December 3, 2020

Factually is a newsletter about fact-checking and misinformation from Poynter’s International Fact-Checking Network & the American Press Institute’s Accountability Project. Sign up here.

Is ‘too stupid to fact-check’ a thing of the past?

One of the most revealing moments in American fact-checking in 2020 occurred in September when CNN’s Daniel Dale was asked about President Donald Trump’s claim on Fox News that Joe Biden’s campaign was run by people “in the dark shadows.”

Dale just shook his head. “It’s almost too stupid to fact-check,” he told his CNN colleague Jim Sciutto. He noted that even Trump’s interviewer, Laura Ingraham, said it sounded like a conspiracy theory.

Dale’s comment was revealing because of what it said about fact-checking in the Trump era. Much of what the president says is so patently false that checking it doesn’t even represent a reportorial challenge.

Fact-checkers like to dig into issues to find the truth. Their best work is done while parsing data to show how someone is mischaracterizing statistics. Or using forensic tools to expose a doctored photo or misleadingly edited video. Or combing through legislative histories to see whether, in fact, a politician sponsored or supported a law he or she is taking credit for.

But with Trump, the barrage of obvious falsehoods, like the “dark shadows” claim, just takes up valuable time, because a president can’t be ignored. In that sense, Trump made fact-checking a volume business. The Washington Post even created a database of his falsehoods. And it’s only gotten more pronounced in recent weeks, as reflected in Twitter’s abundant labels indicating that the president’s tweets about the election outcome are misleading or disputed.

Even after he leaves office, Trump will no doubt continue his blasts of disinformation, and adherents of Trumpism will amplify those claims. But journalists can be more selective as to what they decide to check. Much of their energy, in fact, will be directed toward checking what Biden says.

As The Post’s Glenn Kessler wrote recently, Biden as vice president earned his share of Pinocchios, but his falsehoods were generally exaggerations or imprecisions, as opposed to Trump’s firehose of false tweets. “The new president probably will not be sending all-caps grievance tweets in the middle of the night,” Kessler wrote.

That should allow fact-checkers to do more of the kinds of nuanced examinations that really help people understand the issues. Indeed, some of the best fact-checks are the ones that debunk claims that seem plausible, as opposed to those that seem, as Dale said, too stupid to merit scrutiny.

– Susan Benkelman, API

. . . technology

  • A recent study from the Oxford Internet Institute found that despite efforts to flag and reduce the visibility of websites promoting anti-lockdown protests, COVID-19 scams, and public health disinformation, there exists a robust online infrastructure providing revenue streams to both these sites and the large tech platforms.
    • The study found sites use “behavioral analytics, tracker systems, and cross-platform integration” to help generate revenue even after having their content flagged or their ads removed.
    • The study found that Google, GoDaddy and Cloudflare were the most commonly used platforms. Google and Facebook are the largest platforms that provide backend infrastructure services according to the study.
  • The New York Times explored tensions within Facebook over how to deal with misinformation that users post on the site, casting the conflict as a struggle between civility and growth.
    • Some “idealists” within the company want to take actions to limit the reach of falsehoods and divisive posts, the writers said. But some pragmatists in the company are worried that such measures could inhibit Facebook’s growth.

. . . politics

  • Female politicians around the world are the targets of abuse and disinformation campaigns on social media, the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace said in a new report.
    • “On Facebook, female Democrats running for office received ten times more abusive comments than male Democratic candidates,” the report said. “Similar trends have been documented in India, the UK, Ukraine, and Zimbabwe.”
  • Radio Free Europe reported that the European Commission is considering imposing sanctions on state actors who spread disinformation.
    • The proposal suggested a range of potential actions including naming commonly used disinformation techniques and imposing more robust regulation on tech platforms to cut down on the spread of disinformation.

. . . science and health

  • Francesco Rocca, president of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, said misinformation about COVID-19 has become a “parallel pandemic,” CNN reported.
    • Rocca said there needs to be a concerted effort to build trust in communities where misinformation has taken root.
  • Mother Jones did a Q and A with Jessica Malaty Rivera, a microbiologist with expertise in explaining scientific concepts, on how the incoming Biden administration can combat misinformation about COVID-19.
    • Among her insights: “Science communication without empathy is really meaningless.”
    • Rivera uses her Instagram account to explain coronavirus science to her 147,000 followers.

This week’s fact-check from Agence France Presse focused on a case of fraudulent identity from a series of Twitter accounts purporting to represent youth-led pro-democracy protesters in Thailand. One of the accounts, which to the naked eye matched almost seamlessly to the pro-democracy youth group Free Youth, tweeted out the location of an upcoming rally. AFP noticed the account seemed to be missing its Twitter-verified blue check mark. Upon closer inspection, the account also had substituted the “O” in Youth with a zero.

AFP identified two other impersonating accounts and notified Twitter, which suspended all three for violating its impersonation policy.

What we liked: This fact-check’s eagle-eyed attention to detail highlights the problem of spoof or impersonation accounts spreading disinformation on social media. This fact-check also had an impact on the ongoing pro-democracy protests in Thailand.

– Harrison Mantas, IFCN

  1. The New York Times explained how President Trump was duped by a Twitter user posing as his sister. The real owner later admitted that it was a parody account.
  2. CNN reported on a California radio station that’s been debunking COVID-19 misinformation in both Spanish and several indigenous Mexican languages to help farmworkers protect themselves during the pandemic.
  3. The University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg Public Policy Center is warning the media and the public to avoid being taken in by unfounded claims that suicide rates are higher in the holiday season.
  4. Twitter has added the IFCN’s Code of Principles signatories to its list of organizations qualifying for blue check mark verification.
  5. Participants in COVID-19 vaccine trials are chronicling their experiences on TikTok, and in the process debunking misinformation about the shot, NBC News’ Kalhan Rosenblatt reported.

Thanks for reading. Feel free to send feedback to factually@poynter.org. And send us your favorite fact checks! We’d love to hear from you.

Until next week,

Susan and Harrison

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  • “On Facebook, female Democrats running for office received ten times more abusive comments than male Democratic candidates,” the report said. “Similar trends have been documented in India, the UK, Ukraine, and Zimbabwe.”

    Did anybody else think it was weird that the report on abusiwe comments targeting female politicians highlights the abuse of Democratic Party women but doesn’t make a peep about Republican women?

    It would hawe offered a type of baseline for comparison, if nothing else.