Friday, August 09, 2013

Factchecking Websites are Basically Worthless

"I'm just a soul whose intentions are good...." The concept behind factchecking websites is reasonable - politicians say things that may or may not be true, and the media does a poor job distinguishing truth from fiction, so why not have an independent agency or reporter assigned to "fact check" prominent claims and then rate their accuracy? The reality has largely failed to live up to the dream. As I noted during the past presidential campaign,
A while back I took part of an online quiz on a "fact checking" site, in which they asked readers to estimate how many... Pinocchios, flaming butt cheeks, or something like that... they assigned to various statements by politicians. The pointlessness of the exercise was best illustrated by the rating of a statement by Rick Santorum as being mostly false. The statement was one of opinion. Had the scale been the "Chauncey Gardner" garden rake scale, the person doing the rating would have been free to editorialize that the comment was so dim-witted and disconnected with logic that it ranked as a "hit in the face with a garden rake so hard that your zombie head gets knocked off", that would be fine. One opinion against another. Even if the rationale is, "That's such a baseless opinion that I can't believe Santorum holds it," it remains your opinion that he's lying as opposed to being ignorant or obtuse.

When self-professed fact-checkers stop checking the facts and start assessing the degree to which a politician may be shading the truth, they're no longer engaged in fact-checking. It's a perfectly legitimate function of the press to point to a statement that neatly avoids key issues or problems and to point out that it's not the whole story, but that's a different tasks than fact-checkers claim to be performing. It's interesting to me, also, that fact-checkers will use "Pinocchio" scales or a "pants on fire" meter, but they shy away from actually using the term "lie". You don't have to bring it out for every nuanced statement, but when a politician tells a real whopper why not tell it like it is? Instead, we have gasbag commentators who don't hesitate to call up down and the truth a lie, when they're talking about the other side, while the mainstream media at times passively "reports" on the controversy.
I occasionally follow a link to a "fact check" page, usually offered by one partisan or another to back up their claim that the other side said something that was false or misleading. Sometimes the analysis is helpful. Sometimes the effort to find truth in a false statement is a bit ridiculous. But for the most part the ratings are highly misleading to casual readers, and the "fact checkers" have largely reduced themselves to being a tool to advance political mendacity. Could factcheckers change that status quo? Yes, but it would be hard work and would probably necessitate their abandoning their simplistic rating tools, so I don't see it happening.

At CJR, Lucas Graves offers defense of factchecking sites:
It’s tempting to throw up one’s hands and say there’s no role for the factcheckers to play on questions like [whether the Ryan Plan would "end" Medicare]. As Sargent argued at the time, “this disagreement ultimately comes down to differing interpretations of known facts—and not to a difference over the facts themselves.” At New York, Jonathan Chait ran through the proposed changes and then asked, “Is that ‘ending Medicare?’ Well, it’s a matter of opinion.”

That’s the wrong word, though, just as “opinion” is the wrong word for a lot of the deeply reported work that appears on the Op-Ed page. To say the Who are better than the Stones is an opinion. To say the Ryan budget wouldn’t “end” Medicare—and that it’s dishonest to claim it would—is a factual argument. (PolitiFact founder Bill Adair says the site practices “reported conclusion” journalism.)
PolitiFact, I think quite deliberately, chose to make a valid opinion about the Ryan plan its "lie of the year" because it knew that it would gain lots of attention. But it's like the Santorum comment that one fact check or another deemed a "lie" - you can't so easily brand an opinion as a "lie", let alone "lie of the year". To the extent that you offer a defense of your position by parsing through the facts, and even if you paint a clear picture of why you believe that the opinion is incorrect, very few people are going to read that explanation. They're instead going to hear politician and hacks use the "lie of the year" designation for purposes of demagoguery.

Having spent quite a few years of my youth in Canada, which has a national, single-payer Medicare system, it's not difficult to see the direct comparison between Canada's Medicare and the similarly named U.S. program - which is a national, single-payer insurance plan, limited in enrollment to the elderly and certain disabled persons. If you were to approach a Canadian and say, "If the Harper Government were to change Medicare so that rather than getting health insurance you received an allotment of money that you could use to buy insurance, and rather than having one government-run health insurance program you would choose between an assortment of private carriers, would it be fair to say that he's 'ending' Medicare", I think most people would say "Yes". If you added, "What if the government were still offering a state-run health insurance plan that you could select from in addition to the private plans," perhaps you would get a bit of head scratching - but if people realized that the net effect would be to cause the cost of the state-run plan to soar as it ended up insuring the sickest members of the population, I expect that most would again answer "Yes". Whether or not you believe I am correct in my estimate of the public's response, anybody saying "Yes" would be sharing a fair, fact-based opinion. Part of the outrage against the "lie of the year" label was that many people agree completely, in good faith and with the support of the facts, that Ryan's voucher plan (even as amended to allow Medicare to continue to exist in competition with the private plans) would end Medicare "as we know it" - primarily preserving the name, while dramatically changing and undermining the program. So PolitiFact was not only calling the politicians who took that position "liars", it applied that brand to tens of millions of of people who hold that fact-based, good faith position.
Here’s the logic: If Ryan’s privatization plan ends Medicare, what would we say of a proposal that actually ended it? Of course a scheme to give seniors two free aspirin a year and call it Medicare would count as killing the program, as Chait mused; but does everything short of that fall into some hazy, undifferentiated sphere of personal opinion?
I don't think it's necessary to regard everything between the two extremes as "hazy" - just as opinion. And you can argue that one set of opinions hews closer to the fact than another, but they remain opinions. If you view Medicare as a plan that allows for comprehensive health care coverage to seniors, it's more than fair to observe that the Ryan plan was designed to undermine the comprehensive nature of the coverage. Were it otherwise, Ryan could have proposed exactly the same plan but with one change: that every private insurer that participated in the plan had to start by offering the same coverage as Medicare, and that they would compete for customers by offering additional services for the same or a higher price or by offering the same services at a lower price. Ryan would never propose such a plan, because he has absolutely no faith in private insurers to be able to compete at that level. As Medicare Advantage indicates, when private insurers try to compete with Medicare they require subsidies. Why? Because even if they can do everything else as well or better than Medicare, they need to extract profits.
The factcheckers do issue some rulings that don’t provoke much disagreement. In these cases, questions of legitimacy fade into the background. This may happen much less often than we would like to think, though, and it’s a litmus test that political actors can easily game. To apply it too rigidly—to say these are the only questions factcheckers should rule on—would provide a powerful shield for politicians’ most misleading claims.
Sure, but if a tree falls in the woods and nobody is there to hear it.... what does fact-checking contribute when pretty much everybody already agrees that a statement is false? If legitimacy is in the background, and you find only the controversial or inept "fact checks" in the foreground, what's the net contribution to the public debate?
More to the point, this is the wrong litmus test for a journalism that very deliberately rejects the “he said, she said” formulations that sustain the “View from Nowhere.” We can’t ask journalists to make the judgment that torture is torture—in the face of the rhetorical, political and legal apparatus that has been erected to redefine that word—and then also insist that they stick to pure “reporting.”
Did PolitiFact every "fact check" whether or not waterboarding is torture? This is the closest thing I could find, which holds that McCain correctly stated that water boarding had been historically prosecuted as a war crime, without actually taking a stance on whether it either should be described as torture or presently constitutes a war crime. If the defense of factcheckers is that they are free to fact check the definition of "torture", while "pure" reporters are ostensibly limited to telling us why the people ordering water boarding say that it does not constitute torture, they seem to be sleeping on the job. They may have a perspective, but neither shying away from controversies such as the Bush Administration's reinvention of what constitutes "torture" nor displaying indignation over matters of opinion do much to move us away from "the view from nowhere".

If, at the end of the day, factcheckers contribute little more to the public debate than editorials with eye-catching graphics and a score at the top of the page, they offer little that we can't already learn from the editorial and Op/Ed pages. And if the editorial content is risible, it doesn't even offer that much... save, perhaps as compared to the Wall Street Journal. Do they sometimes offer more, with the deeper, more nuanced exploration of the facts underlying their conclusions? Certainly - but, as exemplified by the Medicare fiasco, when fact checking is most important to political partisans the rating acts as noise that drowns out the signal. If you want to improve journalism, the place to start is with the larger enterprise of journalism. Factcheckers don't seem to be doing a good job of helping journalism find a better perspective than "the view from nowhere", and if they're relevance is in being controversial then that more than anything else is apt to drive their ratings.

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