Lentis/Snopes, PolitiFact, and Other Fact-Checking Websites

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Introduction[edit]

Fact checking websites engage in post-hoc, or “after this”, fact checking. This is a form of documentary research wherein a controversial story is analyzed by a third party. Post-hoc fact checking is distinct from ante-hoc, or “before this,” fact checking which is expected to be conducted internally before a story is published. These stories consist of statements made by politicians, news stories, or widespread rumors. The third party cross-references the facts presented in the story with other sources to create a list of inaccuracies. The fact checking websites then either present a rating based on the accuracy of the article as a whole or they rate each fact individually. The rating is designed to stand-out though the use of eye-catching colors, such as bright green and red, or a design, such as PolitiFact’s “Truth-o-Meter.” [1]

History[edit]

Early 1900's[edit]

The Jungle by Upton Sinclair, an early muckraking piece.

Before the turn of the 20th century, fact checking was not treated as a formal role. Google’s earliest recorded usage of the phase “fact checking” dates to 1897.[2] American journalism began embracing fact checking around this time. Yellow journalism, newspaper reporting focused on sensationalism over research, reached its peak intensity and influence in 1898. Reporting during this time created a political climate conducive to sparking international conflict; this lead into the beginning of the Spanish-American War. [3]

In the early 1900s, "muckraking", or investigative journalism, began to spread. Among the most influential muckrakers of this time were Upton Sinclair for exposing the harsh conditions in Chicago's meat industry, [4] and Ida Tarbell for revealing Standard Oil's manipulation of trust laws to create an oil monopoly. [5]

Following the era of yellow journalism, news paper publishers struggled to prove trustworthiness. Publishing companies began to create internal departments to manage fact checking, and publishers began introducing formal codes of professional conduct in 1909. [6] In late 1912, the New York World's Ralph Pulitzer and Isaac White, founded America's first formal internal ante-hoc fact checking body, the Bureau of Accuracy and Fair Play. In their minds, spreading truth meant newspapers needed to get their facts right. According to White, "Without accuracy, you cannot have fair play." [7]

The Internet Era[edit]

In the late 1980s, the internet was created and began becoming mainstream in the early 90s. As information became more readily available, the demand for news increased. Publishers began to move away from having an independent body of fact checkers. In 1996, Newsweek replaced their fact checkers with "reporter-researchers." [8] Reporters were no longer either fact checkers or researchers, but rather a hybrid of both. Fewer and fewer American publications had dedicated fact checking bodies.

Aside from disseminating traditional news, the internet allows individuals to easily spread information through blogs and comments. This led to urban legends and rumors spreading. Widespread misinformation led to a need for third party fact checking services. In 1994, David Mikkelson created Snopes as the first fact checking website. Mikkelson created Snopes as hobbyist with no ties to mainstream media companies. His goal was to create the "go-to place for Internet users to query about anything questionable they encountered online." [9]

In 2007, the upcoming 2008 Presidential Election led to a demand for politically centered fact checking services. PolitiFact, among others, was founded during this time to meet these demands. Rather than analyze stories holistically to gauge accuracy, PolitiFact focused on quotes and statements made by or about politicians. The context of the statement would be given, followed by an analysis of accuracy. [10]

This kind of fact checking began as an American phenomenon. [11] but has since started gaining ground internationally. Between 2016 and 2017, the number of active fact checking websites internationally increased by 19%, from 96 to 114. Growth in Europe showed an increase of 44%, from 27 to 39. [12]

Areas of Concern[edit]

Duke University's Reporters' Lab maintains a database of more than 100 non-partisan fact-checking organizations that publish articles or broadcast segments that assess the accuracy of statements made by public officials, political parties, candidates, journalists, news organizations, associations and other groups. The lab's inclusion criteria is based on whether the site:[13]

  • examines all parties and sides;
  • examines discrete claims and reaches conclusions;
  • tracks political promises;
  • is transparent about sources and methods;
  • discloses funding/affiliations;
  • and whether its primary mission is news and information.

Many fact-checking sites are affiliated with news organizations while others are associated with non-governmental groups that conduct non-partisan journalism.[13] Fact-checking services can be separated into three different categories based on area of concern.[14] These services also differ in organizational aim and funding. Some categories are seasonal and only become active during certain time periods while other's activity are far less consistent and only become active when something newsworthy has occurred. It has been found that the more political or controversial issues a fact-checking service covers, the more it needs to build a reputation for usefulness and trustworthiness.[14]

Online Rumors and Hoaxes[edit]

Online rumors and hoax fact-checking reflects the need for debunking services. Services in this category have relatively constant activity and may become spontaneously more active when something especially controversial or newsworthy occur. Articles in these services may include old, longstanding stories or controversies, as well as recent events. This category is the most broad category and may include articles that fall under other two categories listed.

  • Snopes.com focuses debunking online rumors and is managed by small group of volunteers and funded through advertisement.[15]
  • Hoax-Slayer is a website owned and operated by Brett Christensen. The site aims to debunk internet scams as well as email and social media hoaxes.
  • TruthOrFiction aims to check the accuracy of urban legends, Internet rumors, e-mail forwards, and other stories of unknown or questionable origin.
  • HoaxBusters contains a list of debunked internet hoaxes.
  • Viralgranskaren is a department in the Swedish newspaper "Metro" aiming to review and analyze internet phenomena that become viral through social media.

Political and Public Claims[edit]

These fact checking websites closely follow the claims of politicians. These websites tend to become more active during election times but can have a steady feed of articles depending on the political climate.

  • Factcheck.org is a non-partisan, nonprofit organization aiming to check factual accuracy of major political figures. It is supported by university funding by the University of Pennsylvania and individual donors.[16]
  • PolitiFact.com is a service offered by The Tampa Bay Times and checks the level of truth in claims by public figures. It won the Pulitzer Prize in 2013 in National Reporting for its work during the 2008 presidential election.[17]
  • The Washing Post Fact Checker's purpose is to "truth squad" statements of political figure regarding issues of national, international, or local importance.
  • CNN Reality Fact is a team under news agent CNN that fact-checks claims by the U.S. president and presidential candidates during elections.
  • Full Fact is a charity in London who fact checks reported news about elections and referendums in the United Kingdom.

Specific Topics or Controversies[edit]

This area includes specific topics, conflicts, controversies, or narrowly scoped issues or events. Services in this category are the most spontaneous of the three categories. Services may become temporarily active for certain cases and then lose activity once the case subsides depending on whether the topic is an ongoing issue or a specific event.

  • StopFake addresses the ongoing Ukraine Conflict.
  • TruthBeTold examines claims about the black community in public debate.
  • #RefugeeCheck reports on the refugee crisis in Europe.
  • ClimateFeedback is a network of scientists sorting fact from fiction in climate change media coverage.
  • Brown Moses Blog (continued as Bellingcat) is a blog run by citizen journalist Elliot Higgins that focuses on the Syrian Conflict as well as the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17.

Influence[edit]

Fact checking websites exert great influence over politics and culture. Especially with the rise in power of the internet, fact checking websites have reached a fever pitch in recent years. This rise in influence will be examined through three examples. Some of these examples will also show that fact checking sites gaining influence does not mean an increase in truth.

Media Partnerships[edit]

In December 2016, Facebook announced that they were rolling out a new method "to address the issue of fake news and hoaxes" by partnering with third-party fact checking organizations trusted by Poynter's International Fact Checking Network. The new tools allow for individuals to mark a shared news story as fake, sending the article to a fact checking organization to be verified. In the event that the flagged story is proven untrue, the article will be marked as such and will link to the fact checking page.[18] Also, in April 2017, Google introduced a fact check tag to allow people quick access to information so that "when you conduct a search on Google that returns an authoritative result containing fact checks for one or more public claims, you will see that information clearly on the search results page".[19]

Brexit[edit]

Brexit Campaigners out side Parliament November 2016

One of the most important checking organizations during the time leading up the Brexit referendum was the independent charity Full Fact. In an interview with the Poynter institute, the director and the senior communications officer of Full fact discussed their impact on Brexit. When asked how the campaigns reacted to their work, they noted that both sides (remain and leave) would actively reference Full Fact's work. This indicates that politicians were willing to reference the same organization that was proving their own claims wrong. Due to this, it can be inferred that politicians were attempting to wield the influence of an unbiased organization like Full Fact as a political weapon. They also state that many people seemed "willing to make bold claims with no basis in fact, and to stick to them when challenged".[20]

2016 United States Presidential Election[edit]

Donald Trump speaking with supporters at a campaign rally at the Phoenix Convention Center

During the 2016 US Presidential election, the multitudes of misinformation and false statements made fact-checking a critical issue. During this period the Washington Post fact checker alone made 92 fact checks on Donald Trump and 49 fact checks on Hillary Clinton with an average rating of 3.4 and 2.2 Pinocchio's respectively.[21] On top of that, this election has been called the most fact checked election ever. As popular as fact checking was during this election, it clearly didn't change the outcome of the election. This lack of impact has led many to claim that we live in a "post truth" society. According to Poynter however, this is "fatally flawed: Political actors, not the media, are supposed to defeat other political actors".

One lasting impact of this election is the cultural emphasis on truth in media. Alongside this, the general trust in media has reached a historic low. Poynter partly attributes the inefficacy of fact checking to this distrust as well as other psychological factors. This lasting emphasis on truth relates to the fact checking tools that Facebook and Google have recently implemented. Clearly, the impact fact checking had in the 2016 election had less to do with the outcome but the relation between people, the media, and politicians.[22]

Controversy and Distrust[edit]

The main controversy surrounding fact checking sites is the uncertainty about their level of bias. This is well exemplified in the controversy surrounding the transparency of snopes.com. As explained by Forbes, the original story from The Daily Mail seemed like fake news but "when someone attempted to fact check the fact checker, the response was the equivalent of 'it's secret'".[23] This obfuscation alone is enough to cast doubt on the unbiased nature of Snopes. Couple this with the growing distrust in media and that many fact checking sites are associated with journalists or media outlets and it makes sense that there are many who distrust fact checking sites. Other issues that cause many to distrust fact checking websites are motivated reasoning and overly literal fact checking. According to Poynter, motivated reasoning is explaining away what doesn't fit one's view while literal fact checking is checking the literal words and not the spirit of what was said, leading to a sense of bias.[24]

Conclusion[edit]

Fact checking began as an internal operation meant to promote trust between the general population and news outlets. Internet fact checking began to tackle a broader range of issues and media.

Ultimately, the example of these fact checking websites can help examine how people relate to facts and truth. It can reveal a level of hypocrisy in people's purported values and give evidence to whether they really value the truth or whether they only value winning the argument. This is clear in the example of the Brexit referendum. Tension between one's stated values and their true values is abundantly clear with regard to fact checking sites because they are seen as the objective truth on a matter but the principle can be applied to many other scenarios. Future work would include analysis of individuals' perspectives when interacting with fact checking services, and analysis of website traffic under different contexts.

References[edit]

  1. PolitiFact (2017). Our latest fact-checks. Retrieved from http://www.politifact.com/truth-o-meter/statements/
  2. Google Ngram Viewer. (2017) Retrieved from https://books.google.com/ngrams/graph?content=fact+check%2C+fact+checking&year_start=1800&year_end=2000&corpus=15&smoothing=3&share=&direct_url=t1%3B%2Cfact%20check%3B%2Cc0%3B.t1%3B%2Cfact%20checking%3B%2Cc0
  3. Office of the Historian. (2017) Retrieved from https://history.state.gov/milestones/1866-1898/yellow-journalism
  4. Sinclair, U. (1906). The Jungle. Doubleday, Page & Company.
  5. Tarbell, I. M. (1904). The History of the Standard Oil Company. Mc Clure, Phillips & Company.
  6. SPJ Code of Ethics - Society of Professional Journalists. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.spj.org/ethicscode.asp
  7. Goldstein, P., & Machor, J. L. (2008). New Directions in American Reception Study. Oxford University Press.
  8. Silverman, C., & August 12, 2012. (2012, August 21). Newsweek ditched its fact-checkers in 1996, then made a major error. Retrieved from https://www.poynter.org/news/newsweek-ditched-its-fact-checkers-1996-then-made-major-error
  9. https://www.snopes.com/author/snopes/
  10. There are plenty of jobs available for trained automobile and airline technicians, but Clinton overestimates how much they pay. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://www.politifact.com/truth-o-meter/statements/2007/aug/21/hillary-clinton/there-are-plenty-of-jobs-available-for-trained/
  11. Merrill Fabry. (2017, August 24). The History of Fact Checking Jobs in News Journalism Retrieved from http://time.com/4858683/fact-checking-history/
  12. Mark Stencel. (2017, February 28). International fact-checking gains ground, Duke census finds. Retrieved from https://reporterslab.org/international-fact-checking-gains-ground/
  13. a b Adair, B. and Stencel, M. (2016, Jun 22). How We Identify Fact-Checkers. Retrieved from https://reporterslab.org/how-we-identify-fact-checkers/
  14. a b Brandtzaeg, P.B. and Følstad, A. (2017, September 9). Trust and distrust in online fact-checking services. Retrieved from https://doi.org/10.1145/3122803
  15. Snopes (2017). About Snopes.com. Retrieved from https://www.snopes.com/about-snopes/
  16. FactCheck.org (2017). Our Funding. Retrieved from http://www.factcheck.org/our-funding/
  17. Adair, B. (2009, April 20). PolitiFact wins Pulitzer. Retrieved from http://www.politifact.com/truth-o-meter/article/2009/apr/20/politifact-wins-pulitzer/
  18. Mosseri, A. (2016, December 15). News Feed FYI: Addressing Hoaxes and Fake News. Retrieved from https://newsroom.fb.com/news/2016/12/news-feed-fyi-addressing-hoaxes-and-fake-news/
  19. Kosslyn, J., & Yu, C. (2017, April 7). Fact Check now available in Google Search and News around the world. Retrieved from https://www.blog.google/products/search/fact-check-now-available-google-search-and-news-around-world/
  20. Mantzarlis, A. (2016a, June 23). Lessons from fact-checking the Brexit debate. Retrieved from https://www.poynter.org/news/lessons-fact-checking-brexit-debate
  21. The 2016 Election Fact Checker. (2016, November 3). Retrieved from https://www.washingtonpost.com/graphics/politics/2016-election/fact-checker/
  22. Mantzarlis, A. (2016b, November 10). Fact-checking under President Trump. Retrieved from https://www.poynter.org/news/fact-checking-under-president-trump
  23. Leetaru, K. (2016, December 22). The Daily Mail Snopes Story And Fact Checking The Fact Checkers. Retrieved from https://www.forbes.com/sites/kalevleetaru/2016/12/22/the-daily-mail-snopes-story-and-fact-checking-the-fact-checkers/#78da57f1227f
  24. Mantzarlis, A. (2016b, November 10). Fact-checking under President Trump. Retrieved from https://www.poynter.org/news/fact-checking-under-president-trump