'Lies and damned lies': The rise of fact-checking in 2016

The Brexit referendum and US election campaign have put political mistruths back in the spotlight

'Lies and damned lies': The rise of fact-checking in 2016

Image: David Goldman AP/Press Association Images

This weekend, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump will again face off in their second presidential debate.

If round one was anything to go by, media outlets will again be putting a heavy emphasis on fact-checking - both in ‘real time’ and in the hours and days that follow the debate.

Why has something as seemingly straightforward and rudimentary as fact-checking become such a major issue in 2016?

‘There are three kinds of lies: Lies, damned lies, and statistics’

That famous statement, appropriately enough, needs a bit of a fact check itself. Mark Twain attributed the quote to 19th century British prime minister Benjamin Disraeli, but as a quick glance at the Wikipedia page (Wikipedia, of course, being that most reliable source of facts) will highlight that there has been plenty of dispute over the actual origin of the phrase.

Lying and accusations of lying have been among the defining features of western political discourse in 2016 - a remarkable, terrifying and surprising year in world affairs. While many would (rightly) argue that politics and the truth have been uncomfortable bedfellows throughout human history, descriptions such as ‘post-truth’ or ‘post-factual’ society have become more common this year.

The outcome of the Brexit referendum led many to comment on the decreasing importance of ‘facts’. While plenty of Remainers came out with erroneous statements, a majority of British voters very clearly rejected expert, establishment consensus. Pledges from the Leave campaign - such as the instantly infamous claim of ‘£350m extra funding a week for the NHS’ - proved influential, even though campaigners distanced themselves from that attention-grabbing pledge almost as soon as the shock result was announced.

There’s a lot to be said for challenging and calling out establishment consensus - loaded as it often is with troubling neo-liberal values and a plethora of vested interests - but it was still a shock for many to see such a definitive rejection of widely-held ‘expert opinion’.

Website comment sections are usually best avoided, but one user’s input on the Financial Times website went viral in the hours after the final referendum result became apparent. 

Commenter Nicholas Barrett wrote: “We now live in a post-factual democracy. When the facts met the myths they were as useless as bullets bouncing off the bodies of aliens in a HG Wells novel. When Michael Gove said, ‘The British people are sick of experts,’ he was right. But can anybody tell me the last time a prevailing culture of anti-intellectualism has led to anything other than bigotry?”

Brexit, however, was nothing compared to the US election campaign - and more specifically Donald Trump.

Pants on Fire

On the Pulitzer Prize winning PolitiFact website, which examines and researches statements from American politicians, pundits and advocacy groups, more than half (52%) of Trump’s statements fact-checked were rated either ‘false’ or - even more damning - ‘pants on fire’. A mere 4% of the facts checked were considered fully ‘true’.

Of course, given the year we're in, it almost goes without saying that a website exists to call out alleged PolitiFact bias.

Not that Trump is afraid of calling out the 'lies' of others either: In a wonderful example of the ‘takes one to know one’ level of discourse that has dominated this election cycle, the Trump campaign launched a website quite bluntly called Lying Crooked Hillary.

Let’s be honest: Hillary Clinton does often need to be fact-checked herself, with 12% of her examined statements rated either false or pants on fire on PolitiFact, and a further 15% rated ‘mostly false’. While preferable to her rival’s numbers, it goes without saying that anything over a percent or two (allowing for honest mistakes and slips-of-the-tongue) is not exactly ideal. With plenty of controversies of her own, she is hardly immune to criticism even when compared to the rapid-fire nature of her opponent’s mistruths.

There is no question all candidates deserve to have their statements heavily scrutinised, and bluffs must be called wherever possible. But there’s no doubt Mr Trump’s relationship with the truth is unique even by political and historical standards, and it’s probably fair to say he well knows it.

No matter what's called out on PolitiFact, FactCheck.org and The Washington Post's fact-checking section, it doesn't seem to phase him at all, whether that's his flip-flopping on the Obama 'birtherism' issue or distorting crime statistics.

Angie Drobnic Holan, Editor of PolitiFact, told Newstalk.com: “Donald Trump is unlike any candidate we’ve fact-checked before. He does not have a background in politics or holding elected office, and basically from the beginning of his candidacy he has said a lot of things that aren’t accurate.

“His record on our website was the worst of all the candidates this year, and frankly he’s gotten the least accurate rating of any major politician we’ve ever fact-checked on a continuing basis.”

Real-time fact-checking

The sheer volume of misleading and false statements has become an issue of particular prominence during the televised debates. Media outlets and pundits in the US have scrambled to try and deal with it during the first encounter between the two candidates. Bloomberg TV offered ‘real-time’ checks live on air, while sites such as PolitiFact and The Washington Post did so online. The Clinton campaign even dedicated their site's frontpage to live fact-checking.

Holan pointed out that while it is not possible to fact check ‘new’ statements from the candidates at ‘live’ speed, given the time and research often needed to prove or disprove a statement, there is still plenty that can be done in a live context.

“The challenge of fact-checking live debates is that our readership - the general public - they want to know the facts as soon as possible,” she explained. “Fortunately for us, the candidates tend to repeat themselves, so they often say things that we’ve already looked at, and in those cases we can put out our research instantaneously.”

Another debate has waged over the role of the moderator in fact-checking. Both the Trump and Clinton campaigns having espoused conflicting views on the matter, and there are no prizes for guessing which campaign expressed which view. Janet Brown, the head of the Commission on Presidential Debates, told CNN: “In our history, the moderators have found it appropriate to allow the candidates to be the ones that talk about the accuracy or the fairness of what the other candidate or candidates might have said.”

It’s an obvious challenge for moderators, who will likely face criticism no matter what approach they take.

Holan argues that the best way for moderators to fact-check "is by pressing the candidates with follow-up questions. Ask them for their evidence, or bring up evidence that contradicts whatever the candidate said that wasn’t accurate. They can also turn to the candidate and let them respond. I do think it’s important for the moderators to speak up when something inaccurate is being said.”

A big question is whether the fact-checking is falling on deaf ears. It’s not a stretch to say those obsessively following the election campaign on Twitter or dedicated fact-checking websites are in a minority. The core support bases for both candidates and the political parties are largely unshakable. That has proven particularly true in Trump’s case, as he has survived and sometimes even thrived as a result of a faux pas that would have toppled any other candidate’s campaign.

In some ways, fact-checking can be a case of ‘preaching to the choir’; unlikely to upset a partisan voter’s rock-solid allegiances. It’s the undecideds that could be potentially swayed when the falsities are flagged.

Ultimately, widespread apathy may well be the greatest problem facing those committed to calling out political mistruths. As Holan observed: “We have a particular challenge in American society in making sure that broad [parts] of the population are engaged in politics, democratic governance, and in news generally.

“I think we have a problem with a lot of people either not tuning in or being apathetic. But I think that’s a challenge for all of American society: not just news, not just journalists, but everybody.”