What is fact checking and why is it important?
16 November 2018
WHAT IS FACT CHECKING?
The Oxford Dictionary describes fact checking as a process seeking to “investigate (an issue) in order to verify the facts”. However, while instructive, this necessarily concise definition is limited in its understanding of the practical outworkings of what constitutes fact checking, the variation and scope of its practices, as well as the factors and social, political and cultural contexts in which fact checking has become an established practice.
There is a history behind fact checking and the contemporary need for it. It is also important to move beyond recent narratives of “facts” and “fake news” and immediate political and social moments, to emphasise fact checking’s position in a wider consideration of human nature, interaction, and our inter-relatedness.
In recent years, fact checking has become more prevalent in journalism. This is reflected in the increasing numbers of fact-checking organisations being established internationally. While often considered as a journalistic pursuit aligned to established media outlets, it has also been the focus of work by NGOs, charities, and non-media aligned organisations. Approaches to fact-checking practices vary accordingly, with many organisations adhering to a commitment to “facts” and their dissemination, while differing in how the processes of fact checking are undertaken in terms of claim selection and how the fact checks themselves are communicated.
The spread of misinformation is inherently human. (On the flipside of an evolutionary advantage, some cognitive biases might be desirable functional features.) Lewandowsky et al. (2012) provides some reasons for the acquisition and persistence of misinformation:
- everyday conversational conduct requires you to accept rather than reject information in a conversation
- your brain is lazy: you tend to believe something true when it is less demanding for your brain; you assess information based on what is coherent with what you already know
- the mere repetition of a claim can make you think that it’s true
- you can be emotionally biased if it fits the worldview you have
Daniel Kahneman, a psychologist who won the Nobel prize in economic sciences, explains these cognitive shortcuts with a concept of “WYSIATI” (What you see is all there is). We tend not to look for what we do not see. We rather rely on the information that is directly available to us, without being fully aware of what we do not know. If we just see some elements of a story, we construct the best story we can out of those partial elements.
Don’t underestimate the power of the herd
The Sokal hoax was a scholarly publishing experiment by Alan Sokal in 1996, who submitted an article to Social Text, an academic journal of postmodern cultural studies. Sokal wanted to test the journal’s intellectual rigor and whether it would publish the article if “it sounded good and it flattered the editor’s ideological preconceptions”. In other words, he was testing whether the article appealed to the editor’s cognitive biases (like those listed above).
On the day that the article was published, Sokal revealed that it was a hoax. A follow-up study to the Sokal affair demonstrated herd behaviour, which occurs when people follow the behaviour of others, reasoning that “this many people can’t be wrong”. As the herd grows, it can be individually challenging to dissent from the crowd mentality.
In 2009, sociologist Robb Willer performed an experiment, asking his undergraduate students to read and assign a grade to Sokal’s hoax paper, but telling that it was written by a (falsely) titled professor of philosophy at Harvard University. In summary, in the absence of social pressure, individual participants reported that the text was unintelligible (and gave it a low grade score). But in a group environment setting, participants were induced to agree with the group consensus of a higher grade, even to the point of sanctioning those who dissented.
Willer’s experiment was conducted over the phone, in twelve groups of six. The half dozen participants discussed the matter in “public” on the conference call. Now extend this concept to one’s Facebook social media account, where your own self-defined public of invited friends is probably numbered in the dozens.
The use of facts and storytelling as a tool of political mobilisation has been a long-established means to persuade the public of a group consensus. Let’s consider some historical examples of how the spread of misinformation can have major consequences.
Bourgeois de Calais
In 1347, the French town of Calais was occupied by the army of Edward III, king of England. Edward told the people of Calais they would all be killed unless six of its citizens presented themselves to him dressed only in their shirts, with a rope around their necks, and with the keys to the city in their hands. Under the lead of Eustache de Saint Pierre, the richest man living in Calais, six citizens volunteered to sacrifice themselves. The queen asked the king to show them mercy, which he eventually did.
This story was introduced by medieval storyteller Jean Froissart and was understood to be true for centuries. The story was repeatedly used in the French historical narrative as a symbol of sacrificing for a collective purpose. What was introduced as the idea of Christians dying for the glory of God was transformed into the idea of citizens dying for the glory of their country.
During the 18th century, however, a more sceptical reading of the story emerged. Historian Louis-Georges de Bréquigny found documents that falsified Froissart’s heroic story. Eustache wasn’t such a hero after all, remaining in the city and receiving money and property from King Edward when the siege was over. In the 19th century, de Brégnuigny’s discovery was confirmed by other historians.
Although proven to be untrue, the heroic version survived. In 1884, sculptor Auguste Rodin was instructed to create a sculpture of the heroic scene. In the aftermath of the war against the German Empire which led to the fall of the Second French Empire, Froissart’s story once more rose in popularity and was even taught in French schools. The sculpture’s commission was motivated by political aims of the city council and later Rodin himself, and was intended to create a patriotic atmosphere and public resistance against foreign interference.
The story and sculpture of “The Burghers of Calais” demonstrates how a false fact can survive for hundreds of years and be used for political aims centuries after it first was made.
Despite his major role in the 1917 Russian Revolution as Lenin’s right hand man, founder of the Red Army, and Commissioner for Foreign Affairs, for a long time Leon Trotsky did not appear in the Soviet Union’s official documents and history books.
During the 1920s, Trotsky opposed the Stalinist faction of the Communist Party that came to power after Lenin’s death. In 1928 Trotsky was expelled from the party and the year after was exiled from the Soviet Union.
Jozef Stalin rewrote history the way he wanted. In the record of the Soviet party, Stalin had to be pictured as the originator of the revolution, discrediting his opponents. As a consequence, Trotsky’s role in the revolution was wiped out of the history books after his exile.
The Stalinist Soviets were masters in spreading misinformation, even using avant-garde technology for manipulating pictures. Long before Photoshop software existed, technicians of Stalin’s regime altered images without the digital tools we have now, using paint, razors, and airbrushes.
A photo of Lenin giving a speech to Red Army troops in 1920, became an iconic picture of the Russian revolution. In this image (top half) you can see Trotsky standing on the right of Lenin. After his exile, Trotsky was eliminated from the reproductions of the image (bottom half).
This practice was not limited to Trotsky. The falsification of photographs was common under Stalin’s regime.
The strength of Stalin’s censorship was that he not only controlled what facets of history could be hidden from the public, but that he could control the interpretations of what did circulate in public. Consequently, although there were some disobedient Soviet historians, the lack of documentary material makes it difficult to establish a more accurate historical narrative of Stalin’s Russia.
WHY IS FACT CHECKING IMPORTANT?
Hannah Arendt’s essay, “Truth and Politics”, published in The New Yorker in 1967, reads as if it was written for fact-checking organisations today. According to Arendt, factual truths are described as those facts and events that require testimony. And it is this testimony that can rankle those in power, who may well prefer to persuade through opinion. As James Madison, fourth President of the United States, said, “All governments rest on opinion.”
So what is the relationship between facts and opinions?
Factual truths exist only if they are spoken about and, as such, are as political as opinions. While they must be distinguishable, facts and opinions belong in the political realm.
Fact checkers can happily accept that politicians and other opinion makers will selectively use facts to suit a particular narrative; what fact checkers reject is the falsification of the factual testimony.
But some opinion holders may believe that your factual truths are no more self-evident than my opinion, dismissing your testimony as unreliable. And under certain circumstances, the desire to belong to a majority will induce false testimony, preferring your group’s consensus regardless.
A role of a journalist is to provide daily information: to provide accurate testimony of the political realm. But reality is more than this information; it includes the availability of information from a variety of sources. We weave these stories into a comprehensive meaning for ourselves.
The network effect of social media has broadened the sources of information and thus the construction of our narratives. Social media has also removed a primary filter of journalist as the establishment of truth teller. Some politicians and opinion makers have seized upon this opportunity as an exercise of power.
The modern political lie is now more intense. Before, a traditional political lie might have torn a hole in the fabric of reality, but as long as the texture as a whole was kept intact, the lie eventually showed up. But modern political lies may be so big that “they may require a complete rearrangement of the whole factual texture”, according to Arendt, to prevent new stories, images, and non-facts from substituting reality.
Simply put, fact checking is a form of critical, investigative inquiry. It includes a wide range of approaches and practices. A long-established practice of fact checking has prevailed and been developed. Part of the approach of fact checking is the awareness of the cognitive biases innate to each of us. While these biases help us navigate everyday life, they can cause us to overlook relevant facts, even when they are clearly presented. Added to this, “herding” can make us collectively behave in conformist ways, to the point of sanctioning the (truthful) dissenter.
The Bourgeois of Calais and the more contemporary re-imaging of Trotsky are both examples of how manufactured consent used denial of evidence and outright physical manipulation of evidence, respectively, to tell a story that those in power insisted on telling.
The political thinker, Hannah Arendt, explains how this manipulation can occur, through the interplay of facts, opinion, and power. Opinions can be informed by facts, or by the purposeful denial of them if a group consensus compels one so. Meanwhile, social media networks present a new and powerful tool to manipulate consent.
As it ever was, fact checking is no guarantee against a group of people deciding to ignore the evidence of factual truths, but without the effort of fact checking we surrender each of our reality to others. Fact checking emphasises that we should remain sceptical for our own survival.
Thanks to Ferre WOUTERS for research and contributions by Allan LEONARD, Alan MEBAN, and Orna YOUNG.
Republished at Co-Inform.
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