How the “post-truth” election has put a strain on America’s fact-checkers
Even as the public and the media seem to emphasize temperament over truth this election cycle, there’s never been a bigger appetite for fact-checking. Traffic is flowing to fact-checking sites, particularly on the nights when Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton face off on the debate stage. Since the first debate in September, sites like Factcheck.org and PolitiFact, the Tampa Bay Times’ fact-checking unit, have nearly doubled their traffic compared to roughly the same period in 2012, according to internal metrics.
Some fact-checkers question the origins of the heightened interest in their work, suggesting it may stem from a sort of schadenfreude effect — a desire to catch the candidates in fibs rather than a genuine interest in learning about their policies. Other fact-checkers are encouraged by the high voter interest in their checks.
“One of the themes that seems to come from this campaign is that we’re in some sort of post-truth era and that fact-checking doesn’t matter anymore,” said Eugene Kiely, director of Factcheck.org. But since both candidates are generally viewed as untrustworthy, he said he takes the increased traffic to his site as a positive. “If there’s a majority of voters out there who care about whether the candidates are honest, that, to us, is a good sign.”
Kiely added that Trump, who has a fraught but symbiotic relationship with the media, has made fact-checkers’ roles harder by shifting the burden of proof to others. That’s because the first step in fact-checking is usually to contact the campaign to clarify certain statements or request supporting evidence, he said.
“The Trump campaign rarely gets back to us, so that’s a challenge when you’re trying to understand what the candidate’s saying and where he gets his information from,” said Kiely. “The burden should be on them to tell us why they’re right, not the other way around.”
The Trump campaign did not respond to a request for comment on their responsiveness to fact-checkers’ queries.
As for the Jeb Bushes, the Marco Rubios, and especially the Hillary Clintons of the cycle — “They’re all people who’ve run for office and know how fact-checking and the media works,” Kiely said.
Campaigns for career politicians like Clinton have close working relationships with fact-checking groups, particularly on debate nights. They’re ready to offer slices of pre-prepared material within seconds of a fact-checker shooting off an email. Sometimes, the campaigns offer suggestions before a debate on possible fact checks, replete with nuggets of opposition research on their opponents. Those campaigns usually are also quick to walk back statements made by candidates when fact-checkers prove them to be false or misleading.
“Donald Trump is a somewhat unusual politician in that most professional politicians, when they’re called out by fact-checkers, tend not to repeat those [lies] again or not to pull them out again,” said Glenn Kessler, who runs the Washington Post’s popular Fact Checker blog. “You see that with [Hillary] Clinton or [Jeb] Bush or other candidates. The outlier is Trump.”
Fact-checkers in 2016 have had a field day with Trump, but Clinton has made wonky statements too. Kessler, together with Washington Post staff reporter Michelle Lee, commonly grades statements from one to four “Pinocchios” — four being the most egregious falsehood. This cycle, the pair have rated Clinton with at least 47 Pinocchio statements, many related to the candidate’s private email server, Kessler said. Trump has at least 81 Pinocchio ratings.
Staff writers at PolitiFact, which rates claims based on a sliding scale that swings from “True” to “Pants on Fire,” agreed that Clinton’s worst-rated statements often had to do with her email server, though not always.
PolitiFact staff writer Linda Qiu gave Clinton her first “Pants on Fire” of the 2016 cycle back in April, when the candidate said in the heat of the Democratic primary that she was the only presidential hopeful Wall Street had run ads against.
“It was one of her very rare interviews, and she made this statement to wash her hands of her ties to Wall Street, and it was completely false,” said Qiu. “A couple of her super PACs are funded by Wall Street and they spent money attacking other candidates. Pants on Fire for that.”
At times in the 2016 cycle, voters have seemingly just picked up (or apart) the facts as they choose, said Qiu’s colleague at PolitiFact Jon Greenberg. That has been especially “frustrating in the sense that fact-checks don’t seem to matter with a huge fraction of people in [Trump’s] base,” he said.
“Even though I can understand the motivation of a lot of Trump supporters, at the same time it is discouraging that so many people feel that way, that they don’t care about the details,” he said.
Greenberg added that in general, he’s not writing for the “hardcore partisans.” “If they like what we’ve said, they’ll embrace it. If they don’t like it, they’ll tune it out,” he said. “It just bounces right off them — that’s simply the way partisanship works.“
While the specter of dishonesty from candidates has seemingly done little to deter the most ardent supporters on both ends of the spectrum, Qiu said she’s encouraged by the public interest in fact-checking elections.
“[Fact-checking] is crucial as a journalism tool, especially in politics,” she said. “During elections when the candidates are all offering spin and nothing but that, I think people view PolitiFact and other fact-checkers as vital to watch, especially on debate nights.”
Watch Vice News Tonight’s coverage of fact-checkers Wednesday, Oct. 19, at 7:30 ET on HBO.