It’s the summer of 2007. Rihanna’s “Umbrella” is topping the charts. One of the biggest stories in U.S. politics is how much Democratic presidential hopeful John Edwards spends on haircuts.
In Washington, D.C., St Petersburg Times bureau chief Bill Adair is brainstorming new ways to cover the upcoming presidential race, motivated in part by a sense of guilt. “I had covered political campaigns,” he would later say, “and felt that I had been a passive co-conspirator in sort of passing along inaccurate information.”
With the help of web developer Matt Waite and politics editor Scott Montgomery, Adair drew up plans for a political fact-checking vertical called “Campaign Referee.”
The idea wasn’t new. During the previous election, Factcheck.org captured the attention of Dick Cheney, who mentioned their work during a vice presidential debate. “Truth-squadding” of various forms had existed long before that.
What Adair thought would differentiate the project, renamed “PolitiFact” by Executive Editor Neil Brown, was a rating system with a silly name (the “Truth-O-Meter”) and a highly structured content management system that would allow for easy sorting of all the published fact checks.
The entire newsroom contributed to the first fact checks. Adair then led the creation of a core PolitiFact team, with reporter Rob Farley (now deputy managing editor at Factcheck.org) and news researcher Angie Holan.
Speaking in 2017, Holan, now PolitiFact’s editor, said the plan was to test-run the initiative through the end of the presidential campaign.
“We were all like, ‘Worst-case scenario, it’s a fun election project,” she said. “Best-case scenario, they’ll let us keep going.’”
Over the next decade, PolitiFact would win the Pulitzer Prize for national reporting, partner with more than a dozen news organizations to launch state-level affiliates and build a brand with a larger online following than its parent organization.
Along the way, PolitiFact helped shape political fact-checking across the world.
I should acknowledge that a long list of ties connect me to PolitiFact. Over the years, I have received oodles of advice from Bill Adair, Angie Holan and Executive Director Aaron Sharockman. Through the Duke Reporters’ Lab, Adair has helped fund the Global Fact-Checking Summit that I organize. Holan sits on the informal board of advisors of the International Fact-Checking Network that I lead. Last but not least, The St Petersburg Times, since re-christened as The Tampa Bay Times, is owned by Poynter.
I don’t think these ties cloud my analysis, but they do color it.
The growth of political fact-checking exemplified by PolitiFact, Factcheck.org and The Washington Post Fact Checker in the United States has been the subject of an entire book. (Factcheck.org launched in 2003, The Post’s Fact Checker column started at around the same time as PolitiFact in the late summer of 2007).
Perhaps less recognized is the fact that these projects were a direct inspiration for many of the more than 100 fact-checking projects active around the world.
Specifically, PolitiFact’s championing of structure and ratings has informed the work of dozens of organizations around the world. The PolitiFact approach made it a lot more obvious to readers what political fact-checking was about.
“We saw the Truth-O-Meter on, I think, a CNN news program during the U.S. 2008 presidential campaign,” recalls Dušan Jordović, of the Serbian fact-checking project Istinomer.
Chilean journalist Nieves Aravena has a similar story. In 2013, El Mercurio, the main conservative broadsheet in the country, “was looking for some new tools to cover elections.” Politifact was a “great inspiration” and led to the creation of El Mercurio’s fact-checking column, El Polígrafo, she said.
“Although our unique circumstances — dealing with Iranian politics, being outside the country — differ from those of Politifact, their general approach and methodology has been a point of reference and guide in our activities” said Souzanchi.
While most fact-checking initiatives currently use rating scales akin to the Truth-O-Meter, which Adair has conceded is a “gimmick,” the most potent motivation was the message that lay behind it: politicians should be accountable for their public statements.
In many countries, it was this visceral desire for more checks on power that brought many non-journalists to launch a PolitiFact-like project.
“We thought that measuring promises and evaluating politicians statements would be extremely important for raising accountability among Serbian public officials,” said Jordović.
Journalists, NGOs and interested citizens from around the world reached out to PolitiFact for advice and to explore whether foreign organizations could take advantage of the same affiliate program that local U.S. newspapers did.
I was one of those interested citizens. In December 2011, I wrote an email to Adair and Amy Hollyfield, then government and politics editor of the Tampa Bay Times. I wanted to know if we could partner up. I wrote, “Your website is a striking effort to bring politicians into account [sic], and my country would sorely need something similar.”
Adair’s response was a polite “no.” While warmly encouraging my friends and me to launch Pagella Politica (we did), he warned me that the Truth-O-Meter was trademarked.
Almost six years later, Adair recalls receiving many inquiries like mine. “It was really hard for me to judge with each one,” he said. “Is this somebody who just has an idea but doesn’t have the resources or expertise to do it?”
Concerns about quality control in other languages and intellectual property rights explained the reluctance. Time was also a factor.
“I was so busy running the site and handling the state-level expansion that I did not seize on the opportunity to start any international partnerships,” he said.
In addition to its mission, PolitiFact clearly showed the benefit of structure in fact-checking websites. “Findability” of fact checks was a big fixation from the beginning.
“The general structure of our website is inspired by PolitiFact’s structured website where you can filter through ratings and people,” FactNameh’s Souzanchi said.
In Israel, Michal Sella of The Whistle said that “PolitiFact was instrumental in the way we understood the field of fact-checking.” Sella credited the website especially for showcasing “how important it is to have a structured fact-checking system and how crucial it is to take the time to articulate who we are, what is our mission and what are our tools and limits.”
Structuring fact checks consistently also ultimately makes fact-checkers an easier target for Google’s crawlers.
Projects drawing on PolitiFact’s structure span the world. Egypt’s Morsi Meter, which tracked the promises of deposed president Mohamed Morsi, looked at PolitiFact’s “Obameter” for guidance.
Projects active in countries with tougher political climates, like Egypt, motivated PolitiFact’s work in turn.
“In those countries, fact-checking is an act that takes a lot of courage,” said Holan. “And it is a political act to assert that facts are important and that citizens need facts. So on days when I get discouraged and I feel that our work is hard, I just remind myself of the fact-checkers who are working under much more difficult conditions […] and that definitely helps me keep going.”
Turkey’s Doğruluk Payi also used the site as a reference point.
“When we were thinking about doing fact-checking in Turkey, Politifact.com was the website to show to my friends,” said founder Baybars Örsek. “We even remember partly joking about if PolitiFact would sue us for doing similar work.”
PolitiFact never did sue. But looking back, Adair would have put a bigger onus on international partnerships from the start.
“We were slow to work with organizations around the world, and that’s one regret I have,” Adair said.
“I don’t think I realized what was happening,” he said, “that so many people around the world were getting interested in fact-checking.” The pendulum seems to have swung the other way now, with Adair’s motto that “fact-checking keeps growing” the occasional butt of jokes.
Even without formal partnerships, PolitiFact was supportive of new projects. A couple of weeks after Doğruluk Payi’s launch, Adair offered to Skype and share lessons with the team, Örsek said.
Over time, the fact-checking project has welcomed visitors from around the world. More than 100 international delegations have visited the PolitiFact offices over the years, according to Holan’s estimates.
Liepa Želnienė was one of them. In 2016, the Lithuanian journalist spent two weeks in the PolitiFact newsroom as a part of the Digital Communication Network program. She learned the methodology and published a fact check. Upon returning to Vilnius, she launched a dedicated fact-checking section at 15min.lt, one of the largest online news publications in the country.
It is worth stressing that PolitiFact wasn’t alone in offering a template for political fact-checkers around the world.
“It wasn’t just PolitiFact,” Adair said. “A lot of sites were inspired by Factcheck.org, they had seen The Washington Post, and so on.”
The Ukrainian project VoxCheck, for example, looked at Factcheck.org for inspiration, said founder Olena Shkarpova.
“We see our project as an institute and we don’t like giving politicians ratings,” said Shkarpova, although the site did start using them in some form.
Factcheck.org was also an inspiration for the Argentine website Chequeado, but Executive Editor Laura Zommer credits PolitiFact as “a strong influence when we started to think about a crucial aspect of our identity as a fact-checker: ratings.”
“The decision we made about using ratings was the result of a quite arduous debate,” said Zommer “after which we settled in favor of them, especially drawn by their attractiveness and impact.”
Chequeado has in turn helped grow the practice across Latin America.
“Chequeado was my biggest inspiration,” said Cristina Tardáguila, the founder and director of Brazilian fact-checking service Agência Lupa.
In fact, even websites that have been inspired by PolitiFact learned from other projects, too. Souzanchi, of the Iranian FactNameh, said the site’s rating system adopted a likeable mascot following the lead of Mexico’s El Sabueso. It turned to FactsCan for the actual ratings.
In Lithuania, “critics are saying that we are simply making a show from the fact-checking, which has always been a core of any form journalism,” said Želnienė of 15min. “I would say that it’s just a modern way to help people find the truth in the ocean of information and keep politicians accountable.”
“The rating is kind of the most popular part” of this form of fact-checking, said Michael Dobbs, the first Fact Checker columnist at The Washington Post. This is “both a strength and a weakness” and can risk “becoming too polemical and too confrontational.”
Depending on the specific ratings used, these can also imply intention to deceive in the speaker – rather than mere falsity of the claim — which is a much harder and more challenging conclusion to prove.
A reluctance to adopt ratings colored some organizations’ search for other models.
FactCheckNI co-founders Enda Young and Allan Leonard “examined other fact-checking projects around the globe,” before setting up their Belfast-based website, ultimately deciding that “the charitable model of Full Fact most closely resembled our organizational structure and ethos,” said Leonard.
“Awarding four Pinocchios to a Northern Ireland politician could start an ethno-national outbidding war of which tribe lies more,” Leonard added.
Others have advocated for abandoning the claim-centric model altogether. This will be much harder to accomplish globally in light of so many following in the steps of PolitiFact — but successful counterexamples exist already. The British fact-checking site Full Fact is known for its obsession on “playing the ball, not the man” and takes a more institution-oriented approach to improving accuracy in the public debate.
PolitiFact offered a spark for some and a template for others. Still others didn’t even know of its existence when they launched. “To the shame of my research skills, I did not come across PolitiFact” until quite a bit after launching Africa Check, said Executive Director Peter Cunliffe-Jones.
Either way, it would be reductive to portray projects that looked at an American site for lessons as mere localized replicas.
For Africa Check, the motivating factor was avoiding the type of damage done by political and religious leaders advising against the polio vaccine in Nigeria in the early 2000s. For FactCheckNI, reducing misinformation represented an opportunity for reconciliation. At Pagella Politica, our hope was that fact-checking could inspire a more rigorous approach to covering Italian politics. And so on.
Those hopes are still motivating much of the work done by political fact-checkers globally, even as evidence of that mission being accomplished in practice can be hard to ascertain.
What does the next decade hold for fact-checking? Just as PolitiFact and the other U.S. fact-checkers offered lessons to international projects, the reverse can and should occur.
“U.S. fact-checkers can learn a lot from the willingness to experiment by Chequeado and Full Fact,” Adair said. “They both have great fact-checking sites and they’re constantly trying new things.”
Another field for inspiration could be TV.
“I think the fact-checking on television in the U.S. has been a real disappointment, and it is an area where you just want the TV executives to sit down and watch what’s been done in Italy and Spain and Denmark and realize how good fact-checking can be on television,” Adair said.
The “fake news” phenomenon has also shaken the fact-checkers’ world, with many — but not all — pivoting to debunking viral fakes as well as political falsehoods. In the United States, PolitiFact and Factcheck.org chose to partner with Facebook on its fake news flagging program, for instance — but The Washington Post Fact Checker stayed out of it.
What was once a clean divide between fact-checkers like PolitiFact and debunkers like Snopes.com has become much fuzzier.
But not all fact-checkers think that is the future.
“I value verification and debunking,” said Doğruluk Payi’s Örsek; “but it is political fact-checking and promise-tracking that should be the core of fact-checkers’ focus, since I envision the mission of fact-checkers to hold politicians accountable in the first place.”
Ten years after PolitiFact’s first fact check, political fact-checkers worldwide are still struggling to accomplish that mission.