October 1, 2020

As a foreigner and as a fact-checker, I’ve been trying to understand why the American press and voters in the United States were so astonished by the first presidential debate Tuesday between Donald Trump and Joe Biden. I am also interested to see how this new reality impacts the work fact-checkers do.

It is true that the first televised presidential debate was a complete disaster for those seeking to hear serious proposals and/or learn more about each politician’s plans for the next four years. It is also true that the low quality of the event and the lack of real dialogue between the two nominees ended up pushing fact-checkers to fight a higher number of those never-ending online hoaxes.

But I am eager to understand why the United States thought that terrible shows of disinformation would not happen here. Is it just a naive posture or is there a bit of arrogance in the surprise tone that now crosses the country?

For those who cover politics in other parts of the world and for fact-checkers in general, it is already common (but still not acceptable) to see politicians who do not listen to each other, do not comply with rules of coexistence and stimulate hatred. Chris Wallace, the moderator of Tuesday’s debate, did what he could to avoid chaos, but was certainly unprepared for Trump’s overwhelming desire to obstruct the conversation.

We live in a world where politicians learned to manipulate social media, use their algorithms to light a fire beneath their supporters, attack the press, increase polarization and destroy reputations. So episodes of non-dialogue like this debate should compel journalists to reinvent themselves.

Nicolás Maduro (in Venezuela) and Daniel Ortega (in Nicaragua) have closed newspapers and TV channels to prevent the opposition from having a voice. Jair Bolsonaro (in Brazil) attacks the press at least once every three days, calling it a “common enemy,” according to data presented by Reporter without Borders. In Turkey and the Philippines, there are plenty of cases where the government arrests and tries to silence critics.

So why were Americans so surprised by the arrival of the non-debate? Didn’t they see it happening in other parts of the planet? Or did they really think they had the tools to prevent it?

“A lot of us still have the mindset of ‘It could never happen here’ but there’s no logical reason why this couldn’t happen in the U.S.,” an American friend told me Wednesday morning.

“American politics has relied on unspoken rules and traditions that under stricter scrutiny and pressure collapse like a house of cards. We (Americans) thought decorum would protect us. We were wrong,” he added.

I asked him, “But did the Americans think they were smarter or more prepared to avoid this reality that is spreading worldwide? Isn’t this arrogant?”

“Arrogant is a bit of a pejorative that many Americans will wear as a badge of honor,” he told me. “It could be that, but I think it’s also an optimism Americans have that our country will live up to the high ideals we’ve been told we stand for.”

Another analysis that deserves time is the one about fact-checkers. Their extremely hard work was overshadowed by the discussion about the poor quality of the event.

As expected, the fact-checking community detected falsehoods made by Trump and Biden. Univision’s El Detector, for example, analyzed 21 claims and published a complete round-up. But the first debate led fact-checkers to fight online falsehoods.

The idea that Biden was wearing a wire or that he had received the moderator’s questions in advance, for example, quickly spread on social media and  were disproved by AFP Fact Check, Check your Fact, FactCheck.org and Lead Stories.

The fact that the U.S. is now suffering from this non-debate and struggles with online hoaxes are clear signs that the country is vulnerable and hurting,  just like other places around the globe. Spending time on astonishment will not change this reality.

Read this article in Spanish at Univision.

Cristina Tardáguila is the associate director of the International Fact-Checking Network and the founder of Agência Lupa. She can be reached at ctardaguila@poynter.org.

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Cristina Tardáguila is the International Fact-Checking Network’s Associate Director. She was born in May 1980, in Brazil, and has lived in Rio de Janeiro for…
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  • It is time to get rid of Chris Wallace. He deliberately debated President Trump. Moderators should not be a part of any news media. Chris Wallace showed his true colors at the debate. Shame on him and those that allowed it.