Communication Currents

Fighting lies with facts or humor: Comparing the effectiveness of satirical and regular fact-checks in response to misinformation and disinformation

February 22, 2024
Mass Communication

New Series Vol. 1, No. 3

The USA’s founders believed that democracy depends on a well-informed citizenry. So it is important in a democratic society that citizens not only have access to large quantities of accurate information, but also that efforts be made for inaccurate information to be limited and for misperceptions based on inaccurate information be corrected if possible. Particularly in recent years, scholars, politicians, journalists and others have examined both false information without a deceptive political agenda (misinformation) and false information with a deceptive political agenda (disinformation); disinformation has been mostly associated with radical right-wing issue positions, according to the authors. Fact checking systems have been found to be effective to some extent, but especially only when false information did not confirm preexisting beliefs. Satire’s humor may dominate the public’s tendency to analyze and argue against messages they are hearing, so satire may change minds while also holding politicians accountable. This study tested whether “satire can effectively correct mis- and disinformation, even among people whose beliefs align with the deceptive statements.” Specifically, a controlled experiment was conducted online to test only text-only fact-checkers with and without humorous appeals, using a misinformation article about increasing crime rates and a disinformation article blaming higher crime rates on immigrants. Effects of corrections were measured for perceived accuracy of misinformation, issue agreement, and de-polarized political attitudes.

Studies have shown that fact checks can refute untrue information; fact-checks combine simple and short messages with factual information to present a definite conclusion. Studies also have shown that satire can help people learn about politics, especially about inconsistencies and false arguments, even though satire’s primary goal is humor. One study found that “logic-based factual corrections are more credible among dismissive audience segments,” but “humor-based corrections are more effective among people convinced by false information” (Boukes & Hameleers). But little is known about satire’s effects on misinformation vs. disinformation. Acknowledging the limited effect of one fact-check on partisan beliefs and identities, the Boukes and Hameleers study still hypothesized that “corrective information should

(a) lower the credibility of misinformation shown before the refutation; (b) lower the agreement with its ‘factual’ claims, and (c) de-polarize the political issue attitudes of opposed-issue publics. This effect should be observed for both humorous [satirical] and factual refutations” compared with instances in which false information is not refuted.

An unmeasurable factor in the study are levels of motivated reasoning, which refers to “people process[ing] information in a biased way to arrive at the most desirable conclusion; and subsequently tend to search for and accept arguments that confirm an already-supported position and avoid or reject arguments that challenge it” (Boukes & Hameleers). Defensive motivated reasoning can result in people searching for ways to defend their inaccurate information/beliefs to avoid cognitive dissonance. When this happens as a result of fact-checking, it’s called reactance and a backfire effect.

In short, fact-checks are sometimes effective and sometimes not. Satirical corrections also have pros and cons: satire is less confrontational, embedded in a story of its own, and requires mental effort that cannot be used for defense of falsity. The authors hypothesized: “(a) issue agreement and (b) perceived accuracy of the misinformation article were most strongly corrected by the factual arguments of regular fact-checks, whilst the less confrontational format of satire should result in a more effective correction of the harder-to-correct political beliefs measured as (c) depolarization in our study.” Four additional hypotheses concerned false information’s detrimental effects on credibility, issue agreement, and political attitudes when people’s prior (ideological) perceptions are reinforced because of the increased difficulty of correcting those people’s false information; whether satirical fact checks are more de-polarizing politically than regular fact checks; the difficulty of correcting misinformation among attitudinally incongruent people (those who disagree with others on the same subject); and whether attitudinal congruence moderates politicized disinformation more than non-politicized misinformation.

The research method was: “participants were first exposed to a news article that provided either the correct information (in the control condition), the misinformation, or the disinformation. Subsequently, participants received a correction (a regular fact-check or a satirical fact-check) or no refutation at all (a mock text with a non-related news item). Specifically, we employed a 3 (corrective information: control versus regular fact-check versus satirical fact-check) x 2 (misinformation: un-polarized vs. polarized) between subjects factorial design.” So each participant saw two messages.

A newspaper article on crime was employed in both disinformation and misinformation versions. A fact-check in Politifact style was written, then a satirical fact-check was written in The Onion’s style. Manipulation checks confirmed variables’ validity.

To form a baseline of respondents’ prior beliefs, six statements each were measured for levels of agreement/disagreement about crime rates, levels of perceived accuracy of the crime rate story, and attitudes about crime and immigrants. Polarization was measured based on attitudes towards supporters of the Democratic Party and the Republican Party (polarization scores could not be assigned to independents).

Results were mixed in supporting or not supporting the various hypotheses. “Regular and satirical fact-checks have successfully lowered issue agreement with false information and reduced its perceived accuracy. However, both types of fact-checking have not been effective in de-polarizing political attitudes. If anything, satirical fact-checks may increase rather than decrease the level of polarization….[They] may reinforce the partisan beliefs of people already aligning with the correction but may have no effect on citizens who really need fact-checking information to correct their existing misperceptions.” But overall, choosing between regular fact checks and satirical fact checks “do not necessarily strengthen or weaken the overall impact of corrective information.”

Communication Currents Discussion Questions

1. A controlled experiment such as this one may present only one or two statements related to knowledge and beliefs that respondents may have had for years or even decades, and effects, if any, likely will be minimal and/or short-term. How can researchers gather data about causes of slow and/or permanent attitude changes, such as what the USA has experienced regarding marijuana legalization, LGBTQ rights, and other issues?

2. Individuals’ varying levels of motivated reasoning is unmeasurable, since individuals do not realize, let alone articulate, their minds’ efforts to avoid cognitive dissonance. How can researchers address such a limitation in their analysis and conclusions?

3. This study used as stimuli information and attitudes about crime, a polarized and politicized topic. What difference might it make to conduct such an experiment on a public affairs issue that is less polarized and politicized?

For additional suggestions about how to use this and other Communication Currents in the classroom, see:


Mark Boukes is Associate Professor of Corporation Communication, ASCoR, Universiteit van Amsterdam.

Michael Hameleers is Associate Professor of Political Communication and Journalism, ASCoR, Universiteit van Amsterdam.

This essay, by Dane S. Claussen, translates the scholarly journal article, Mark Boukes and Michael Hemeleers (2023): Fighting lies with facts or humor: Comparing the effectiveness of satirical and regular fact-checks in response to misinformation and disinformation, in Communication Monographs, 90(1): 69-91. DOI: 10.1080/03637751.2022.2097284 (DOI)


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