This may I’m afraid be a bit of a ramble. It seems that “independent” fact checking has become all the rage in politics today. The Electoral Reform Society has opined that official “facts ” should be published before any future referendum, and anyone disagreeing with them should be punished – presumably “so the oiks don’t win again“. The Clinton/Trump debate was also live “fact checked”, and many on line debates are “settled” by referring to fact checking sites. Now checking facts in debates is a good thing, I’d even go so far as to say that it’s a very good thing – however I have a problem with this trend.
The first and most obvious problem is who checks that fact checkers? I know that I rarely check the sources on “fact check” websites I’m referred to, often the sources aren’t given. So how accurate are these fact checking sites? For the purpose of this ramble though I’m going to ignore that and assume that the “facts” given on such sites are taken from reputable sources.
The next problem is how “independent” is almost always assumed to also mean “non-partisan”. This blog for example is independent, no one pays me – nor so much as buys me a drink, I try to only reference reputable sources and by and large I dislike all of the major political parties. All that said though on some subjects I’m far from non-partisan and will quite happily present the evidence that best supports my cause because I want to make my case and I assume that people that disagree with me will have their own sources so I don’t need to do their research for them. This will be true to a greater or lesser extent of all those “independent” fact checking sites that are so popular these days. The site might of course claim to be non-partisan, but how do you verify that? Just like newspapers even the most independent of sites will tend to have an editorial slant.
However lets put all of that aside and assume that we have discovered an independent notionally non-partisan fact checking site, I’m afraid the problems don’t stop there. At the simplest level there is the question of who decides what “facts” need checking. The simple choice of which “facts” to check in a debate can cause one or other side to seem less trustworthy, by dint of the number of facts they’ve had checked compared to their opponent. It doesn’t matter if the facts all check out correctly, what a lot of people will see is that a lot of facts “needed” checking compared to the other side, and so the side with the least “facts” checked will be perceived as more trustworthy and honest. If you checked just one or two items amongst a sea of falsehoods, but numerous items in an ocean of truth a perception will be given that the dishonest sea was more reliable than the honest ocean.
Lets assume though that the fact checking has been even handed, with no particular bias towards one side or the other. Now obviously well agreed upon facts don’t need checking, so our hypothetical fact checking site will only be checking the more contentious points – well that and out right lies. I’m going to ignore out right lies – as if they’re not contentious they’re easily checked so not a problem. So lets consider the contentious “facts”, at this point actual facts start being thin on the ground. If we’re lucky our fact checking website will provide links to the sources they got their version of the facts from, they might if we’re exceptionally lucky also give some hint as to where the bad information came from. There though lies the problem, we potentially have two sources of the “facts” that disagree with each other. Now one source may seem far more reputable than the other, but are those the only sources? After all the more contentious the “fact” the more likely that they’ll be multiple accounts both in support and against it. Which leaves us with a problem how did the fact checking site choose which account to side with, how did they evaluate the one to believe?
I like fact checking websites, they’re useful – but ultimately they’re aggregators of curated evidence. How the “facts” to be checked are chosen, how and what supporting evidence is selected are things that generally remain obscure. So as a starting point they’re wonderful things but to close down debate they’re just a convoluted appeal to authority and as ever further research is needed.