Fake News: Newspaper fact checkers were once a rarity. Now they’re in a position to determine what people can read online, despite their own checkered past. So, who keeps the fact checkers honest?
In the past, fact checkers tended to focus mainly on debunking urban myths or clearly false claims made by political leaders. But lately, fact checkers have appointed themselves as arbiters of the credibility of news outlets. And now, giant tech companies like Google and Facebook have enlisted these “experts” to weed out “fake news.”
If a fact-checking outfit deems a story not entirely true, for example, Facebook can limit its reach on its News Feed. Google now includes a “fact check” box on its main search results page to help “people make more informed judgments.”
The problem is that fact checkers themselves can be unreliable sources for what’s true or not. Fact checkers make their own mistakes. They sometimes change ratings based on new information. Or they make determinations based on arbitrary standards that can change from one review to the next.
Case in point: PolitiFact called a 2012 Mitt Romney campaign ad its “lie of the year” for a statement about Jeeps being made in China. PolitiFact admitted that the “lie” in the ad was actually the “literal truth.”
We had firsthand experience with errant fact checks when Snopes published one in April claiming that IBD had “resuscitated” a “false” claim about 3.5 million more registered voters than eligible voters. In fact, we’d published that editorial eight months earlier — as was obvious from the time stamp on the article itself. (It went viral this spring on Facebook.) Snopes later rewrote that section of its fact check — but never acknowledged its original mistake. It also changed the ruling on the underlying claims from “false” to “mixture.”
Fact checkers also often “check” opinions, rather than factual claims, even though two people can form diametrically opposed opinions based on the same facts.
Worse, many media “fact checks” use other media sources to check facts, apparently forgetting that journalists get their facts wrong almost as often as politicians. (Take a look at the list of corrections on any given day in The New York Times.)
On top of this are legitimate complaints of political bias among fact checkers, who often seem to spend most of their time trying to debunk claims made by conservatives rather than liberals.
Thankfully, Real Clear Politics has stepped into the breach by creating what it calls Fact Check Review.
Not only does the site regularly review problematic “fact checks,” it constantly updates a database on fact checks published Snopes, FactCheck.org, PolitiFact, New York Times, Washington Post and the Weekly Standard.
It then rates them based on how often each site checks opinions rather than facts. In July, for example, a quarter of the Post’s “fact” checks were of opinions, as were 18% of Politifact’s. It also looks at how often fact checkers rely on other news outlets to verify claims. In July, 90% of Snopes fact checks used other media sources.
There’s a bigger problem with this fact-checking trend, however. As the Weekly Standard’s Mark Hemingway explained: “It’s basically a way for a bunch of reporters with no particular expertise to render pseudoscientific judgments on statements from public figures that are obviously argumentative or otherwise unverifiable. Then there’s the matter of them weighing in with thundering certitude — pants on fire! — on complex policy debates they frequently misunderstand.”
In the end, the best way to judge the veracity of claims being tossed around is to become better informed about the issues, not contract out that job to people who aren’t necessarily qualified to do for you.