Will facts be victors or victims in the UK’s EU referendum campaign?
In 99 days, voters in the United Kingdom will decide whether their country should remain in the European Union or leave the club.
"Brexit" would be momentous for British politics; it could lead to a new referendum for Scottish independence and would undoubtedly push the EU further into crisis.
Prime Minister David Cameron, who is campaigning for the Remain side, has been accused of fearmongering about the potential consequences of leaving the EU (the satirical magazine Private Eye illustrated it with a hellish scene from Christ in Limbo).
The great British fact-off
A voter looking to "Get the Facts" discovers on the Stronger In website that each British household gains £3,000 a year from EU membership — yet "The Facts" on Leave.eu purport that on the contrary being part of the EU costs each household as much as £9,265 a year.
One or the other could be true — both clearly can't.
That campaigns will spin facts is to be expected, and the U.K. is fortunate enough to have a wealth of objective fact-checking initiatives such as Full Fact, the BBC's "Reality Check" and Channel 4's "Fact Check."
Yet this aggressive use of the term "facts" as a campaign tool in the EU Referendum campaign seems unique.
InFacts.org is perhaps the most clear representation of this. A website launched by a coalition of high-profile media types, it aspires to be "a journalistic enterprise making the fact-based case for Britain to remain in the European Union."
"We are not fact-checkers, though we do spend a lot of time checking the facts," InFacts' Editor-in-Chief Hugo Dixon said. Yet Dixon describes a large part of the content as "compelling rebuttals that are accurate, readable...and can be used to challenge arguments for leaving the EU."
In the "Sin Bin," InFacts collects inaccurate claims and links to articles that seek to debunk them. Yet the same website also hosts editorials like this (GIF-tastic) piece on why Barack Obama should make his views on Brexit public during a probable visit to the country in April.
Could blurring the line between debunking and editorializing confuse readers? "It's no different from what other media outlets do," Dixon said. "Hardly anybody in the industry does news-only any more," he adds, pointing to the editorial sections at Reuters and Bloomberg.
Charlie Beckett, Director of the London School of Economics' media think tank Polis, expressed a similar point of view.
"The structure of British media has an impartial broadcaster coexisting side-by-side with an incredibly partisan press with rampant bias," Beckett said. "Few people expect newspapers to be impartial."
In 2015, just 28 percent of Britons surveyed by Eurobarometer were able to respond correctly to three simple questions about the European Union. As the Europp blog noted, that was the lowest share in the whole EU.
For example, almost four out of 10 Britons didn't know that the members of the European Parliament were directly elected by citizens in the EU. That's a basic fact.
"There seems to be a great appetite for facts," confirms Conor James McKinney of Full Fact, pointing to a recent episode of the BBC's "Question Time" where the questions from the audience all seemed to boil down to a demand for facts. This is why Full Fact's EU coverage includes fact sheets as well as fact checks, a marked difference from their coverage of last year's general election.
George Brock, professor of journalism at City University London, warns however that "a lot of people will be seeing some of these issues for the first time and in these circumstances consume facts selectively."
Full Fact's attempt to address this concern includes a soon-to-be-launched Reddit-like "Ask Full Fact" section which will allow readers to submit claims to fact-check and upvote or downvote claims submitted by other users. If a recent study about Reddit itself is anything to go by, that may be an effective way to change perceptions.
Whatever the final result, demand is definitely there. The EU referendum has led to a ten-fold increase in traffic to Full Fact's Europe hub pages, and a five-fold increase in new monthly subscribers to their mailing list (+1,000/month, up from +200).
At the same time, some of the most heated issues of the campaign are based on conjecture. "Nobody knows what would happen post-Brexit," wrote The Economist last week as it introduced its series of Brexit briefs.
The difficulty of modeling this uncertainty was compounded last week by Mark Carney, the governor of the Bank of England, who said his organization would not conduct a review of Brexit's economic impact.
With all this uncertainty, some of the "facts" that are being heralded by the campaigns will be at best guesstimates and at worst outright fabrications.
"Fact-checking and data journalism can both be misused — they aren't inherently true," said Paul Bradshaw an associate professor of journalism at Birmingham City University.
Just as Bradshaw warns about the rise of "data churnalism" (the deployment of data visualization in a way that lacks insight or context), we should be wary of politically-motivated fact-checking that trivializes findings to support an agenda.
A campaign to watch
All this makes the effort of nonpartisan fact-checkers harder than ever. Memes purporting to expose the opposition as liars by using lightly sourced "facts" are inevitably going to be carried more broadly than the more thoughtful and neutral language of independent fact-checkers.
Beckett adds that voters will often be looking for a "killer fact" to make their case, rather than searching to change their views.
Full Fact is aware of this challenge, says Mevan Babakar, the communications officer for Full Fact. The website is trying to make its work more visually appealing so that readers will be keener to share it.
Independent fact-checking notwithstanding, will voters conclude that each side has its own facts and throw the baby (well-sourced, objective fact-checking) out with the bathwater (incomplete factoids distributed with an agenda)?
There may be reasons to be hopeful. Beckett says people earnestly looking for the facts should be "very well informed about the EU by the end of this campaign."
According to Brock, one advantage of a relatively long campaign (for U.K. standards) is that inaccuracies have "more time to be shaken out through a combination of iteration and fact-checking, making it harder for lying campaigners to get away with murder."
Poynter reached out to both Leave.eu and Stronger In to ask them whether they will be retracting statements if confronted by independent fact-checkers. Neither has responded.