March 22, 2016

At the moment of writing, @UberFacts has 13.3 million followers on Twitter.

Fun fact: If all of its followers were real-life people, then @UberFacts’ following would be quite a bit larger than the population of Greece.

Now, lets try that again as if it were an “Uber Fact”: If @UberFacts were a country, it would be larger than Greece.

The difference between the two statements is not mere word count — after all, both fit in a tweet. Nor is the second sentence wrong. But it doesn’t present any sources or provide any caveats or context.

Accounts like UberFacts and @OMGFacts have been often proven inaccurate. But there’s something greater than accuracy at stake here: These accounts embody a trend on social media where “facts” are increasingly seen as one-line zingers that should, ideally, surprise you into sharing them.

As Michael Lynch, professor of philosophy at the University of Connecticut and author of “The Internet of Us,” explains, these sites “further encourage people to think that sheer availability equates with knowability.” That’s because “people often vaguely (and unconsciously) assume that if someone has bothered to put this list of ‘facts’ out there — where it can supposedly be verified or unverified — then it must be more or less accurate.”

By encouraging a vision of facts as trivial soundbites and not a part of a richer context, these accounts dumb down our understanding of reality.

Tweets from these accounts tend to forego attribution or evidentiary links: An analysis of Uber Facts’ 100 most recent consecutive tweets reveals that the account provided some form attribution for its photos or facts in just one case. When UberFacts and OMG Facts do include links, the tweets are usually cutesy stories (“10 animals that were total jerks…”) rather than assertions of fact.

The premise is: Everything you need to know about the facts is in the 140 characters. Here are some recent examples.

The tweet reads as if the Mona Lisa was moved above a toilet in some form of posthumous snub to da Vinci. The fact loses some of its kick when you look further into it: The Mona Lisa was moved to the Appartements des Bains in the Fontainebleau palace, a suite of rooms (three bathrooms and four “small” living rooms), decorated sumptuously and a “semi-public art gallery.” The tweet is not wrong, but it chooses the most appealing way to present it regardless of what context it loses.

What research is UberFacts referring to in this tweet? Why not link to the study or at least mention the institution which conducted it? (Similar treatment was given to studies/research on ribbon curls, mobile device use and bumblebees). Even if this research exists, it is unlikely to have been published without any caveats. Yet those eleven words are all the “Facts” deemed worth sharing — before moving quickly on to an aquarium in Japan where you can allegedly shake hands with sea otters.

This is not to snobbishly single out OMG Facts or UberFacts; looks at health-related misleading news stories and press releases from some of the country’s most prestigious media outlets and universities and finds many of them wanting.

It is also inevitable that brevity results in some approximation: My own Twitter profile is likely littered with tweets no more complete than the ones highlighted above.

Yet these accounts take it a step further by vigorously marketing their content as fact, not lightly scrutinized surprising tidbits. OMG Facts’ bio on Twitter until a few days ago presented the account as “The World’s #1 Fact Source.”

Appropriating the term “fact” in this way to build up credibility and reach a broad audience is not just dishonest marketing. Given the reach of these accounts, it can cause long-term damage to our understanding of what a fact is.

Lynch warns that when readers realize that the fact they retweeted was not actually a fact, “their reaction is often not to engage in more critical evaluation, but to think that there is no objectivity to be had.”

By muddying the well of facts — already polluted by political spin and PR nonsense — @OMGFacts, @UberFacts and the like weaken our collective capacity to distinguish and appreciate messy but objective reality from subjective perceptions or outright fabrications.

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Alexios Mantzarlis joined Poynter to lead the International Fact-Checking Network in September of 2015. In this capacity he writes about and advocates for fact-checking. He…
Alexios Mantzarlis

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