Trump’s repeated charges of “witch hunts,” “hoaxes,” and “scams” don’t seem to be making a difference among Democrats and independents’ opinions of the investigation, at least in terms of poll numbers. The recent CBS News/YouGov Battleground Tracker poll found that 37 percent of independents and just 8 percent of Democrats believed investigations into Russian meddling were a witch hunt, numbers not significantly different from the June 2017 Suffolk/USA Today poll, which had independents at 35 percent and Democrats at 11 percent.
In the same way that Republicans are motivated to believe the president, Democrats are motivated to find reasons not to. And, Stafford adds, repetition doesn’t work in isolation from other psychological effects like political affiliation, ideology, worldview, or recent experience. “Lots of other things affect plausibility about whether something is actually true that are more important than repetition,” he said. “It’s not like a magic spell.”
In debating whether collusion is a crime, Donald Trump and Rudy Giuliani are successfully changing the narrative
The force of illusory truth, though, is probably still having some effect on people who disagree with the president, including people who watch networks that are more critical of the president, or air his tweets in order to criticize them. Seeing a phrase or hearing a claim over and over and over again, regardless of whether you agree with it, makes it familiar to you. And familiarity is key—for people who are attuned to political news as much as for people who aren’t. “The more a false statement is repeated, our research suggests that for really familiar, often-repeated statements it makes people less likely to even check their knowledge,” Payne said.
Every time a Trump tweet calling the investigation a “witch hunt” flashes up on people’s Twitter feeds or television screens—regardless of the context—it’s becoming more and more familiar to them. They’re becoming increasingly fluent in the language of Trump’s claimed innocence. Even if they don’t think Mueller’s investigation is a rigged witch hunt, they are becoming more and more familiar with the idea that it could be.
Stafford says the way to combat this effect would be for people to stop responding directly to the president’s charges. “It’s actually very ineffective to say, ‘Oh, this isn’t a witch hunt,’ because what you’re doing is reinforcing the ‘witch hunt’ frame,” he says. “You can’t just get people to stop believing something by contradicting it.” Stafford suggests creating a positive, alternative story, such as “Mueller’s investigation is aimed at safeguarding America’s elections.” But that’s not always a natural position for the president’s opponents, or the media, to take. What effect all of this repeated language could have on public opinion of the investigation itself is unclear. It probably won’t turn public opinion in the president’s favor anytime soon, but it might mean that people take the Russia investigation less seriously—the most recent Suffolk poll is already indicating that it’s a relatively unimportant issue for voters in the midterms. It’s almost certainly succeeding in framing the debate around whether it’s a witch hunt. And maybe, for the president’s purposes, that’s enough.