Fact-checking is a useful referee for public debate and complements traditional media, but its consumers are not without their reservations, according to focus groups I conducted with readers of Argentinian fact-checking website Chequeado.
The analysis, funded by grants from the Friedrich Ebert Foundation and the Embassy of the United States in Argentina, consisted of focus groups with six men and six women aged 19 to 53 less than a month after Argentina's heated presidential election in November 2015.
Focus group participants paid more attention to fact-checking than normal during the presidential campaign (during which traffic to Chequeado’s website increased ninefold). Several participants mentioned instances in which a candidate, during a televised debate, used Chequeado as a source to discredit what their opponent was saying.
Fact-checking also played the role of referee at the interpersonal level: One woman, 23, said citing Chequeado helped her avoid discussions with friends and family over matters of fact.
Chequeado "expands upon the biased views of newspapers" and it also "democratizes information, it gives you extra tools to analyze the news," said another participant, a 22-year-old college student.
Although Chequeado was perceived as a useful source, it was not seen as making or breaking a candidate, because most voters do not care enough about politicians’ lying.
Another woman, a 23-year-old economist, argued that "people have already made a choice. I don’t believe a fact check could change your vote."
Yet other respondents said that fact-checking could discourage participation, by making candidates' lies public and disheartening prospective voters.
Selective sharing of fact checks was also raised as an issue. A 19-year old male participant explained "people with political affiliations always post on Facebook Chequeado’s work about the candidate that they dislike."
This last comment underscores Argentine citizens’ attention to bias even when reading friends' Facebook feeds. Lack of trust in public discourse in Argentina is fueled, in part, by former president Cristina Fernández de Kirchner’s decision to issue false public statistics – or refrain from issuing statistics altogether.
In this context of skepticism, participants tended to trust Chequeado more than they trusted traditional media, both due to its focus on fact-checking and to its status as a non-governmental organization (NGO), which appeared to shield it from political and market pressures.
In the words of another man, a 22-year old arts student, "If there were an objectivity-subjectivity pH: 0 being absolute objectivity and 14 absolute subjectivity, Chequeado would be closer to 0 than the average newspaper, but no one will be absolutely objective, there isn't such a thing."
Thus, the audience's trust in Chequeado was not absolute. A 21-year-old Economics student criticized Chequeado's perceived tendency to distribute fact checks equally among the political forces, while he trusted some politicians more than others. Another respondent was suspicious of its association with newspaper La Nación, which he viewed as somewhat contradictory, as Chequeado sought to verify the media as well as politicians.
These two examples suggest that audiences evaluate fact checking organizations according to their own political and ideological preferences.
Participants also doubted the intermediate grades for checks ("True, but"; "Exaggerated"). A 46-year-old participant argued, "things should only be 'true' or 'false' […] 'exaggerated' is someone's opinion."
In a country in which skepticism about public discourse is the norm, some participants believe that Chequeado may contribute to the development of a shared culture based on facts rather than on opinions or promises.
Although one fact checking operation cannot, by itself, solve generalized lack of trust in public discourse, its work can promote recognition of the value of facts and the verification of public discourse.