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Coautores: Sergei Guriev (Sciences Po), Emeric Henry (Sciences Po), and Ekaterina Zhuravskaya (Paris School of Economics)
How persuasive are “alternative facts,” i.e., misleading or outright false statements by populist politicians, in convincing voters? How effective is fact checking in countervailing the alternative facts? We conduct a randomized online experiment to address these questions in the context of the 2017 French presidential election campaign. Marine Le Pen (MLP), the extreme-right candidate who reached the runoff, regularly used misleading arguments in support of her policy proposals, to which mainstream media responded with systematic fact checking. We expose randomly selected subgroups of a sample of 2480 voting-age French to quotes from MLP containing misleading information about immigration and/or to facts from official sources. We find that alternative facts are highly persuasive: voters exposed to MLP rhetoric move their policy conclusions and voting intensions toward MLP. Fact checking does nothing to undo these effects despite improving factual knowledge of voters. In contrast, without fact-checking, exposure to MLP’s quotes moves posteriors on facts toward more extreme views away from the truth. Being exposed only to official facts increases political support for MLP while moving factual knowledge toward the truth.