Once the dust settles on this notably mendacious and polarized election, one unlikely winner will emerge: the fact-checker.
Fact-checking is “the new black,” writes Jane Elizabeth of the American Press Institute. She observes that in addition to long-running philanthropically supported projects such as PolitiFact and FactCheck.org, a raft of new players has entered the field, ranging from Bloomberg TV to The Onion. A 40-plus page transcript of the first presidential debate featuring fact-checks from NPR reporters drew in more than 7.4 million pageviews, and other fact-checking outfits have noted a record number of visits related to the debates.
“Amid the frenzy of the 2016 presidential election, fact-checking is no longer just a safeguard; it’s now a burgeoning source of content in its own right,” writes Cara Cennella for Contently.
“Audiences hungry for verification drove record traffic to publishers that offered live fact-checking during the first presidential debate.”
Tonight’s debate is sure to drive yet more eyeballs to this content. But is “traffic” really the best metric to judge this practice?
While the schadenfreude of a “pants-on-fire” rating may prompt headlines and provide readers with an occasional thrill, the problem with linking audience spikes to the success of fact-checking is that it misses the deeper impact of pursuing this practice over time.
As is the case with many foundation-supported journalism initiatives, fact-checking often dwells on nuances less favored by the web’s clickbait economy. Evaluating it requires asking deeper questions than Google Analytics can answer. Here are four:
1. How are people using these fact-checking platforms?
Once an obscure process conducted deep in the bowels of newsrooms, fact-checking has gained new relevance in everyday life—transforming readers into avid on-the-fly verifiers. This means that building an effective fact-checking project involves not just creating a destination that users can visit, but making sure that corrections are built to spread on mobile devices.
For the Washington Post, that involves experimenting with Snapchat for sharing. For PolitiFact, it involves optimizing Truth-O-Meter content and graphics for Facebook. But a next-level analysis of this online engagement is required to yield more detail about how users are sharing with their networks, and how those networks respond.
Google is also responding to the public’s urge to fact-check by adding a “fact check” tag to its News service. In part, this responds to critiques that large digital platforms have contributed to a near-fatal fragmentation of the public sphere, and greatly amplified misinformation. This tag now flags fact-checks from more than 100 sources, and publishers can apply to be included. The new feature is sure to be a boon to those seeking to settle Thanksgiving-table disputes.
While much of fact-checking has been text-based, video is now playing a key role in enabling citizen fact-checks. This in turn drives more sharing. In my own consultancy, I’ve been working with the Internet Archive’s Political TV Ad Archive project. In addition to capturing political ads for fact-checking and analysis, over the course of the last few debates, the team has been making near real-time clips of the debates available for public analysis and sharing. Watch your Twitter and Facebook streams during tonight’s debate for an uptick in fact-checked clips—or use the tool to craft your own.
2. Does fact-checking actually change people’s minds?
The science is still out on this question. “Those of us who are connoisseurs of fact-checking websites have a tortured relationship with them,” writes Jesse Singal for New York Magazine.
Research shows that sometimes checking the facts can even backfire, he reports, causing partisans to cling ever more tightly to their own beliefs. Certainly, that has been the case with supporters of Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump. However, a recent paper by political scientists Brendan Nyhan and Jason Reifler suggests that exposure to fact-checking over time can at least increase knowledge on particular issues, even among less-informed political consumers.
In an NPR piece titled “Do Fact Checks Matter?” Danielle Kurtzleben also draws on Nyhan’s and Reifler’s work to tick down the list of what helps:
- For partisans, it’s more effective to have someone from the same side do the debunking.
- That said, Democrats are more likely to trust fact-checking than Republicans.
- Graphics can be more effective than statistics in making truths stick.
- Journalists have a key role to play by widely spreading corrections—but need to be careful not to reinforce a falsehood in the process through endless repetition.
One notable aspect of fact-checking is that while individual investigations might fall flat, data on public figures over time becomes much more compelling, as this graphic from PolitiFact suggests.
“Even so, “the most misinformed people [are] also among the most confident in their misinformed ideas…Long story short, fact checks aren’t hyper-effective at making voters hyper-informed political wonks. And there’s plenty of reason to think that the fact-checking burden will remain heavy for years to come, as people dig into their respective sides—and their respective sides’ versions of the facts,” concludes Kurtzleben.
3. Does it keep the powerful from lying?
It does, according to a recent piece by Michelle Amazeen, which surveys current political science research. “Just knowing they might be challenged…tends to make politicians careful about their claims,” she writes. Plus, debunking of a claim can reduce a politician’s propensity to repeat it.
But of course, Trump is his own special case—not just seemingly impervious to corrections, but gleefully willing to spread untruths. It’s not yet clear what this bodes for notions of objective reality.
It’s also difficult to answer this question when the fact-checkers themselves are reluctant to address it. Lucas Graves, assistant professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, has written the season’s definitive take on the topic of fact-checking: Deciding What’s True: The Rise of Political Fact-Checking in American Journalism. Graves writes about the hesitation of fact-checkers to closely track the influence of their work on political figures, given their primary commitment to informing the public. The question of impact-tracking comes up regularly in fact-checker forums and gatherings, he reports. “For journalists, it’s one thing to speak casually about the effect an article had once it was published. It is quite another to set out deliberately to modify people’s beliefs or behavior.”
For funders of this work, this means that the fact-checkers themselves might not serve as the best judges of impact on influentials, and that tracking outcomes requires funding not just the work, but external evaluation of it.
4. Who’s backing the fact-checkers?
Of course, the effectiveness of fact-checking can depend on who’s doing it. Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton’s offer to viewers to check out debate facts on her web site in real time only drew derision from critics who regularly question her integrity. The question of who funds fact-checking also raises alarms for many, a dynamic in which the funders themselves might risk undercutting the integrity of the work.
Despite these questions, it seems we’re poised to see more fact-checking, not less. Graves positions fact-checking as an ever-growing movement, a genre that takes tools previously aimed at journalists themselves and laser-aims them on public figures in a way that answers the challenges of the era.
“Fact-checking as a genre and fact-checkers as news organizations are finely adapted to today’s networked news ecosystem,” he writes in the book’s introduction. “[T]his is a story about contemporary ways of knowing—about the limits of rational debate in the post-broadcast public sphere. Fact-checkers are a product of the same fractured and fragmented media world they seek to repair.”