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Illusions of Certainty: Fact-Checking Fraud

Updated April 1, 2021

 

Summary

The political “fact-checking” industry has become a power center exercising increasing control over public discourse.  Yet fact-checking organizations’ claims of being accurate and impartial have often not been substantiated. Observers across the political spectrum have acknowledged that the “fact-checking” process is non-scientific and incorporates substantial reviewer bias. Systematic reviews have demonstrated severe ideological skew with little evidence of impartiality or factual integrity. Recommendations are made from published sources for reform of the “fact-checking” industry to facilitate fairness and accuracy and curtail politically-motivated censorship.

 

Disclaimer

The authors denounce baseless and bizarre conspiracy theories that have achieved currency on extremes of the political spectrum, including “birther” and “QAnon” conspiracy theories and the Trump-Russia collusion hoax, among many others. Nor is any support offered for dangerous and unsound medical claims. Readers are encouraged to seek accurate information from a variety of reliable sources and competent medical authorities, and to critically examine political claims from any source.

 

Introduction

Freedom of speech, freedom of press, and access to reliable information are all important to a functioning democracy. The late Democratic senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan stated, "Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts."

 

The role of “fact-checking” lies in the concept of rational versus inadvertent ignorance. Ilya Somin argued that most political ignorance is rational.(1) Individuals have limited time and resources and cannot be experts at everything. They delegate certain roles to specialists, deferring to the recommendations of a mechanic for car repair and qualified medical professionals for health care, as it is not a practical or wise use of time to attempt to gain all of the requisite knowledge for themselves. This practice can work well (or, is “rational”) out when the specialists involved are competent, ethical, and act in the client’s best interest. Some ignorance may be inadvertent, which can be more problematic. The individual who does not know the limitations of his or her own knowledge, or has not taken necessary steps to become educated on necessary topics, may make poor decisions leading to adverse consequences.

 

Enter the “fact-checkers,” ostensible experts to research and evaluate claims as a public service. In the 1990s, sites like snopes.com sniffed out hoaxes and urban legends. In recent years, fact-checkers have opined on political discourse. FactCheck.org went live in 2003 and Politifact.com in 2007; others have proliferated. Political “fact checkers,” like journalists and pundits, had no power beyond their reporting. It was up to the public to assess their credibility.

 

Starting in 2016, Facebook began working with ostensibly “independent” fact-checkers to review online content.(2) Algorithms drastically reduce the content of flagged information in news feeds or may block it entirely. Cristina Tardáguila, associate director of the International Fact-Checking Network, noted that fact-checker warnings on Facebook reduce distribution by up to 80%.(3) Facebook's third-party "fact-checkers" have been accused of political bias and have not "limited themselves to flagging stories that are straightforward hoaxes," diminishing their credibility.(4)

 

Google, too, utilizes fact-checker ratings to boost the exposure of “authoritative” sources, and highlights fact-checks in results. Sites containing information disputed by fact-checkers are downgraded, vastly reducing public visibility and website traffic. In May 2020, Twitter also began applying fact-check labels.(5) The platform later claimed that its policy was not intended to implement “fact-checking,” but to provide context, "decrease reliance on content removal," and increase "diverse perspectives" and "public accountability."(6)

 

Political fact-checkers thus enjoy a privileged status in the internet ecosystem and wield growing influence as a new “power center.” Critics have alleged that political “fact-checking” is non-transparent, unaccountable, and ideologically weaponized, serving to censor unfavored viewpoints and suppressing inconvenient information while failing to hold favorites accountable.

 

Illusions of Certainty

Psychologists Stephen Ceci and Wendy Williams wrote in Scientific American magazine that while “fact-checkers’ decisions have significant consequences for debates about fake news that cannot be overstated,” ”their biases can shroud the very truth they seek.”(7) They noted that “research underscores that fact-checkers’ personal biases influence both their choice of which statements to analyze and their determination of accuracy.” The authors observed that “there can be deep disagreements about the facts themselves,” and found that the underlying facts have been at times “too ambiguous to justify the unequivocal headlines that have appeared” from fact-checkers. They continued:

 

“The motivation to uncover falsehoods and misleading statements taken out of context is laudable. But when it comes to real-world complexities, the trouble is that people often see different things when looking at the same event, a phenomenon repeatedly documented by psychologists…

“Journalists and fact-checkers are human beings subject to the same psychological biases as everyone else—and their analyses of what constitute “facts” is affected by their own political and ideological values, resulting in what psychologists term selective perception...

“The result is a massive disagreement…In examining the evidence that each side invoked, it is possible to make a case for both positions.”(8)

 

US News’ Peter Roff similarly observed that “the fact checking business often – too often for anyone's good – turns on matters of opinion rather than matters of ‘fact.’"(9) Results may be driven by the “fact-checker’s” biases and agenda more than by any consistent standards or objective data.

Are Political Fact-Checkers Fair and Accurate?

“Fact checkers” represent themselves as unbiased, authoritative arbiters. The International Fact-Checking Network (IFCN), which provides fact-checking for Facebook, claims to be “independent” and “nonpartisan.” Politifact promises “indepence, transparency, fairness.” CNN similarly claims to “[hold] elected officials and candidates accountable by pointing out what's true and what's not.” The Washington Post Fact Checker promises to “provide missing context.”(10)

 

Americans overwhelmingly agree that misinformation is a major problem. Yet studies note concerns from Americans across the political spectrum that much of the misinformation is spread by media organizations themselves. 83% of Americans state that the media bears “a great deal” or “a moderate amount” of blame for the nation’s political division.(11)

 

In a Gallup poll conducted in December 2020, 22% of Americans rated the honesty and integrity of journalists as "very low" and 18% as "low."(12) A larger proportion had a "very low" opinion of journalists' integrity compared to any other profession except for members of Congress, only slightly higher at 24%. Conflicts of interest and concerns of bias abound.

 

Complaints from the Left

Complaints about political fact-checkers’ lack of objectivity and fairness have come from across the political spectrum. One of the few conservative organizations in the “fact-checking” industry, The Daily Caller, has been criticized for being paid by GOP campaigns while providing fact-checking services for Facebook and sponsoring emails for Republican candidates.(13) Such conflicts of interest are incompatible with a fact-checker’s obligation for impartiality and ethics. Others have complained that Facebook has interfered in ostensibly independent fact-checks “in trying to avoid the appearance of bias and cater to certain advertisers” on the political right.(14)

 

In an article entitled “How Political Fact-Checkers Distort the Truth” in the progressive New Republic, Alex Pareene decried that fact-checkers “aren’t sticking to the fact” but are “promoting a moderate dogma,” and alleged bias in the “selection of experts.”(15) He observed that “fact checkers have expanded their purview” from merely checking “whether the discrete statements of fact within [a story] were true,” but to adjudicating larger philosophical claims (“i.e., is campus political correctness a threat to liberal democracy?”). Pareene noted that “had fact-checkers kept to this narrow interpretation of the facts, they might actually be useful today.” He demonstrated that broader attempts at “‘checking’ contestable political statements” are fraught with difficulties and have achieved wildly inconsistent results.

 

Progressive and Vox co-founder Ezra Klein noted that politicians are “figuring out how to game the fact checkers. And so the umpires become unwitting players in the very game they’re trying to referee.”(16) Clive Crook in the left-leaning Atlantic magazine similarly acknowledged:

 

“Once you can't say true or false, opinion enters in... The various facts underlying a complicated claim can't just be added up. Some facts count more than others, and which count most is a matter of judgement--one on which reasonable people might actually disagree. Such is politics...In the end, [fact-checkers are] pundits like the rest of us...They're pundits with high standards--but still just pundits.”(17)

 

New York Times media columnist Ben Smith observed during his tenure at Politico: “The new professional ‘fact-checking’ class is, at its best, doing good, regular journalism under the pseudo-scientific banner, complete with made-up measurements. At their worst, they're doing opinion journalism under pseudo-scientific banners, something that's really corrosive to actual journalism, which if it's any good is about reported fact in the first place.”(18)

 

Complaints from the Right

On the conservative side, Mark Hemingway wrote in The Weekly Standard that the title “fact checker” brings “a veneer of objectivity doubling as a license to go after any remark by a public figure they find disagreeable for any reason.”(19) After citing multiple “fact-checking” failures, he wrote: “If these examples are laughably transparent attempts by the AP to weigh in with its own opinions against the opinions of the GOP candidates​—​thinly disguised as ‘fact checking’—​they’re not unusual. And the rare occasions where fact checkers deign to deal with actual facts and figures inspire little more confidence.” Hemingway continued:

 

“It’s true that these items are popular. Who doesn’t want to use the “facts” as a cudgel against his political opponents?...If you suspect that it might be PolitiFact’s pants that are on fire, you’re not alone. When it comes to fact checking, the media seem oblivious to the distinction between verifying facts and passing judgment on opinions they personally find disagreeable...At the most basic level, the media’s new ‘fact checkers’ remain obdurately unwilling to let opinions simply be opinions...The fact checker is less often a referee than a fan with a rooting interest in the outcome.”

 

Hemingway expressed similar concerns in an interview with National Public Radio.(20) Jordan Davidson of the conservative Federalist did not mince words in her piece “USA Today’s Fact Checks Are Actually Corrupt Partisan Spin,” writing that “many of their supposed corrections are actually just regurgitated narratives...often indistinguishable from leftist politicians’ talking points.”(21) USA Today “fact checkers,” Davidson wrote, have acted as apologists doing “damage control” for leftist politicians while taking “the offensive in the partisan battle.”

 

Different Opinions, Different “Facts”

The world of Senator Moynihan in which reasonable individuals shared common facts and could “agree to disagree” over their interpretation is no more. The Pew Research Center reported in 2020 that 73% of the American public say that Americans from both parties “not only disagree over plans and policies, but also cannot agree on the basic facts.”(22) So-called political “fact checkers” have exacerbated the divide by seeking to impose ideological assumptions and partisan claims as “fact.”

 

There has been no credible evidence to demonstrate that political “fact checkers” are impervious to the biases that affect their media colleagues, including “confirmation bias,” or the tendency to view claims supporting one’s preferred viewpoints as credible, and evidence undermining preferred narratives as flawed, regardless of objective qualities. As such bias is often subconscious, even widespread instances of biased “fact checking” may not arise from deceptive intent, nor from any grand conspiracy. Rather, the manifestation of bias is expected to be virtually inevitable for members of a group whose ideology lies on an extreme of the political spectrum.

 

The determination of which groups and institutions are empowered as “fact-checkers” or have input into the “fact-checking” process can substantially impact results. The gap between the vast subjectivity of the fact-checking industry and its pretense as defender of “truth” has posed strong incentives for competing ideological movements to vie for control. An ideology or movement favored by “fact-checkers” can have its assumptions, worldview, and framing of issues privileged as “fact,” while those of opponents are discredited.

 

Political figures should be held accountable for their statements, yet standards must be fair and consistently applied to be meaningful. The uneven “standards” of partisan “fact-checkers” have contributed to growing partisan polarization and animosity in the US. Rather than acknowledging opportunities for individuals across the ideological spectrum to “agree to disagree” over varying interpretations, political “fact-checkers” have increasingly levied charges of lying against political figures when they do not agree with their opinions. Big tech companies’ endowment of “fact-checkers” with sweeping powers to censor content with which they may not agree, with little transparency or accountability, has created a new “power center” in American politics.

 

Bias and Conflicts of Interest

A 2020 study examining the Twitter data of over 6,800 journalists found that “journalists are dominantly liberal and often fall far to the left of Americans…66% are even more liberal than former President Obama, 62.3% are to the left of the median Senate Democrat (in the 114th Congress), and a full 14.5% are more liberal than Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (one of the most liberal members of the House).”(23) This finding is consistent with self-reported political preferences of journalists as well as public perceptions documented in national surveys. As in journalism more broadly, conservatives are under-represented in fact-checking organizations.(24)

 

Publications and presentations of quality research require routine disclosures regarding conflicts of interest. Presenters are required to disclose payments received, professional consulting arrangements, and other real or perceived sources of bias. This transparency is largely absent from “fact checking.” “Fact-checking” by extreme partisans and individuals with preexisting animus towards political figures contravenes normative ethics.  Similarly, fact-checkers’ failure to disclose the biases and affiliations of cherry-picked “experts” appears to be commonplace.

Pseudoscience and Spin: IFCN’s Unvalidated Methodology

Any credible research instrument must be validated by robust, impartial studies demonstrating accuracy and reliability. A valid instrument must have strong intra-observer and inter-observer reliability, meaning that it must lead to consistent, reliable outcomes when rated by different observers, and that individual observers must consistently arrive at similar ratings for situations in which the material facts are substantially similar. Results must also be accurate - reliably approaching an objectively “true” or correct result - and precise, with different measurements or evaluations of the same or similar events falling within a close range of one another. In the context of political “fact-checking,” it would be impermissible for a reviewer to reach one conclusion for a circumstance regarding a candidate from a favored party, and an different conclusion for a similar circumstance involving a candidate of an unfavored party, as the candidate’s party is not material to the determination of fact.

 

Unfortunately, the International Fact-Checking Network (IFCN) utilized by Facebook and Twitter, and to which large fact-checking organizations are signatories, uses unvalidated methodology. Its ostensible principles are akin to journalistic ethics: noble-sounding claims which are often not closely observed in practice. Virtually all key determinations are left to the fact-checker’s discretion, and are influenced by bias and ideology. Nor have actual results been shown to achieve high objective accuracy.

 

Systemic Bias at IFCN

The "International Fact Checking Network" is an initiative of the Poytner Institute.  The Poynter Institute is funded by the foundations of liberal billionaires George Soros and Pierre Omidyar, and reflects its sponsors' far-left agenda.(25) The Poynter Institute has promoted a "left-wing smear of conservative groups online" described as a "hit job written by someone who works for the the anti-conservative Southern Poverty Law Center."  Poynter declared 29 "right leaning news outlets and organizations to be 'unreliable news websites.'"   With the complicity and assent of Poynter, the SPLC blacklisted 515 conservative news sites were blacklisted. Even the left-leaning Washington Post challenged the SPLC's "political activism" and "bias."(26)

 

Under pressure from watchdogs and integrity groups, the Poynter institute withdrew its flawed blacklist in 2019. Without a hint of irony regarding its own lack of rigor and reliability, Poynter managing editor Barbara Allen acknowledged regret that "we failed to ensure that the data was rigorous before publication."(27) Without recognition and safeguards regarding the group's systemic biases that led to this debacle in the first place, the list has been removed but underlying problems have not been extirpated. IFCN is the "independent" organization  responsible for the "fact checks" implemented by Facebook, Twitter, and many other platforms.

 

Appeal to Experts and Junk Science

In every field there are controversies on which qualified experts hold a range of opinions, in contrast to widely-recognized principles. All too often, fact-checkers have selected partisan “experts” supporting their desired conclusions on controversial topics, and then construe their opinions as fact. If a “fact-checker” does not like a published research finding, he or she will search for a partisan “expert” to state that the research is flawed. When research findings serve a favored agenda, “fact-checkers” have ignored glaring methodological problems and conflicts of interest. Such research tends to be construed as incontrovertible fact, even when other experts in the field may view the findings as dubious and problematic. Bias and conflicts of interest of partisan “experts” are rarely disclosed, nor the range of opinions of other specialists who may dispute favored conclusions.

 

Research in one medical specialty found that only 17.8% of 1,150 clinical decisions and 34.6% of recommendations for surgical intervention were based on scientific studies.(28) “First principles” (27% of all clinical decisions) and “experience/anecdote” (22%) were cited more frequently in decision-making. These data suggest that published research plays only a limited role in the development of “expert opinion,” before the quality of research cited is even considered.

 

In the article “Why Most Published Research Findings are False,” evidence-based medicine pioneer and Stanford University School of Medicine professor John Ioannidis found that even many findings in peer-reviewed research papers are dubious or in error.(29) He noted that researchers often skew results through their assumptions and biases, including which factors to consider and which to ignore. Almost all research findings are subject to some degree of uncertainty. Their validity also hinges substantially on the accuracy of underlying assumptions as well as methodological rigor.

 

Much published research has historically been based on low evidentiary standards. Due to the work of Ioannidis and others, quality medical research has transitioned to citing different “levels of evidence” from low to high quality.(28) These standards evaluate research not merely by peer-review, but by the robustness of methodology and levels of evidence. This process has led to many claims previously widely asserted as fact being overturned, and has clarified considerable uncertainty and need for further research regarding many topics. In evidence-based rating systems, “expert opinion” occupies the bottom tier. Ioannidis cited research that “expert opinion” varies widely and is frequently unreliable.

 

This system has been eye-opening even to many highly-educated professionals in revealing the very low quality of evidence for many findings which previously had been dogmatically accepted as fact, and the substantial uncertainty regarding many common topics. Seismic paradigm shifts have occasionally occurred even in research recommendations previously implemented on a vast societal scale by research and then controverted by other findings, such as the routine use of hormone replacement therapy in postmenopausal women in the 1980s and 1990s, followed by the reversal of widespread medical recommendations based on additional research suggesting that risks outweighed benefit for most.(31) Changes in understanding in less well-defined areas and on the margins of controversy are common.

 

Many topics of politics and public policy are far less researched, and often based on less robust methodology and data quality, than leading medical studies. Yet “fact checkers” have often been satisfied to point to junk science with methodological flaws and conflicts of interest, or studies in which the conclusions are not supported by the methodology, as evidence. Others are not permitted to disagree: the existence of a peer-reviewed paper supporting the fact-checker’s position, or even the (non-peer-reviewed) opinion of a chosen “expert,” is construed as incontrovertible “proof.” Yet when research is cited which does not support the “fact-checker’s” opinion, a large corpus of data may be dismissed when the “fact-checker” is able to find a partisan “expert” who disputes the conclusion. In other cases, cited research is misquoted or misrepresented by fact checkers.

 

The level of evidence and degree of support for research findings should be conveyed so as not to overstate the certainty of a conclusion. When a topic is controversial and qualified experts disagree, “fact-checkers” have an ethical obligation to disclose the range of opinions. It is misleading for “fact-checkers” to present a definitive verdict on controversial topics for which there is no broad consensus among experts within a field.

 

Polemical Tactics, Logical Fallacies

As others have noted, political “fact checkers” have expanded their purview far beyond review of verifiable facts to weigh in on matters of opinion and uncertain topics for which impartial scholars would acknowledge the absence of conclusive evidence for either side. Many have complained that ideological content disfavored by social media censors has received warning labels, has been blocked, or has disappeared completely under the guise of “fact checks” even when key claims are not demonstrably in error. So-called “fact-checkers” have found creative ways to engage in selective censorship of content which does not suit their preferred ideology and agenda.

 

“Selection bias” occurs when differing standards are applied according to ideology rather than fact. Ostensible principles which are trotted out to attack opponents with hypercritical scrutiny may evaporate entirely when favorites are challenged. Such issues do not arise from objective methodology or scholarly rigor. Rather, “fact-checkers” have employed political spin with the full range of polemical tactics and logical fallacies.

 

Unverified Claims and “Missing Context”

Two fertile areas of “fact-checking” abuse lie with the use of the labels “unverified” or “missing context” to block information and censor content on social media. These determinations are rarely made on the basis of impartial standards, but rely heavily on the reviewer’s discretion, and may be applied arbitrarily to serve an ideological agenda.

 

Politics substantially involves opinion and unproven claims across the ideological spectrum. Unproven claims may or may not be true, but insufficient data is available to conclusively affirm or reject them. These contrast with disproven claims, which are demonstrably false by high evidentiary standards. It is the purview of the electorate to weigh and decide among competing, unproven political claims. At times, political fact-checkers have conflated unproven and disproven claims, attacking claims of political opponents as false because they are not conclusively proven by evidence. Favorites are granted vast latitude to make dubious claims with the reverse logic: their unverified claims are asserted as fair because they are not, in the “fact-checker’s” view, conclusively disproven.

 

Almost any claim or narrative can be labeled as “missing context” if it does not arrive at the reviewer’s desired conclusion. Critics have cited the weaponization of such claims against political opponents, while noting that unproven narratives favored by “fact-checkers” rarely if ever are blocked or labeled for “unverified information” or “missing context.”

 

Contemporary Bias in “Fact-Checking”

Media bias raters have found that ostensibly “neutral” fact-checkers often manifest political biases. Allsides.com, a nonpartisan media bias rater, notes that “fact checks and fact checkers can still display media bias.” The site rates both Associated Press Politics and Fact Check Media and PolitiFact as “lean left” on the basis of independent research, further corroborated by thousands of community ratings. The Washington Post, which includes all of the paper’s content including fact checking, is rated as “lean left” on the basis of independent research, third-party research by Pew, and community ratings. It is obviously problematic when an organization that purports to provide neutral, objective “fact checks” engages in partisan favoritism.

 

A Smart Politics study authored by Dr. Eric Ostermeier of the University of Minnesota examined more than 500 PolitiFact stories in 2010 and early 2011. Ostermeier found:

 

“Current and former Republican officeholders have been assigned substantially harsher grades by the news organization than their Democratic counterparts. In total, 74 of the 98 statements by political figures judged ‘false’ or ‘pants on fire’ over the last 13 months were given to Republicans, or 76 percent, compared to just 22 statements for Democrats (22 percent)...Democrats have therefore been presented as much more truthful – with over 75 percent of statements receiving the top three grades of True (16 percent), Mostly True (27 percent), or Half True (33 percent). Less than half of Republican statements graded by PolitiFact were regarded as half truths or better – just 90 out of 191 (47 percent).”(32)

 

Ostermeier illuminated PolitiFact’s arbitrary, non-scientific selection process, citing PolitiFact editor Bill Adair’s 2009 statement to C-Span: “We choose to check things we are curious about. If we look at something and we think that an elected official or talk show host is wrong, then we will fact-check it.” Ostermeier continued: “If that is the methodology, then why is it that PolitiFact takes Republicans to the woodshed much more frequently than Democrats?” He noted that PolitiFact provided no evidence that Republicans made more objectively false statements than Democrats, and concluded: “By levying 23 Pants on Fire ratings to Republicans over the past year compared to just 4 to Democrats, it appears the sport of choice is game hunting – and the game is elephants.” With no systematic methodology for content selection beyond their own curiosity, “fact-checkers” are left to their own biases which heavily favor Democrats.

 

A 2013 study by the George Mason University Center for Media and Public Affairs headed by Dr. Robert Lichter “examined 100 statements involving factual claims by Democrats (46 claims) and Republicans (54 claims), which were fact-checked by PolitiFact.com during the four month period from the start of President Obama's second term on January 20 through May 22, 2013.”(33) Lichter found that “A majority of Democratic statements (54 percent) were rated as mostly or entirely true, compared to only 18 percent of Republican statements, and that “a majority of Republican statements (52 percent) were rated as mostly or entirely false, compared to only 24 percent of Democratic statements."

 

US News’ Peter Roff observed that results of the Lichter study finding that Politifact claims that “Republicans lie more” “probably has more to do with how the statements were picked and the subjective bias of the fact checker involved than anything remotely empirical," and “more to do with spinning stories than it does with evaluating statements.”(34)

 

Subsequent examinations have largely borne out these findings. Tim Graham of the Media Research Center found that during the 2020 party conventions, "PolitiFact checked Republicans and their affiliated PACs and pundits 32 times and only checked Democrats and their equivalents 11 times...The Democrats drew eight Mostly True or True ratings, two Half Trues and one Mostly False, a 10-to-1 true-false ratio."(35) For Republicans, "there were four Mostly Trues and one Half True ... out of 32. The other 27 ratings were Mostly False or worse...This all adds up to almost a 1-to-8 true-false ratio.” Graham noted that political “fact checkers” have repeatedly suspended ostensible “standards” and refused to hold favorites accountable while engaging in hypercriticism of unfavored candidates. Conservatives have been criticized with ratings of “mostly false”(36) for statements that have accurately cited research that had previously been cited in mainstream media.(37)

 

Graham pointed out that many Trump “Pinocchio ratings are awarded for boasting,” with the most frequent Trump claim rated as “false” is “the greatest economy in the history of this country,” or the claim “that black unemployment was the lowest ‘in the history of our country’ when it has only been measured since 1972.”(38) He noted that political favorites are not held to the same standard, with Biden and Obama being allowed to claim that there was “never a scandal during their tenure” because “scandals are in the eye of the beholder.” Graham acknowledged that Trump has made many inaccurate statements, while noting that Post fact-checkers made glaring false claims in their published book.

 

Nonetheless, political “fact-checkers” have continued to misrepresent their work as an ostensibly objective, even scientific process, rather than as punditry heavily swayed by their own biases and assumptions. Glenn Kessler’s team of Washington Post fact-checkers have trumpeted the number of 30,573 false or misleading claims by Trump over four years,(39) as if the figure had been measured with precision. Yet by fact-checkers’ own ostensible standards, this claim would rate as “missing context,” “misleading,” and “mostly false,” due to the inclusion of many matters of opinion and topics for which conclusive data is not available. Such topics have traditionally been understood by mainstream Americans to pertain to the domain of opinion rather than being subject to empirical true/false ratings, and the same “nitpicking” criteria have conspicuously not been applied to favored candidates.

 

Examples of “fact-check fails” from across the political spectrum are too numerous to mention. Some are noted in articles cited throughout this text. Other ostensible “fact-checks”(40) have been lampooned for bias.(41) One of the most bizarre is USA Today’s claim that the Trump campaign’s use of the eagle was a “Nazi symbol,” disregarding the eagle’s appearance in US governance, including on the Great Seal of the United States, and as an emblem of nationhood going back to Rome and Charlemagne.(42)

 

In 2021, Politifact “fact-checkers” were criticized for posing false “straw men” arguments instead of engaging the actual statements they alleged to “fact-check.” Commentator Brit Hume responded to one: 

 

"Note the sleight of hand in this typically dishonest [fact] check from Politifact. It notes that 'senile' is not a precise term, but then treats my use of it as meaning dementia, and then brings on experts to say Biden doesn’t have dementia."(43)

 

Michael Duncan critiqued another so-called Politifact “fact-check: 

 

“So Holmes says the bill doesn’t stop giving people water, it stops political organizers from doing it. Fact-checker: we’re going to fact-check whether it stops people from giving people water. You see that sleight of hand? It’s a semantics trick. She isn’t going to actually argue what he said. She’s going to be willfully obtuse to come to the outcome she wants. Wait I thought we were fact-checking whether water was banned? So the statement is Mostly False because the law doesn’t REQUIRE water? You see how when PolitiFact can move the goalposts they can come up with any outcome? It’s a neat trick, you gotta give them that."(ibid)

 

It is troubling that such conduct could pass muster with the ostensible standards and “methodology” of International Fact Checking Network-certified organizations as well as journalistic ethics promising fair, balanced reporting. In these and other cases, readers with basic critical thinking and common sense appear more likely to arrive at reasonable conclusions than professional “fact-checkers.”

 

JustFacts.com president James Agresti has examined numerous cases of misleading “fact checks.” In reviews of Snopes, PolitiFact, Washington Post, and other ostensible fact-checkers, he documented unethical tactics, misquoting political opponents, misstating research findings, and bizarre logical inversions to support favored narratives or discredit designated opponents. Agresti wrote: “So what’s the common thread here? They all mislead in ways that support progressive political agendas. This is not a coincidence. I’ve examined countless fact checks that are rife with deceit, and in nearly every case, it’s the same story: They mangle the truth in ways that advance leftist narratives.”(44)

 

Lack of Accountability

The political “fact checking” industry lacks the safeguards and accountability of both scholarly peer review and jurisprudence. Scholarly peer review is blinded and involves multiple reviewers representing a cross-section of perspectives who are often randomly selected. In a court, competing advocates present their best case for their side. “Fact checkers” face inherent conflicts of interest in simultaneously acting as a self-interested advocate, whether for the prosecution or defense, and judge.

 

Just Facts has documented numerous problems with fact-checking industry, including selection of cherry-picked experts, failure to disclose bias, misrepresentation of sources, promulgation of half-truths, bait-and-switch tactics, double standards, mischaracterization of unsupported assertions as facts and facts as unsupported assertions.(45) The revelation of substantial errors and undisclosed conflicts of interest in published work would be severely discrediting to academic scholars and publications and has often resulted in retractions. In contrast, major “fact-check” organizations have been reported as being largely unresponsive and have simply ignored complaints documenting falsehoods and errors. The lack of serious accountability for individuals and institutions which have engaged in “fact-checking fraud” has emboldened such conduct.

 

Information Control “Gatekeepers”

Not content to leave their interpretations to mere suggestion and let the public judge their credibility, political fact-checkers have sought to become gatekeepers of information control with enforcement from Big Tech and government. Emboldened by the seeming success and muted opposition to 2020 election censorship, the New York Times in early 2021 proposed a politically-appointed “reality czar” with broad powers to determine which information and viewpoints are or are not acceptable. Such a “czar,” of course, would be a political appointee sharing their ideology. Gary Galles of the Foundation for Economic Education wrote:

 

“The Times, the Biden campaign, the Democrat leadership, and others on board with the idea have come nowhere close to pursuing “the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.” Yet despite a history of disseminating misinformation, clear biases, and suppression of those with different views, they would select the arbiters of Orwellian truth. So who could be trusted as the reality czar? No one. In politics, truth is subservient to power. But since any attempt to provably establish the truth would be littered with obstacles and controversies, and often beyond possibility, while creating a substantial threat to Americans’ freedoms, only someone who was indisputably committed to both truth and freedom could possibly be trusted to lead such an enterprise.”(46)

 

Restrictions which would have drawn outrage with charges of authoritarianism, fascism, and violations of constitutionally-guaranteed freedoms had they been proposed to combat misinformation in the New York Times and ideological fellow-travelers, are thus construed as virtuous, necessary and in the public interest when mobilized against the Times’ political enemies.

 

Authoritarian activists have sought to impose real-time fact-checkers in presidential debates.(47) This initiative has been criticized as having little to do with a desire for factual accuracy, and far more to do with the record of an industry which has accused politicians of their unfavored political party of lying at least three times as often as members of their favored party.

 

John Keane, director of the Sydney Democracy Network, wrote that the antidote to “post-truth politics...isn’t simply ‘fact-checking’ and truth:”

 

“[M]onitory democracy [insists]...that no person or group, no matter how much ‘truth’ or power they presently enjoy or want to claim, can be trusted permanently, in any given context, to govern other people’s lives…Democracy is thus the best human weapon so far invented for guarding against the ‘illusions of certainty’ and breaking up truth-camouflaged monopolies of power, wherever they operate...the norm of monitory democracy is aware of its own and others’ limits, knows that it doesn’t know everything, and understands that democracy has no meta-historical guarantees. That is why it does not suffer truth-telling dogmatists and fools gladly...democracy supposes that no man or woman is good enough to claim they know the truth and to rule permanently over their fellows.”(48)

Reforming “Fact-Checkers” for Fairness

The Scientific American authors proposed the following reforms:(49)

 

“We propose that political claims continue to be aggressively fact-checked, but by teams of individuals with diverse sociopolitical views; for example, by pairing fact-checkers from major liberal and conservative news sources. This would add little, if any, cost. The media should abandon fact-checkers’ pretext of objectivity and political disinterest and instead acknowledge their sociopolitical leanings in much the way that NPR tries to pit pro and con points of view in political coverage.”

“Let’s abandon the pretense of objectivity and design a system of adversarial fact-checking that places the evidence for competing claims front and center... the key to better cognitive reasoning outcomes is for both sides’ claims to appear simultaneously in the very same report. This would minimize the creation of false beliefs that emerge as a consequence of exposure to only one side. When adversarial fact-checking leads to unresolvable disagreements among team members, readers will be better able to judge how persuasive each side’s argument is and arrive at a more informed conclusion than they would if only one side’s evidence is presented.”

“It would be a valuable antidote to the tendency of Americans to base their views on sources solely within their ‘bubble.’ Such an adversarial arrangement challenges the presumption that there can be no doubt about the validity of fact-checkers’ conclusions, as implied by CNN’s Facts First feature: ‘CNN holds elected officials and candidates accountable by pointing out what’s true and what’s not,’ as if determining the truth is somehow a psychologically straightforward process.”

 

In US courts, credentialed “expert witnesses” for opposing parties frequently offer conflicting testimonies with little agreement. Both sides claim that their conclusions represent “reasonable certainties” based on fact and evidence and that the other side is in error. Courts, whatever their imperfections, offer key elements of fair process which “fact checkers” do not. In court, both sides offer their best evidence and make their most compelling case. The judge or jury ultimately weigh the evidence to evaluate which side is the most credible.

 

A system requiring reviewers from different perspectives to argue their case with evidence would go far towards improving difficulties with fact-checking models. It would undermine the false “pretense of objectivity” and require competing sides to set forth their best arguments. It would help to clarify which claims are disputed with differing plausible interpretations, and which are substantially agreed upon, by reviewers of diverse ideological perspectives. It would likely diminish partisan polarization and animosity by exposing tenable competing viewpoints as matters of opinion and perspective (where that is indeed the case) rather than privileging political narratives as fact. It would help to burst the isolation of partisans of both sides who rely only on media within their ideological sphere and are unexposed to competing information and ideas. And it would place the power to judge the credibility of competing narratives squarely in the hands of the public, rather than verdicts of unelected and unaccountable “experts,” often with undisclosed biases and conflicts of interest.

 

Such initiatives will be vigorously opposed by special ideological interests which perceive advantage in being able to frame ideologically preferred narratives as “fact” and competing views of false. Yet reforms are much-needed, and should be broadly supported by fair-minded individuals across the political spectrum.

 

Recommendations

1. Social media platforms using “fact-checking” to restrict information flow should confine warnings and restrictions to obvious hoaxes and not political opinion or “tendentious” reporting, which occurs across the political spectrum. (Recommendation source: Cathy Young, The Hill).

2. Political “fact-checkers” should feature pros and cons by competing sides where each side presents its best evidence and arguments for the reader to decide (Recommendation source: Stephen Ceci and Wendy Williams, Scientific American).

3. “Fact-checkers” should include balanced and ideologically diverse voices to combat the lack of ideological diversity (Recommendation source: Cathy Young, The Hill).

4. “Fact-checkers” should disclose political biases and potential conflicts of interest on every writeup.

5. When a topic is controversial and qualified experts disagree, “fact-checkers” have an ethical obligation to disclose the range of opinions.

6. Robust accountability and transparency are needed to combat “fact-checking fraud” and provide safeguards. Offending individuals and organizations should be subject to public discipline by oversight organizations, including decertification.

7. Support fact checkers that implement higher standards (Recommendation: JustFacts.com)

 

References

1. Somin, Ilya. "Why (Most) Political Ignorance is Rational and Why it Matters: Reply to Jeffrey Friedman." Cato Institute, October 22, 2013. https://www.cato-unbound.org/2013/10/22/ilya-somin/why-most-political-ignorance-rational-why-it-matters-reply-jeffrey-friedman

2. “Facebook's Third-Party Fact-Checking Program.” Facebook, undated article. https://www.facebook.com/journalismproject/programs/third-party-fact-checking

3. Tardáguila, Cristina. “Without methodology or transparency, Facebook and Twitter become the ‘arbiters of the truth.’” Poynter Institute, October 15, 2020. https://www.poynter.org/fact-checking/2020/without-methodology-or-transparency-facebook-and-twitter-become-the-arbiters-of-the-truth/

4. Young, Cathy. "Who will check Facebook's 'fact checkers?'" The Hill, December 16, 2016. https://thehill.com/blogs/pundits-blog/media/310849-who-will-check-facebooks-fact-checkers

5. Culliford, Elizabeth, and Katie Paul. "With fact-checks, Twitter takes on a new kind of task." Reuters, May 30, 2020. https://www.reuters.com/article/us-twitter-factcheck/with-fact-checks-twitter-takes-on-a-new-kind-of-task-idUSKBN2360U0

6. Pham, Sherisse. "Twitter says it labels tweets to provide 'context, not fact-checking.'" CNN, June 3, 2020. https://www.cnn.com/2020/06/03/tech/twitter-enforcement-policy/index.html

7. Ceci, Stephen J. and Wendy M. Williams. “The Psychology of Fact-Checking.” Scientific American, October 25, 2020. https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/the-psychology-of-fact-checking1/

8. Ceci, Stephen J. and Wendy M. Williams. "Who Decides What Is Acceptable Speech on Campus? Why Restricting Free Speech Is Not the Answer." Perspectives on Psychological Science, May 2, 2018. https://doi.org/10.1177/1745691618767324

9. Roff, Peter. "Who’s Checking the Fact Checkers?" US News, May 28, 2013. https://www.usnews.com/opinion/blogs/peter-roff/2013/05/28/study-finds-fact-checkers-biased-against-republicans

10. Kessler, Glen. “About the Fact Checker.” Washington Post, January 1, 2017. https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/2019/01/07/about-fact-checker/

11. Brenan, Megan, and Helen Stubbs. “News Media Viewed as Biased but Crucial to Democracy.” Gallup, August 4, 2020. https://news.gallup.com/poll/316574/news-media-viewed-biased-crucial-democracy.aspx

12. "Honesty/Ethics in Professions." Gallup (undated article). https://news.gallup.com/poll/1654/honesty-ethics-professions.aspx

13. Sollenberger, Roger. "The Daily Caller has been paid by GOP campaigns while providing fact-checking services for Facebook." Salon, August 4, 2020. https://www.salon.com/2020/08/04/the-daily-caller-has-been-paid-by-gop-campaigns-while-providing-fact-checking-services-for-facebook/

14. Pasternack, Alex. “Facebook is quietly pressuring its independent fact-checkers to change their rulings.” Fast Company, August 8, 2020. https://www.fastcompany.com/90538655/facebook-is-quietly-pressuring-its-independent-fact-checkers-to-change-their-rulings

15. Pareene, Alex. “How Political Fact-Checkers Distort the Truth.” New Republic, January 8, 2020 https://newrepublic.com/article/156039/political-fact-checkers-distort-truth

16. Klein, Ezra. "The problem for the fact checkers." Washington Post, December 20, 2011. https://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/ezra-klein/post/the-problem-for-the-fact-checkers/2011/08/25/gIQAMXxi7O_blog.html

17. Crook, Clive. "Lies, Damned Lies, and Politifact." The Atlantic, December 23, 2011. https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2011/12/lies-damned-lies-and-politifact/250480/

18. Smith, Ben. "The end of fact-checking." Politico.com, August 17, 2011. https://www.politico.com/blogs/ben-smith/2011/08/the-end-of-fact-checking-038488

19. Hemingway, Mark. "Lies, Damned Lies, and Fact Checking." The Weekly Standard, December 19, 2011. https://www.washingtonexaminer.com/weekly-standard/lies-damned-lies-and-fact-checking

20. "Political Fact-Checking Under Fire." National Public Radio, January 10, 2012. https://www.npr.org/2012/01/10/144974110/political-fact-checking-under-fire

21. Davidson, Jordan. "USA Today’s Fact Checks Are Actually Corrupt Partisan Spin." The Federalist, December 3, 2020. https://thefederalist.com/2020/12/03/usa-todays-fact-checks-are-actually-corrupt-partisan-spin/

22. "Partisan Antipathy: More Intense, More Personal." Pew Research Center, October 10, 2019. https://www.pewresearch.org/politics/2019/10/10/partisan-antipathy-more-intense-more-personal/

23. Hassell, Hans J.G., John B. Holbein, and Matthew R. Miles. “There is no liberal media bias in which news stories political journalists choose to cover.” Science Advances 6/14 (1 April 2020). https://advances.sciencemag.org/content/6/14/eaay9344

Hassell and colleagues’ collection of Twitter data is useful, but their sweeping conclusion that journalists do not manifest “gatekeeping bias” in political news generation is not supported by their narrow study design as noted here: https://resistance.org/media-bias-study-review

24. Young, ibid.

25. Weaver, Corinne. "Journalism Institute Poynter Tries to ‘Blacklist’ 29 Conservative Outlets as ‘UnNews.’" Newsbusters, May 2, 2019. https://www.newsbusters.org/blogs/free-speech/corinne-weaver/2019/05/02/journalism-institute-poynter-tries-blacklist-29

26. Montgomery, David. "The State of Hate." Washington Post, November 8, 2018. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/magazine/wp/2018/11/08/feature/is-the-southern-poverty-law-center-judging-hate-fairly

27. Allen, Barbara. "Letter from the Editor." Poynter Institute, May 2, 2019.  https://www.poynter.org/letter-from-the-editor/2019/letter-from-the-editor/

28. Nathan, Karthik, et al. "Deciding without data: clinical decision-making in pediatric orthopedic surgery." International Journal for Quality in Health Care 32/10 (December 2020): 658–662. https://doi.org/10.1093/intqhc/mzaa119

29. John P. A. Ioannidis. “Why Most Published Research Findings are False.” PLOS Medicine,  August 30, 2005.  https://journals.plos.org/plosmedicine/article?id=10.1371/journal.pmed.0020124

30. "Evidence-Based Practice: Levels of Evidence and Study Designs." Ascension Library Services. https://ascension-wi.libguides.com/ebp/Levels_of_Evidence

31. "Hormone Therapy in Postmenopausal Women: Primary Prevention of Chronic Conditions." US Preventive Services Task Force, December 12, 2017. https://www.uspreventiveservicestaskforce.org/uspstf/document/RecommendationStatementFinal/menopausal-hormone-therapy-preventive-medication

32. Ostermeier, Eric. "Selection Bias? PolitiFact Rates Republican Statements as False at 3 Times the Rate of Democrats." Smart Politics, February 10, 2011. https://smartpolitics.lib.umn.edu/2011/02/10/selection-bias-politifact-rate/

33. "Study: Media Fact-Checker Says Republicans Lie More." Center for Media and Public Affairs at George Mason University, May 28, 2013. https://cmpa.gmu.edu/study-media-fact-checker-says-republicans-lie-more/

34. Roff, Peter. "Who’s Checking the Fact Checkers?" US News, May 28, 2013. https://www.usnews.com/opinion/blogs/peter-roff/2013/05/28/study-finds-fact-checkers-biased-against-republicans

35. Graham, Tim. “'Fact-checkers' are pro-Biden, biased against Trump.” Fox News, September 10, 2020. https://www.foxnews.com/opinion/fact-checkers-trump-biden-tim-graham

36. Rizzo, Salvador. "Jeff Sessions’s claim that an ACLU settlement with Chicago caused murders to spike." Washington Post, May 14, 2018. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/fact-checker/wp/2018/05/14/jeff-sessionss-claim-that-an-aclu-settlement-with-chicago-caused-murders-to-spike/

37. Gorner, Jeremy. "Study blames 'ACLU effect' for spike in Chicago's violence in 2016, but experts differ." Chicago Tribune, March 26, 2018. https://www.chicagotribune.com/news/breaking/ct-met-chicago-violence-2016-aclu-effect-20180315-story.html

38. Graham, Tim. “Tim Graham: Fact-checkers vs. Trump – here's what they are too biased to recognize.” Fox News, June 10, 2020. https://www.foxnews.com/opinion/fact-checkers-vs-trump-too-biased-tim-graham

39. Kessler, Glenn, Salvador Rizzo, and Meg Kelly. "Trump's false or misleading claims: 30,573 over 4 years." Washington Post, January 24, 2021. https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/2021/01/24/trumps-false-or-misleading-claims-total-30573-over-four-years/

40. Bump, Philip. “Trump keeps claiming that the most dangerous cities in America are all run by Democrats. They aren’t.” Washington Post, June 25, 2020 https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/2020/06/25/trump-keeps-claiming-that-most-dangerous-cities-america-are-all-run-by-democrats-they-arent

41. Flood, Brian. “Washington Post mocked for claiming Trump was wrong about violence in Dem-run cities: 'Worst fact check ever.’” Fox News, June 29, 2020. https://www.foxnews.com/media/washington-post-mocked-fact-check-trump-dem-cities

42. Zanotti, Emily. “FAIL: USA Today Fact Check Claims Trump Campaign Using ‘Nazi’ Symbolism, Faceplants Spectacularly.” Daily Wire, July 13, 2020. https://www.dailywire.com/news/fail-usa-today-fact-check-claims-trump-campaign-using-nazi-symbolism-faceplants-spectacularly

43. Wulfsohn, Joseph A. “Brit Hume calls out 'dishonest' PolitiFact for grading his description of Biden as 'senile' false.” Fox News, March 31, 2021. https://www.foxnews.com/media/brit-hume-politifact-joe-biden-senile-false 

44.Agresti, James. “Beware of the ‘Fact Checkers.’” Just Facts Daily, August 27, 2020. https://www.justfactsdaily.com/beware-of-the-fact-checkers

45. "About Us." Just Facts Daily (undated). https://www.justfactsdaily.com/about-us

46. Galles, Gary M. "No, We Don’t Need a ‘Reality-Czar’: Let Truth and Falsehood Grapple." Foundation for Economic Education, February 6, 2021. https://fee.org/articles/no-we-don-t-need-a-reality-czar-let-truth-and-falsehood-grapple/

47. Limbaugh, David. “Authoritarian left vs. conservatives — Dems fear a level playing field, seek to control debate.” Fox News, July 11, 2020. https://www.foxnews.com/opinion/authoritarian-left-fears-level-playing-field-david-limbaugh

48. Keane, John. “Post-truth politics and why the antidote isn’t simply ‘fact-checking’ and truth.” The Conversation, March 22, 2018. https://theconversation.com/post-truth-politics-and-why-the-antidote-isnt-simply-fact-checking-and-truth-87364

49. Ceci and Williams, “The Psychology of Fact-Checking,” ibid.

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