December 17, 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.

How fact-checkers help normalize the truth

As the Trump era comes to a close, a big question for fact-checkers and other journalists covering the next administration is whether his mendacity has diluted the standard of truthfulness that we can expect from American leaders. Will fact-checkers call politicians on their falsehoods only to hear them repeated again and again? Has President Trump normalized lying?

There are reasons to be concerned, but, probably, more reasons to believe that Trump is an aberration.

First, the assertion that Trump has enabled other politicians to mislead the public also requires a belief that he got away with it. “Trump lies with impunity” is a common take in commentary. (Just Google it). But politicians are held to account for their lack of truthfulness both by journalists who call out their falsehoods and by voters at the ballot box.

We know what happened on Nov. 3. As for the media, journalists have learned how to cover this unique politician, since there’s never been a president quite like him. Fact-checkers have ramped up, and now have their fact-checks at the ready for repeated false claims. Journalists interviewing Trump live became more pr]

pared to push back on expected falsehoods. Volumes – literally – have been written about Trump’s relationship with the truth. Along with all the fact-checks, there have been books quantifying his falsehoods, dissecting his deceptions, examining his psychological motives and even analyzing why people believe him. And more will no doubt follow.

Social media companies, for all their stumbles, have made progress in finding ways to respond to politicians who use their platforms to spread misinformation. They still have a long way to go, but in the past few years they’ve started working with fact-checkers, employed new labeling strategies, and are now less reluctant to moderate false posts from powerful politicians.

All this matters because of what it could mean for politicians after Trump. If they see he was held to account in some way for his dishonesty, it might serve as a deterrent against emulating his behavior.

To be sure, all politicians lie, but they generally don’t like to be called on it. Most of them don’t have the same degree of shamelessness as Trump, who responds to fact-checkers by calling them part of the “fake news.” Trump’s unique brazenness, in fact, is part of his identity. In an August piece for the Los Angeles Times, Dan P. McAdams, a professor of psychology at Northwestern University, wrote that Trump is an “episodic man,” just living in the moment from one day to the next, untethered to any narrative about where he’s been and where he’s going.

For most politicians, their narrative matters. If the Pinocchios or Pants-on-Fire ratings start piling up, they might make sure their staff gives them talking points that can be substantiated or change their speechwriters or listen to advisers who are urging them to adhere more closely to the truth.

In that way, fact-checkers not only call out the lies, but help prevent the normalization of lying. A large pile of negative fact-checks probably indicates that something is, well, not normal.

– Susan Benkelman, API

. . . technology

  • Fact-checking nonprofit Full Fact released its second report on its work with Facebook’s Third-Party Fact-Checking Program covering July 2019 to Dec. 2020.
    • The report makes four recommendations to Facebook for how to better run the program and three recommendations to all internet companies for how to better fight misinformation.
    • Full Fact also released a research report summarizing the global challenges facing fact-checkers, including interviews with 19 organizations and suggestions for how to meet these challenges.
  • Much disinformation is spread not by high-tech methods but by “old school” tactics such as leaflets and billboards, First Draft said in a new report, citing cases in Australia, the U.S., the U.K. and other countries.
    • “For purveyors of disinformation, one advantage of offline distribution is that provenance can be obscured — physical copies don’t leave digital traces that could point people to the source,” wrote Bethan John and Keenan Chen.

. . . politics

  • An investigation by the Miami Herald found that cruise ship companies helped fund a disinformation campaign to defeat a Key West, Fla. ballot measure that will reduce the number of ships allowed to dock in the city’s port.
    • The companies funneled the money through a nonprofit shell company, which sent out mailers claiming falsely that the measure would lead to the defunding of Key West’s police. It still passed.
  • NBC reported on an investigation by Facebook, the social media analysis firm Graphika, and the Stanford Internet Observatory that uncovered French and Russian disinformation campaigns targeting countries in Africa and the Middle East.
    • Two of the three campaigns were directly tied to Russian oligarch Yevgeniy Prigozhin.
    • Facebook said this was the first time it has encountered competing disinformation campaigns actively trying to take each other down.

. . . science and health

Amid the celebratory coverage of the distribution of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine, the Food and Drug Administration released a report on Dec. 10 showing that during the trial period four participants developed Bell’s palsy. Two days later, a Facebook post juxtaposed three unrelated images of people with Bell’s palsy with the FDA report to suggest this side effect was more common and serious than the agency was letting on.

USA Today fact-checked this claim and found that while concerning, this number of people developing Bell’s palsy is consistent with the number of people who develop the affliction annually regardless of whether they were participating in a vaccine trial. The fact check also found multiple other usages of the three unrelated images, none of which related to vaccines.

What we liked: This fact check acknowledges the truth at the center of the claim, but helps the reader by putting it in the proper context to avoid inciting unnecessary alarm. It also serves as an example of the kinds of stories and misinformation we’ll likely be seeing as the various COVID-19 vaccines are distributed in the months to come. (We highlighted emergency room physician and expert in health policy Leana S. Wen’s Washington Post opinion piece about this topic in last week’s newsletter.)

– Harrison Mantas, IFCN

  1. The Verge reported that electronic voting system company Smartmatic is demanding retractions from Fox News, Newsmax and OAN and accusing the networks of defamation for their coverage of false claims of vote-rigging.
  2. A study from Stanford’s Social Media Lab found the MediaWise for Seniors program helped improve older adults’ ability to identify accurate information by 21.6%, Poynter reported.
  3. Two Brazillian law students are facing backlash for calling out conservative media outlets for spreading mis- and disinformation, the Associated Press reported.
  4. Washington Post opinion columnist Erik Wemple critiqued the fallout from The New Yorker’s correction of its 2018 award-winning story, “A Theory of Relativity.”
  5. Google outlined its efforts to fight vaccine misinformation in a blog post published last Thursday.

Thanks for reading. Factually is going to take a two-week end-of-year break. We hope you have a great holiday, and we’ll see you back here with the next newsletter on Jan. 7. It will not include Susan, though, who’s bidding farewell to Factually with this week’s edition. In the meantime, please send your ideas and feedback to Harrison at factually@poynter.org.

Until then,

Susan and Harrison

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