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False beliefs about over fraud in the US: what consequences?

Synthesis produced by the Fondation Descartes of the following research paper:

Pennycook, G., & Rand, D. G. (2021). “Examining false beliefs about voter fraud in the wake of the 2020 Presidential Election.” The Harvard Kennedy School (HKS) Misinformation Review, 2(1).

False allegations regarding large-scale voter fraud – particularly with regards to mail-in ballots – were widely circulated shortly before the 2020 US presidential election. To what extent did US voters believe this misleading information? This is what American psychologists Gordon Pennycook and David G. Rand sought to determine in a study conducted on November 10, 2020, three days after the announcement of Joe Biden’s victory. Their results are as follows:

  • A majority of Trump voters (>77%) believe voter fraud to be a common occurrence in American elections.
  • 65% believe that Trump in fact won the 2020 election.
  • Only 22% believe that Biden was legitimately elected.
  • However, the authors found that a majority of Trump voters would consider Biden’s victory to be legitimate if Trump were to lose his various legal battles and/or concede defeat. It should be noted that the share of Trump voters that would in any event continue to see Biden’s victory as illegitimate remains significant (40%).
  • Despite this last result, few voters (12%) would seek to hold public protests if Trump refuses to concede defeat.
  • Overall, the more respondents say they trust media outlets other than Fox News, the less they believe that election fraud is common in the US and that Trump actually won the 2020 elections. Surprisingly, this is also the case (albeit to a lesser extent) for respondents who trust conservative media outlets, whether traditional (e.g. Fox News) or more extreme (e.g. Breitbart).
  • It is interesting to note that Trump voters possessing greater basic political knowledge and greater interest in electoral news are more likely to hold false beliefs regarding the election (whereas the opposite is true with regards to Biden voters). This element, perhaps counter-intuitively, contributes to the polarization between the two camps.
  • Lastly, respondents with an analytical rather than intuitive way of thinking are less likely to believe in Trumps’ victory.
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