false statements. They also held politicians’ statements to different moral standards, “zealously applying them to politicians whom they oppose but suspending them when they perceive the politician to be engaged in demagogic fact-flouting to proclaim a deeper truth about their political grievances,” according to the paper.

This is what researchers call “moral flexibility,” when partisan voters shift their moral standards in evaluating politicians’ statements from their preferred and opposing candidates.

“When we show a statement by Donald Trump that's not truthful, Republicans will say it's OK if it's not true because it sends the right message, whereas Democrats will say that a statement needs to be factual,” Poskanzer said. “With a statement from Joe Biden, Democrats will say it's OK if it's not based on evidence, that it supports a generally true message, while Republicans will then have a higher bar and say every statement needs to be based on facts.”

The ‘big lie’

In most of the studies, Trump supporters surveyed applied significant factual flexibility when it came to his statements. But the researchers’ “big lie” study, which surveyed only people who voted for Trump in 2016, was an outlier.

In this survey, taken in 2021, researchers analyzed voters’ reactions to Trump’s assertion that the 2020 American presidential election was “rigged” or “stolen.” Those surveyed were significantly more likely to say that Trump’s statement was based more on objective evidence than on subjective impressions.

“Relative to other issues, Trump’s claims about the election being stolen were communicated as being factual,” Poskanzer said. “While we see less moral flexibility with this issue, potentially due to these more fact-based claims, we still see that the importance individuals place on factual accuracy regarding the big lie depends on their partisan affiliations.”

Fighting misinformation

An important conclusion of the study is that moral flexibility may be a reason political misinformation can be effective. “People are OK with politicians not telling the truth because they see it as morally justified, which is more concerning than if someone had tricked them (into believing a statement),” Poskanzer said.

When it comes to facts versus “truth,” a surprising finding was that “people were perfectly comfortable articulating that they knew this statement wasn't based in fact, but they thought it should still be publicized because it was important for a political issue,” he added.

Holding leaders to standards that align with democratic norms is key to fighting political misinformation, Poskanzer said.

“We, as voters, should think to ourselves, is objective evidence important? Are facts important to me? And then hold our leaders to those standards. Ultimately, an important reason why misinformation gets out is because voters condone it,” he said.