Fact checking is the act of checking factual assertions in non-fictional text in order to determine the veracity and correctness of the factual statements in the text. This may be done either before (ante hoc) or after (post hoc) the text has been published or otherwise disseminated.
Ante hoc fact-checking (fact checking before dissemination) aims to remove errors and allow text to proceed to dissemination (or to rejection if it fails confirmations or other criteria).
Post hoc fact-checking is most often followed by a written report of inaccuracies, sometimes with a visual metric from the checking organization (e.g., Pinocchios from The Washington Post Fact Checker, or TRUTH-O-METER ratings from PolitiFact). Several organizations are devoted to post hoc fact-checking, such as FactCheck.org and PolitiFact.
Research on the impact of fact-checking is relatively recent but the existing research suggests that fact-checking does indeed correct misperceptions among citizens, as well as discouraging politicians from spreading misinformation.
Post hoc fact-checking
Consistency across fact-checkers
One study finds that fact-checkers PolitiFact, FactCheck.org, and Washington Post’s Fact Checker overwhelmingly agree on their evaluations of claims. However, a study by Morgan Marietta, David C. Barker and Todd Bowser found “substantial differences in the questions asked and the answers offered.” They concluded that this limited the “usefulness of fact-checking for citizens trying to decide which version of disputed realities to believe.”
A paper by Chloe Lim, Ph.D. student at Stanford University, finds little overlap in the statements that fact-checkers check. Out of 1065 fact-checks by PolitiFact and 240 fact-checks by The Washington Post’s Fact-Checker, there were only 70 statements that both fact-checkers checked. The study found that the fact-checkers gave consistent ratings for 56 out of 70 statements, which means that one out every five times, the two fact-checkers disagree on the accuracy of statements.
Studies of post hoc fact checking have made clear that such efforts often result in changes in the behavior, in general, of both the speaker (making them more careful in their pronouncements) and of the listener or reader (making them more discerning with regard to the factual accuracy of content); observations include the propensities of audiences to be completely unswayed by corrections to errors regarding the most divisive subjects, or the tendency to be more greatly persuaded by corrections of negative reporting (e.g., “attack ads”), and to see minds changed only when the individual in error was someone reasonably like-minded to begin with.
A 2015 study found evidence a “backfire effect” (correcting false information may make partisan individuals cling more strongly to their views): “Corrective information adapted from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) website significantly reduced belief in the myth that the flu vaccine can give you the flu as well as concerns about its safety. However, the correction also significantly reduced intent to vaccinate among respondents with high levels of concern about vaccine side effects–a response that was not observed among those with low levels of concern.” A 2017 study attempted to replicate the findings of the 2015 study but failed to do so.
A 2016 study found little evidence for the “backfire effect”: “By and large, citizens heed factual information, even when such information challenges their partisan and ideological commitments.” A study of Donald Trump supporters during the 2016 race similarly found little evidence for the backfire effect: “When respondents read a news article about Mr. Trump’s speech that included F.B.I. statistics indicating that crime had “fallen dramatically and consistently over time,” their misperceptions about crime declined compared with those who saw a version of the article that omitted corrective information (though misperceptions persisted among a sizable minority).”
Studies have shown that fact-checking can affect citizens’ belief in the accuracy of claims made in political advertisement. A paper by a group of Paris School of Economics and Sciences Po economists found that falsehoods by Marine Le Pen during the 2017 French presidential election campaign (i) did successfully persuade voters, (ii) lost their persuasiveness when fact-checked, and (iii) did not reduce voters’ political support for Le Pen when her claims were fact-checked. A 2017 study in the Journal of Politics found that “that individuals consistently update political beliefs in the appropriate direction, even on facts that have clear implications for political party reputations, though they do so cautiously and with some bias… Interestingly, those who identify with one of the political parties are no more biased or cautious than pure independents in their learning, conditional on initial beliefs.”
A 2015 experimental study found that fact-checking can encourage politicians to not spread misinformation. The study found that it might help improve political discourse by increasing the reputational costs or risks of spreading misinformation for political elites. The researchers sent, “a series of letters about the risks to their reputation and electoral security if they were caught making questionable statements. The legislators who were sent these letters were substantially less likely to receive a negative fact-checking rating or to have their accuracy questioned publicly, suggesting that fact-checking can reduce inaccuracy when it poses a salient threat.”
One experimental study found that fact-checking during debates affected viewers’ assessment of the candidates’ debate performance and “greater willingness to vote for a candidate when the fact-check indicates that the candidate is being honest.”
A study of Trump supporters during the 2016 presidential campaign found that while fact checks of false claims made by Trump reduced his supporters’ belief in the false claims in question, the corrections did not alter their attitudes towards Trump.
Controversies and criticism
Political fact-checking is sometimes criticized as being opinion journalism. In September 2016, a Rasmussen Reports national telephone and online survey found that “just 29% of all Likely U.S. Voters trust media fact-checking of candidates’ comments. Sixty-two percent (62%) believe instead that news organizations skew the facts to help candidates they support.”
Organizations and individuals
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The Reporters’ Lab at Duke University maintains a database of fact checking organizations that is managed by Mark Stencel and Bill Adair. The database tracks more than 100 non-partisan organizations around the world. Articles are also examined based upon whether the site examines transparency of sources and methods, tracks political promises, examines all parties and sides, and examines discreet claims and reaches conclusions.
Africa Check: Africa’s first independent fact-checking organisation with offices in Kenya, Nigeria, South Africa, Senegal and the UK checking claims made by public figures and the media in Africa.
Boom is a fact checking digital journalism website.
SMHoaxSlayer is a broad spectrum fact checking website with verifying social media hoaxes and scams circulating in india.
FactCheck Sri Lanka is a fact checking service in Sri Lanka that provide an authoritative confirmation of various claims, statements or allegations made by any person or corporate body.
Demagog: joint project in the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, and Slovakia (Visegrad Group countries), launched in 2010 in Slovakia and developed in the Czech Republic,
Hungary and Poland.
FactCheckEU.org: Created in January 2014, this is Europe’s first “crowd-checking platform… born out of the belief that as the EU becomes ever more integrated it becomes increasingly essential to develop watchdogs capable of monitoring the political debate.”
Full Fact: An independent fact checking organisation based in the UK which aims to “promote accuracy in public debate”, launched in 2009.
The FactCheck blog: A fact checking blog run by the Channel 4 News organization in the
Les Décodeurs: French fact-checking blog run by Le Monde.
Pagella Politica: an Italian fact-checking website.
Miniver.org: First dedicated fact checking web in Spain, launched in 2017, with the purpose of debunking fake news.
faktisk.no Norwegian Fact checking website launched in 2017. Owned by news organisations Verdens Gang, Dagbladet, NRK, TV 2. Financed by Tinius Trust, Dagbladets Stiftelse and Fritt Ord.
Brazil: Agência Lupax, Aos Fatos, E-farsas, Truco no Congresso.
Chile: Del dicho al hecho
Central America: Rete al candidato
FactCheck.org and FactCheckEd.org: non-partisan, nonprofit sister websites that are self-described “advocates for voters that aims to reduce the level of deception and confusion in U.S. politics,” and serving as an educational resource for high school teachers and students, respectively (the latter founded 2005). They are projects of the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania, and are funded primarily by the Annenberg Foundation.
Fact Checker (The Washington Post): A project of The Washington Post, known for grading politicians on the factual accuracy of their statements with one to four
“Pinocchios.” Created September 2007 by Post diplomatic writer Michael Dobbs specifically for the 2008 presidential campaign. Ceased operation November 4, 2008,[ but relaunched with a broader focus in January 2011, led by veteran Post diplomatic correspondent Glenn Kessler.
PolitiFact.com: A service of the Tampa Bay Times – Created August 2007, uses the “Truth-o-Meter” to rank the amount of truth in public persons’ statements. 2009 Pulitzer Prize Winner.
Snopes.com focuses on, but is not limited to, validating and debunking urban legends and other stories in American popular culture.
TruthOrFiction.com validates and debunks urban legends, Internet rumors, e-mail forwards, and other stories of unknown or questionable origin.
Ante hoc fact-checking
Among the benefits of printing only checked copy is that it averts serious, sometimes costly, problems, e.g. lawsuits and discreditation. Fact checkers are primarily useful in catching accidental mistakes; they are not guaranteed safeguards against those who wish to commit journalistic frauds
The possible societal benefit of honing the fundamental skill of fact checking has been noted in a round table discussion by Moshe Benovitz, who observes that “modern students use their wireless worlds to augment skepticism and to reject dogma,” but goes on to argue that this has positive implications for values development. He argues:
“We can encourage our students to embrace information and vigorously pursue accuracy and veracity. Fact checking can become a learned skill, and technology can be harnessed in a way that makes it second nature… By finding opportunities to integrate technology into learning, students will automatically sense the beautiful blending of… their cyber… [and non-virtual worlds]. Instead of two spheres coexisting uneasily and warily orbiting one another, there is a valuable experience of synthesis…”.
He closes, noting that this constitutes “new opportunities for students to contribute to the discussion like never before, inserting technology positively into academic settings” (rather than it being seen as purely as agent of distraction).
One journalistic controversy is that of admitted and disgraced reporter and plagiarist Stephen Glass, who began his journalism career as a fact-checker. The fact checkers at The New Republic and other weeklies for which he worked never flagged the numerous fictions in Glass’s reporting. Michael Kelly, who edited some of Glass’s concocted stories, blamed himself, rather than the fact-checkers, saying: “Any fact-checking system is built on trust … If a reporter is willing to fake notes, it defeats the system. Anyway, the real vetting system is not fact-checking but the editor.”
Sarah Harrison Smith spent some time and also headed the fact checking department for The New York Times. She is the author of the book, The Fact Checker’s Bible.
Jim Fingal worked for several years as a fact-checker at The Believer and McSweeney’s and is co-author with John D’Agata of The Lifespan of a Fact which is an inside look of a battle between himself as fact-checker and author D’Agata regarding one of his essays that pushes the limits of “artistic license” that is acceptable of a non-fiction work.