16 Sep 2019 When fact-checking isn’t about ‘right’ or ‘wrong’
The rise of “fake news” charges and deliberate disinformation have led to an important counter effort: fact-checking. News agencies, civil society organisations, and concerned individuals have taken on the fight for “truth” – assessing political claims and struggling to prevent misinformation guiding our decisions and behaviour.
It seems clear enough. Is what someone says “right” or “wrong,” or somewhere in between?
A recent conversation with Allan Leonard of FactCheckNI, a fact-checking organisation in Northern Ireland, reveals that “facts” can be a grey area.
Verdicts can be tricky. Sometimes it might not be wrong information but it is a different interpretation. Some of the information might be correct, but not all. Sometimes it’s a claim about the future (e.g. “this is what will happen in a no-deal Brexit!”) rather than verifiable data. A decision on a verdict has to be non-partisan and avoid institutional bias. As Allan says, “Sometimes the things you read that you think are false have some truth in it… you have to be wary of ‘confirmation bias’.” Thus FactCheckNI doesn’t label their verdicts as “true” or “false”. They use “accurate” and “inaccurate” as well as accurate/inaccurate “with consideration”. If this seems to be a little underwhelming, consider the next point.
When fact checking itself becomes the news: Particularly in the US, fact-checking can be presented rather dramatically. The Washington Post uses graphic images of Pinocchio to illustrate the distance from the truth. PolitiFact has a “Pants on Fire Truth-o-Meter”. Another fact-check service bluntly calls itself “Crooks and Liars”. But does sensationalism help separate what is true or not, or instead confirm an institutional bias to the reader? When fact checking is done in a for-profit operation, it needs to sell and that means it needs to be noticed. But the presentation of the verdict then can end up becoming what the reader reacts to, rather than the original claim, and may only confirm the reader’s original bias. Even further, as Allan points out, in a society as deeply divided as Northern Ireland, it doesn’t help the political and cultural environment to call others “liars”.
Are the facts reaching the right audience? It’s not just about whether one leans politically left or right, but in raising awareness of fact and fiction, are we reaching the communities in which misinformation can spread quickly and consequences could be dire? FactCheckNI engaged in a lot of training, especially in schools, and were reaching a large audience. But they realised that those they really needed to reach were local community groups, small youth clubs and residence groups. And with young people who are technologically savvy and have critical thinking skills, the key, as Allan found, is linking the two.
And this is perhaps the fundamental learning: We all need to learn critical thinking skills. In a world of fast-moving information, we all need to be able to assess our sources and stories.
As Allan states, “You should interrogate everything you read – including us. We don’t want a world of cynics, but people need to think critically.”
See also: fullfact.org