How The Washington Post tallied more than 10,000 Trump falsehoods in less than three years

May 7, 2019
Category: Fact-Checking

In early June, Glenn Kessler had documented 3,251 falsehoods from President Donald Trump. He said the count might reach 10,000 by the end of his term in 2021.

Less than a year later, it already has.

On April 27, The Washington Post Fact Checker, which Kessler runs, updated its ongoing database of Trump falsehoods. The fact-checking project had counted 10,111 false or misleading claims in 828 days.

To Kessler, who has covered every U. S. president since Ronald Reagan, that’s remarkable.

“I don’t think (the tally) would be as useful with the (previous) presidents,” he said in a phone interview. “They relied very heavily on White House staff to vet things before they said them. In Trump’s case, he’ll see something on TV and he’ll just retweet it or say it and sometimes his staff has no idea.”

But perhaps more remarkable is the rapid growth of the Fact Checker’s tally, which started after Trump’s inauguration as a 100-day project.

After passing the 10,000 mark, the Fact Checker’s database received a considerable amount of publicity — attention that has only grown with each new update. It was widely covered in the media and was discussed on several TV news programs. A few late-night comedy shows even featured the latest falsehood count. On social media, the page has racked up more than 370,000 engagements since it was originally published two years ago, according to BuzzSumo, an audience metrics tool.

That kind of attention is nice, but Kessler said it doesn’t factor into how the Fact Checker approaches its Trump project, which takes a considerable amount of time to keep updated.

Each member of his three-person team picks a day of the week to sift through Trump’s tweets, speeches and media appearances for potential claims to add to the database. Each person generally picks up two days, and in practice, someone usually ends up losing their weekend.

“It’s now become a bit of a burden because it consumes so much time,” Kessler said. “I’m trying to figure out how we can handle more of this during the week. I don’t know what we’ll do when it comes to campaign season and he’s holding three rallies a day.”

Not every entry to the Fact Checker’s database is a full-length article; most take only 15 minutes to compose on average, Kessler said. And a lot of Trump’s false claims are repeated over and over again. At 160 times, the most repeated falsehood in the tally is Trump’s claim that the government “is going to have over 400 miles of wall built by the end of next year.”

But all that counting does add up.

For a recent speech at the Toner Prizes, where the Fact Checker was given an honorable mention for its work tallying Trump’s falsehoods, Kessler added up how many extra hours the project had taken his team. The total came out to be around 118 extra 8-hour workdays.

When the Trump tracker launched, it was billed as a way to keep up with the president’s false statements without detracting from the Fact Checker’s bread and butter: in-depth fact checks about policy. First, it was supposed to be a limited run project for 100 days. Then a year.

But at each new juncture, Post readers kept calling and sending emails asking for the database to become a permanent project, Kessler said. So it stuck.

How fact-checking has changed since 2015

“We were confronted with the fact that it was impossible to thoroughly fact-check everything he said. At least we can keep a tally of the things he says and how accurate they are,” he said.

When fact-checkers call out politicians for errors, those politicians often correct the record or drop the talking point altogether — especially if they repeat it several times. But Kessler said Trump is different; he could only remember a few times that the president dropped a claim after being fact-checked, one being related to American gross domestic product.

“I’ve never heard from the White House about the database,” he said. “When I wrote the story last year where I declared that Trump had told a lie, there was a White House official that said, ‘I’m not going to dispute what you wrote.’”

The response from the greater fact-checking community has been a little more enthusiastic.

“I think it’s been one of the best ideas in fact-checking in the last few years. It’s like a drumbeat that reminds us that Donald Trump is unlike any politician in history,” said Bill Adair, founder of PolitiFact and co-director of the Duke Reporters’ Lab, in an email. “It’s not without some drawbacks. It does leave Glenn open to criticism that he focuses on falsehoods. But that criticism has always been made against all fact-checkers. It comes with the territory.”

Last week, Media Matters for America used the Fact Checker’s Trump data to publish a study about how often journalists correct misinformation from the president. It found that major media outlets failed to debunk the president’s falsehoods about 65% of the time in their tweets.

The Fact Checker’s Trump project has even inspired similar projects around the world.

In India, FactChecker.in launched a project this year that keeps track of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s claims. In Brazil, fact-checking site Aos Fatos launched its own falsehood tracker after the election of President Jair Bolsonaro in the fall.

Bolsonaro, who won on a right-wing populist platform, has often drawn comparisons to Trump for his Twitter use and tendency to undermine his own administration officials.

“Bolsonaro has a very similar approach when it comes to using social media to create facts and to give visibility to his ideas — even if they are not true,” said Tai Nalon, director of Aos Fatos, in a voice message. “He weaponized distorted facts, lies, falsehoods in order to engage his allies, so it’s necessary for us to keep on fact-checking constantly.

This Washington Post fact check was chosen by a bot

As of publication, Bolsonaro had made 163 false or distorted statements in 118 days, according to Aos Fatos’ April 29 update. That’s fewer than Trump made after only 100 days, according to The Post.

But Nalon said keeping track of Bolsonaro’s falsehoods is about more than simply tallying every single claim.

“It’s not much about fact-checking only one statement or another, but making people realize this constitutes a broader way to communicate and to make politics,” she said. “It can be a historical document — it can be something that makes sense in the long term in order to keep politicians accountable, which in the end, is what we do.”

And Kessler agreed. He said the greatest benefit of the Fact Checker’s ongoing tally of Trump’s falsehoods is its record for other journalists, academics and historians.

“It’s for the historical record. That’s ultimately why we’re doing it,” he said. “It’ll be a record of this presidency and how he manipulated the truth on a pretty regular basis.”

Comments

Comments are closed.

  • It’s shocking that the characters in Daniel Funke’s story appear not to realize that the Washington Post “database” of Trump falsehoods is a mistake. It’s a mistake because it finds supposedly neutral and objective fact-checkers indulging in opinion journalism by trumpeting non-scientific findings as though they represent something other than opinion.

    Funke’s story even makes fairly clear that the “database” is unscientific. Glenn Kessler wrestles with the problem of not being able to count every falsehood. And that’s not so bad if Kessler pulls the “database” of falsehoods from a representative (random) sample, but of course he doesn’t do that.

    The illustrious Bill Adair ladles on the praise. What a great idea, Adair says. Why? Other than generating clicks for some of the least valuable fact-checking content a fact checker can provide, what makes it a great idea? Do we really need a “drumbeat” reminding us that Trump speaks like no earlier president? Seriously? And supposedly neutral fact-checkers should be the drummers, drumming their beat of subjective fact check ratings?

    Kessler says the “database” will illuminate the historical record. Again, seriously? If it was a scientifically conducted effort then yes, maybe. But it’s not. And it’s not even close. Instead, Kessler’s “database” stands as yet another memorial to the mainstream media’s inability to critically self-examine its behavior in the age of Trump.

    Here’s an idea: The next time Poynter thinks about publishing a puff piece on collections of subjective fact check ratings, contact the University of Miami’s Joseph E. Uscinski for comment. If the rules of The Bubble allow it, of course.

  • I would certainly encourage the Post to continue its efforts of fact-checking the president. However, I hope the Post realizes that many readers may take its Trump fact-checker with a grain of salt.
    The Post’s integrity has fallen recently by more than two years of nit-picking Trump, the recent embarrassing coverage of Nick Sandmann, questionable coverage of the Mueller report, and tardy questions regarding the source of the Trump dossier, just to name a few.
    This article references the top “falsehood” regarding 400 miles of border fencing by the end of next year. Even reading its explanation as to why this claim is “false,” the Post makes a somewhat weak argument:
    1. Most people don’t care about the difference between a “wall,” “bollard fencing” or “levee fencing.” They understand the shorthand.
    2. Most people also don’t care if the “wall” is built by the federal government, or state government, or a family whose property runs up against the border. If there are 400 miles of new walls by Dec. 2020, Trump can claim victory.
    3. The Post cannot predict the future — something could happen to spark a fury of wall-building — there’s still 18 months until then.
    The point is that many readers who care enough to read the Trump fact-checker are also aware that the Post has a reputation of bias against the current president. And when they read weak arguments to support a “false” claim, that damages the Post more than the president.
    To give the fact-checker more power, the Post must short up its integrity and objectivity.