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Trust and Verification: Fact-checking & debunking

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In early 2018 Data & Society published a report titled, Dead Reckoning: Navigating Content Moderation After ‘Fake News’” whose aim was to clarify the current usage of the term “fake news” and analyze four specific strategies of intervention for managing it. One such strategy introduced is something they call “Trust and Verification.” This strategy is further broken down into three possible types: debunking and fact-checking, coalitions of trusted content brokers, and expanding content moderation programs and policies. Amongst the three solutions presented, debunking and fact-checking perhaps comes off as the most intriguing because many consider debunking as the ultimate solution to this confusing post-truth moment, since fact checking has a long history within media, and has continued to address the spread of viral hoaxes over social media for the last several years, particularly during crises. In recent years, debunking has become an important function for American journalists and readers due to proving false claims made by people across the globe. However, Dana L. Cloud criticizes fact-checking and dives into the ideology of different societies and how it affects fact-checking. In this essay, I will talk about different organizations across the globe whose main objective is not only to debunk and fact-check stories, but to build trust and credibility across several multimedia platforms, and how they establish credibility depending on the society.

An example of an organization in the United States is Politifact. Politifact, is a nonprofit project 

operated by the Poynter Institute in St. Petersburg, Florida, with offices there and in Washington, D.C.. It began in 2007 as a project of the Tampa Bay Times (then the St. Petersburg Times), with reporters and editors from the newspaper and its affiliated news media partners reporting on the accuracy of statements made by elected officials, candidates, their staffs, lobbyists, interest groups and others involved in U.S. politics: A real case study is when Bernie Sanders claimed: “white people do not know what it is like to be poor!” PolitiFact used other sources such as information from the U.S Census Bureau to provide statistical data to fact-check Sanders’ claim. They also used a graphic by Christopher Wimer, a research scientist at the Columbia University Population Research Center that allows us to see how the white-population is still the poorest in the United States. Thus, Politifact builds this trust and credibility by not only giving their own opinion about the matter, but also providing evidence from other outside reliable sources to confirm that Bernie Sanders’s claim is false. This in turn shows that in an American Culture where they are granted freedom of speech are able to criticize and be open about fact-checking issues. 

However, fact-checking has not always been a simple methodology to prove whether claims are true or misleading. In fact, there are some who believe that fact-checking is actually unhelpful or even uncritical. For example, according toDead Reckoning: Navigating Content Moderation After ‘Fake News’” , it is currently disputed whether fact-checking decreases or increases trust in mis-and disinformation. Through several experiments and analysis results have shown how fact-checking can amplify false content, making it more familiar to audiences. 

Because of the numerous amounts of news sites online, a way to attract readers is by the hyperbolic headlines and clever titles from fact-checkers. However, readers rarely make time for the detailed fact-checks provided by organizations like Politifact. Indeed, in her third chapter of Reality Bites: Rhetoric and the Circulation of Truth Claims in U.S. Political Dana L. Cloud argues that this minutiae of fact-checking ignores larger truths. She specifically examines how truth and reality are established in US political culture. The third chapter essentially, talks about how we must not rely on fact-checking nor the “absolute truth” because it focuses more on the minutiae of facts rather than the big picture; she argues for a rhetorical realism—the idea that communicators can bring forth knowledge from particular perspectives and experiences into an accurate form of common sense. She mentions, Jon Elster and how he describes the complexity of what we might think of as truth. He presents this idea of ideology — invested patterns of ideas that explain and justify society as it is — establishes belief. There are three overlapping forms of ideological production: “the interest-based dissemination of distorted ideas (genetic fallacy), the failure of imagination that happens when people are convinced to favor the existing social system, and the psychological comfort such as religion or patriotism.” Elster’s work allows us to view established patterns of ideological production and how it can affect societies across the world. 

On July 19, 2019, The Atlantic, an American magazine founded in 1857, published an article titled: Singapore Says It’s Fighting ‘Fake News.’ Journalists See a Ruse. Author Peter Guest dissects a new law that allows ministers to declare online content “false or misleading” and demand that it be corrected or taken down. Terry Xu, spent most of his 20’s working at blue collar jobs before joining, The Online Citizen (This rare independent news site in the city-state). He first volunteered as a photographer to help cover successive general elections in 2011and 2015. The news site challenges the governments narrative and gives voice to those who oppose the government’s actions. “Any publication that does not run the government narrative,” Xu told Guest, “is their opposition.” On May 2019, Singapore’s government granted itself new powers that allows them to gain deeper control into the digital media and allow Singapore’s government to determine what is “fake news.” The Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act (POFMA) – gives individual government ministers the power to declare content “false or misleading” and demand that it be corrected or taken down. In an ideological perspective, Singapore’s citizens no longer have a sense of imagination because they favor the existing social system, therefore, decided not to challenge its authority. This extension of power demonstrates Cloud’s argument for a rhetorical realism is weak because in the western hemisphere there is a different set of rules; it would not work in correspondence to fake news in this environment because everything is controlled by the government. 

Overall, in Cloud’s conclusion, she claims “Fact-checking is a process that denies its own rhetoric.” In other words, fact-checking itself is a rhetorical frame, meaning, all it does is express facts instead of arguing what they do or mean. The journalists (fact-checkers) tend to believe that in correcting small falsehoods they are providing the public with “correct” facts. The belief and the acceptance of the people are ideological: many of these “fact-checkers” believe that addressing this power imbalance is a matter of fact-finding and that their critiques can hold politicians accountable by comparing their claims to actual facts is subjective. “The fact of fact-checking actually prevents the expansion of critical thinking by implying there is nothing more than just the facts” (74). All the information presented demonstrates how different organizations across the world have tried to decrease the amount of false content within social media. However, as shown in Singapore; debunking is limited due to the way the government controls what is and what is not true; post-truth has become subjective. 


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