The kind of fact-checking that has become more commonly known about is that of fact-checking publicly-made statements. It began in the 2000’s. Presently, there are 161 organisations that provide such service, according to Duke University’s Reporter’s Lab. This is different from standard magazine fact-checking. To make the remainder of this article clearer, we’ll refer to both “magazine fact-checking” and “real-time fact-checking”.
How effective is it?
Magazine fact-checking works in that it theoretically catches mistakes made by a reporter after erroneously analysing the results of research or simply making up stories. When it comes to real-time fact-checking, however, the results are less clear.
An Arizona State University study from 2015 found that fact-checking can cause people to change their mind regarding the validity of negative political advertisements. Other studies have found that when what they believed turned out to be wrong, they insisted even more that their inaccurate beliefs were true.
Whether real-time fact-checking can influence people’s opinions or not, a Stanford University paper from 2018 asserted that politicians become more honest as a result of being fact-checked. The study found that even Donald Trump made fewer inaccurate statements per speech when campaigning in 2016 after he was fact-checked. Although this hasn’t stopped his habit of lying since.
Is fact-checking bias?
Even if a single mind isn’t changed by a real-time fact-check and the politician in question hasn’t allied themselves more with the truth, holding politicians to account remains a worthy goal. When it comes to the value of real-time fact-checking, therefore, it isn’t about its success in convincing the general public but whether they genuinely hold politicians accountable.
With regards to that, there are two factors involved. One is the format in which the real-time fact-checking takes place before any thought is given to the statements that are being checked. The other is whether the outlets are fact-checking the right statements or not.
The format for real-time fact-checking appears straightforward enough. A politician makes a statement and news outlets attempt to determine the validity of that statement. In reality, however, it’s more complex than that. Fact-checkers don’t attempt to find out whether a statement is correct or incorrect, they attempt to prove one or the other. Which one they seek can influence their interpretation of the statement.
Sometimes, there can be two parts of a statement that could lead to two possible avenues for fact-checking. For example, two people are accused of the same crime. Let’s say that they were both involved. In this case, there may be a valid reason to suspect that person A solely committed the crime and yet there’s equal validity to suspect that person B solely committed the exact same crime.
While an outlet, therefore, may attempt to validate either of these avenues, it can be a problem if they alternate between both. They may actually conclude that one is true while the other is a lie, giving the impression that only one is real when, in fact, both people were involved in committing the same crime.