What the world’s fact-checkers make of the Trump phenomenon
Donald Trump has given fact-checkers in the United States plenty of work. Yet his apparent indifference to fact-checking has led many to wonder whether scrutinizing his claims makes any difference.
Reunited in Buenos Aires for their third annual conference, fact-checkers from around the world debated the question.
Trump shows that the work of verifying politicians’ claims is important, said Nechama Brodie, head of training, research & information for the South African fact-checking organization Africa Check. Trump, she says, is leading readers "to look at his statements on Twitter and they’re starting to fact-check them." This, she admits, seems mostly limited to Trump's opponents, however.
Fact-checkers in the United States have found that Trump responds differently to their work compared to other politicians — more specifically, he doesn’t respond at all.
For Glenn Kessler, editor of The Washington Post’s Fact Checker, "Trump is unusual in that even though he’s corrected or fact-checked, he keeps saying it, says it over and over."
Aaron Sharockman, executive director of PolitiFact, agrees: "if we say something is false, [other politicians] might likely stop saying it, but Trump doesn’t seem to have that in him, and that’s maybe just part of his personality, and that’s why he’s so different."
Lori Robertson, managing editor of FactCheck.org, also stresses this trait of the Trump campaign: "It isn’t just the number of falsehoods, but the way he would not back down, even when proven wrong by not just us, but tons of other media outlets as well."
As Trump now has a shot at becoming the next leader of the world’s leading superpower, fact-checkers in other countries keep a close eye on his campaign. Their take is that while Trump is unique, he is not a complete outlier.
Repetition of false claims is a staple of politicians worldwide. Hernández Rojo of Spanish fact-checker El Objetivo recounts that despite a high-profile fact check of a claim on China’s spending on pensions, Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy repeated the false claim during a pre-electoral debate this week.
Alejandra Gutiérrez Valdizán, editor in chief of Plaza Pública, a university-based website in Guatemala, thinks her country has its share of "Trump clones." One of these is Manuel Baldizón, a former member of congress and presidential candidate who says "whatever he wants without caring about any subsequent fact-checking."
"He even has a sort of obsession with his hair," she says.
There might not be a Turkish Trump-equivalent, but several politicians won’t back down after being fact-checked, says Batuhan Ersun, project coordinator of Turkish fact-checking site Doğruluk Payı. Ersun recounts that after a negative rating from Doğruluk Payı, a government minister "claimed that he was actually saying something else. After we argued with him, he blocked us on Twitter."
Jeta Xharra, executive director of Balkan Investigative Reporting Network, Kosovo, had a similar experience interviewing Xhabir Zharku, whom she considers one of the most problematic politicians in Kosovo. "He did not back down from this claim even when he was proven wrong."
In her opinion, the Trump phenomenon shows that "being rich and developed doesn’t make you immune to the stupidity of politicians. People like Trump for the ‘show element’, not for the truth."
Giovanni Zagni, senior analyst at Italian fact-checking site Pagella Política, concurs: "Trump is proof that political rhetoric is not first and foremost about True and False, but about the capacity to convince. Even if he has significant conflicts of interest or is a pathological liar — we've had a few of those in Italy — a politician can do very well without worrying about the truthfulness of his claims.”
Laura Zommer, executive director at Argentina’s Chequeado, also said that fact-checking doesn’t influence the outcome of elections.
"What the Trump phenomenon does is put in front of our noses something that almost all of us know: we fact-checkers have no impact on voting decisions. In this case, those who vote Trump don’t do it because of his accuracy."
Not everyone agrees. According to Xharra: "I think quite the opposite: fact-checking, hopefully, in my mind, is what’s going to ‘kill’ Donald Trump as a phenomenon."
Kessler thinks "by the time the election happens, this will be a problem for Trump, because he will have earned a reputation as a complete liar, someone who can’t be trusted. Over time, I think the constant lies and misstatements by Trump will be damaging for him."