In this post-truth world, media “fact-checking” of so many things might well be a waste of time, the director of technology, media and communications specialization at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs has concluded.
With misinformation and disinformation the icing on the cake of so much political debate, she admitted, “promoting journalistic fact-checking sounded like the perfect antidote.”
But after a serious examination of the effort, Schiffrin found no evidence to support the idea the antidote is working.
“First, there is far more false information available online than can ever be fact-checked by small teams of fact-checkers around the world,” she writes. “Second, fact-checks are not necessarily seen by the people exposed to the false information in the first place. Also, because it takes a long time to verify information, or prove that it’s incorrect, the false information can circulate while the verification process is underway. Studies of rumors on Twitter find that they continue to circulate long after they’ve been debunked. And people tend to believe something if it comes from people in their group even if that information is wrong. Indeed, providing accurate information does not actually make a difference when people are partisan.”
Her last observation might be the most important and should have come with a caveat:
“Accurate information does not actually make a difference when people are partisan because it is often hard for the partisans to believe fact-checkers can be non-partisan.”
Attempts to define accuracy have themselves become tainted by partisanship as Shiffrin’s own Trump-centric analysis serves to underline.
“In 2016, Trump supporters often said they didn’t mind whether he has a fact wrong because he is speaking a larger truth or telling their story,” she wrote. “This is borne out by findings that Trump supporters may not withdraw their support for the candidate even when they recognize his statements are false.”
For better or worse, this is true not just of the Trump supporters singled out by Schiffrin but of supporters of many political candidates. What is happening today is not just a Trump phenomenon. On a national level, one need go back no further than 1998 when Democrat President Bill Clinton looked Americans in the eye in and told a whopper of a lie:
In the wake of that false statement, Molly W. Senner from the Pew Research Center and Clyde Wilcox from Georgetown University would later write that “Clinton was, paradoxically, the most publicly shamed president of modern times and one of the most popular.”
Despite being impeached by the House of Representatives for lying about the affair to a grand jury, an act that has sent others to jail; despite having become the center of so much television and internet humor; and despite being tried by the Senate as part of the impeachment process, polls showed “Clinton was more popular than any contemporary had ever been in the beginning of the sixth year of his presidency,” Senner and Wilcox wrote in a paper published by the American Political Science Association.
The very first subhead in that 1999 paper reads “The Public Stands by Its Man.”
The support for Trump among the Trump faithful today should come as no more of a surprise than the support for Clinton among the Clinton faithful then. A variety of psychological studies have found that once people choose a political candidate to support they tend to overlook his or her flaws.
They found that conservatives told President George W. Bush’s claim Iraq was stockpiling weapons of mass destruction was a lie believed Bush’s version of reality more than when told “there was a risk, a real risk, that Saddam Hussein would pass weapons or materials or information to terrorist networks.”
But this is not a conservative or liberal issue, not a Democrat or Republican issue, but a human issue. We want to believe what we want to believe, and the facts are often secondary.
A study published in American Sociological Review last year even suggested that Trump’s lying might make him look more “authentic” to a lot of people. Why?
This might help explain the estimated 8.4 million Americans the Rasmussen Reports found to have voted for liberal Democrat Barack Obama in 2012 only to turn around and vote for conservative Republican Trump in 2016.
About all the two men shared in common was a promise to shake up the establishment. Obama campaigned on “hope and change,” which was an only slightly less to the point version of Trump’s “Make America Great Again,” which Town & Country magazine accused Trump of stealing from former presidents Clinton and the late Ronald Reagan.
Clinton ironically classified Trump’s slogan as a racist dog whistle in 2016 when his wife, Hillary, was running against Trump, though Bill himself announced his 1991 presidential bid by saying “I believe that together we can make America great again.”
Ask Google to now “fact check ‘Make America Great Again,” (MAGA) and the first two citations that pop up are from Snopes, which proclaims itself “the internet’s definitive fact-checking resource.” The first citation debunks a claim from some far corner of the internet suggesting MAGA hats were manufactured by Nike. The second poses this question: “Was ‘America First’ a Slogan of the Ku Klux Klan?”
“The white supremacist group made frequent use of the slogan more recently embraced by President Donald Trump, though they did not, as some claim, invent it,” Snopes answers.
But then it goes on to shift the claim to be that “President Trump’s oft-repeated slogan ‘America First’ was also a credo of the white supremacist Ku Klux Klan organization” and declare that “True.”
The copy below goes even farther down that path. It ties the phrase to the anti-Semitism of Charles Lindbergh and to the America First Committee to which he belonged. But Snopes badly mischaracterizes America First which included among its members Potter Stewart, a future justice of the U.S. Supreme Court; Gerald Ford, a future president; Sargeant Shriver, the first head of the Peace Corps; and young writer Gore Vidal.
The committee, as Michael Brendan Dougherty wrote in the magazine The Week, was actually a “young, politically diverse, and surprisingly well-lettered movement that wanted to keep America neutral (like Switzerland or Ireland) as Europe descended into World War II….It counted major American political figures, Democrat and Republican, in its ranks, as well as many men of letters.
“The America Firsters remembered World War I. Members of the AFC over 30 would recall that the last European bloodbath had some deforming effects on liberty at home. These included America’s experiments in mass wartime censorship, stirred up-hatred of German-Americans, and the legal suppression of the German language that was used commonly in the Midwest and Great Plains. The governor of Iowa told reporters, ‘There is no use in anyone wasting his time praying in other languages than English. God is listening only to the English tongue.’
“America Firsters also remembered British intelligence planting false and insane stories in the American press during World War I, accusing the German army of marching with Belgian babies impaled on their bayonets. They remembered that Woodrow Wilson’s government had employed a small army of government-licensed demagogues, the Four Minute Men, who got their speeches from the proto-fascist Committee on Public Information.”
All of this serves to illustrate the problem with so much fact-checking today. The fact-checkers carry their own biases into the world of grays they then try to translate into simple black and white. In the process, they become as suspect of spin as some of those they are fact checking.
One could legitimately argue the over-simplification of facts, and the mainstream media’s righteous embrace of the idea that facts themselves are simple has only served to deepen the political divide separating Americans.
Some facts are, indeed, as clear as gravity or night and day. It is either dark, or it is light. What goes up will come down.
Many facts, however, are not so simple. Just ask the International Olympic Committee (IOC) which is having a hell of a time defining male and female. For the most part, gender differences are obvious, but for a small number of people they are not. And in high-level-sport, where winning and losing is separated by a less than 1 percent difference in performance, the 10 percent advantage of being male is a big deal.
Factually, this physiological difference between the sexes is the only reason for creating separate but equal events for men and women in human-powered sports. Where the situation gets complicated is in trying to determine what to do with women whose hormonal makeup could provide them some of the physiological advantages of men.
When the media gets into these complicated situations, it can sometimes make itself look as biased as the people it fact checks.
“Track’s New Gender Rules Could Exclude Some Female Athletes,” the New York Times headlined last year. That is certainly one way to look at the situation. “Track’s New Gender Rules Could Level the Playing Field for Most Female Athletes” would also be a perfectly legitimate way to look at the situation.
If you’re analyzing something from the view of a glass half-empty, you draw one conclusion. If you are looking at the very same picture from a view of a glass half-full, you’re destined to reach a different conclusion.
And these opposing conclusions are often vastly different.
Given the way this reality usually goes unrecognized and unmentioned, it’s no wonder fact-checking is failing or succeeding brilliantly, depending on one’s point of view. Were one to poll readers of the Times and the Washington Post, they would surely give those publications high marks for their fact-checking of Trump’s regular misstatements.
Unfortunately, their laser-like focus on Trump only serves to make them appear badly biased in the eyes of Trump supporters. All of which has only helped grow the national, partisan divide that makes fact-checking ever more difficult.
MSNBC operates from one set of facts. Fox News from another. CNN sometimes from a third. And then there are the Times, the Post, the Wall Street Journal with their sets of facts regularly translated from all the grays into black and white to simplify things for news consumers.
In a perfect world, there might be some fix for this. But the world is not perfect and democracies even less so. They are built on opinion-heavy debate with the opinions both easy and hard to support with facts for no other reason than that differing sets of facts, all very factual, can lead to equally valid but different conclusions.
See abortion and gun control, two of this country’s longest-running and most contentious political debates.
Worse than ever
Granted, the situation has grown more complicated in these times in that President Donald Trump sometimes appears a pathological liar, but some of his critics and opponents are not much better.
Not to mention that in America’s culture war quote-unquote “facts” end up being twisted in all sorts of interesting ways. Remember polebrity Sarah Palin’s claim to “death panels” in The Affordable Care Act” or Obamacare, as she preferred to call it?
The act required every American obtain some form of health care insurance or pay a government fine. Palin’s claim that “death panels” were embedded in the act won her the “Lie of the Year” from one fact-checking organization:
“The editors of PolitiFact.com, the fact-checking Web site of the St. Petersburg Times, have chosen it as our inaugural ‘Lie of the Year.’
“PolitiFact readers overwhelmingly supported the decision. Nearly 5,000 voted in a national poll to name the biggest lie, and 61 percent chose ‘death panels’ from a field of eight finalists.”
Then there were those who pointed out “‘death panels’ already exist,’‘ because they must given the state of modern medical technology. We can keep bodies functioning long past that point of “meaningful life” the U.S. Supreme Court used as a standard to determine where a woman’s right to choose abortion ends and the government’s power to protect the unborn begins.
Neither insurance companies nor the government can afford to keep grandpa on life support for 10 years just because his family so desires. At some point, someone has to decide that it’s over.
In that context, the discussion about “death panels” isn’t whether they exist but who should have control over them – private insurers or the government – as Gingrich pointed out.
Most people would probably consider either choice bad, but unless you’re a billionaire who can afford to pay the staggering costs to keep grandpa on that life support, this is the way the world works.
And there is no factual argument that can resolve the question of who should have the authority to make the final call. It’s a personal issue. Some would prefer government; some would prefer private insurers.
Was Palin factually inaccurate in declaring “death panels” in the Affordable Care Act? Yes.
There is nowhere in the act a section titled “Death panel.”
Did she raise a bigger issue that deserved national consideration and still does?
Yes again. The U.S. health care system deserves a lot more discussion in general. The country spends more on health care than any nation in the world. U.S. spending is about twice that of the United Kingdom.
But as both the BBC and the American Medical Association point out, the details as to why are complicated.
They are so complicated that a BBC “reality check” of the claim that “the National Health Service costs half as much as the US health system, and cares for the whole population” came to the conclusion the claim could be both true and false.
It’s a problem with a lot of things getting fact-checked these days. Devils too often live in the details. And fact-checkers too often ignore that reality at the cost of their own credibility.
We may have to accept that in this messy form of government called democracy individuals are going to have to take some responsibility for muddling through the lies and deceits and propaganda and spin to reach their own individual decisions on what is true and false, and what is right and wrong.
America has been through this before and survived. Whether it can get through it once more and survive largely depends on how much faith you have in average Americans.
Are they smart enough to deserve the Second Amendment or do all those fact-checkers, “these fighters for truth” as Schiffrin calls them, need the “additional allies and armaments” she suggests might be warranted?
If so, wherefrom come these allies and armaments? The existing governmental bureaucracy? Facebook? Google? Some new Ministry of Truth?
And would resorting to any of those solutions truly result in a better path forward?