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Why fact-checking Trump’s lies won’t save our democracy

The first presidential debate is here. But it’s increasingly clear that debunking false statements can only go so far when lies don’t matter to a portion of the electorate.

Why fact-checking Trump’s lies won’t save our democracy
[Source images: ChrisGorgio/iStock]
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The presidential debates are finally upon us. Tuesday kicks off the first debate between Democratic candidate Joe Biden and sitting president Donald Trump, moderated by Fox News anchor Chris Wallace.

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But despite his position, Wallace will not be fact-checking the candidates’ comments during the debate.

“We don’t expect Chris or our other moderators to be fact-checkers,” said Frank J. Fahrenkopf Jr., a cochair of the Commission on Presidential Debates, on “Reliable Sources,” CNN’s Sunday morning talk show. “The minute the TV is off there will be plenty of fact-checkers.”

Misinformation experts say that ideally a moderator would do some fact-checking in real time and push back on candidates when they make false claims. Paul Barrett, deputy director at NYU Stern Center for Business and Human Rights, who has written several reports on the impact of disinformation campaigns, says it’s a difficult job. “If Trump opens his usual firehose of falsehoods, it will be difficult for any journalist to keep up,” he says.

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News organizations such as Fox have come to expect that there will be independent fact-checkers at the ready to clean up any political misdirections that happen during the debate—and for good reason. Since 2014, the number of fact-checking institutions has grown from 44 worldwide to nearly 300, according to Duke Reporter’s Lab’s annual census. In the last year alone, North American fact-checking groups grew from 60 to 69. These groups provide a sort of living encyclopedia for every fictional narrative politicians and other public figures have tried to cement in the minds of Americans. While many Americans depend on these sites to navigate public discourse, there is a limit to how much fact-checkers can stop misinformation from seeping into the general public.

Much of the explosion in fact-checking organizations is a response to the rapid rise of coordinated efforts to seed disinformation across the internet. Groups in the United States in particular were moved to combat misinformation after a Senate Intelligence Committee confirmed that Russia used information warfare to sow division among the American public as a means of boosting its favored candidate in the 2016 U.S. election. President Trump, who is frequently cavalier with the truth, has also prompted a growing number of journalists and nonprofit organizations to correct the record. Calling out disinformation campaigns, viral misinformation, and real information taken out of context has become its own beat at mainstream news organizations.

At the upcoming debates, an army of fact-checkers will be ready to debunk any wrongful claims that come up. But it remains a hard task, even for the professionals. As soon as it airs, the debate will be cut up into glib little clips that will be misrepresented and shared endlessly across the internet. Fact-checkers will diligently tease out false narratives and send out corrections like a flotilla into social streams. The problem is that lies spread more easily than the truth. Misinformation is designed to be emotionally triggering, and people cannot resist the urge to share stories that set our skin on fire. As more people share the lie, more people see it, and the burden of correcting the lie’s many manifestations becomes greater for fact-checkers.

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In 2020, that charge is a particularly heavy one, because a sizable portion of the population has indicated they don’t necessarily care about the facts. Barrett notes that President Trump has built his brand on saying false things and doubling down when journalists lay them out as false. This has made him somewhat immune to fact-checking efforts, at least among his supporters.

“Most voters have made up their minds by now and will not switch candidates based on fact-checking,” says Barrett. “That said, fact-checking remains important, both to keep the record straight and because there are a modest number of voters, some of them in battleground states, who are still open to persuasion. Those undecided voters might well react to fact-checkers’ warnings that a candidate is contradicting the truth.”

Most voters have made up their minds by now and will not switch candidates based on fact-checking.”

Paul Barrett

Still, estimates for the number of undecided voters are dwindling. Recent polls peg them at around 3% to 4%.

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Angie Holan, editor in chief of Politifact, a fact-checking organization attached to the journalism nonprofit Poynter Institute, says that while her site’s core readers are die-hard politicos, a good chunk of readers come to the site explicitly to help them parse election cycle sound bites and make decisions about who they’re going to vote for.

“These are people who don’t love politics, they don’t know the nitty-gritty,” she says. Holan says she expects that Tuesday’s debate will bring a gush of people to Politifact’s site for their live fact-checking analysis—likely the most traffic the site will see all year. She says that politicians often speak in shorthand and make references to events and situations that viewers may not be familiar with, and so many people rely on her organization to understand the debates. This year, she expects a lot of attack lines and revisionist histories to be on display.

It is a challenge to fact-check in real time, but Politifact has a lot of existing research to lean on. “One of the secrets of live fact-checking is that the candidates repeat themselves very often, so we can draw on research that’s been vetted ahead of time,” says Holan.

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Still, there are bigger questions about whether fact-checking efforts are reaching members of the electorate who are not seeking them out directly. Politifact optimizes its articles for Google Search and pushes out its work through Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and YouTube. But fact-checkers are forced to compete against purveyors of disinformation on these platforms.

For instance, Politifact has around 7,600 subscribers on YouTube. By contrast, London Real, a YouTube channel that has hosted interviews with conspiracy theorists such as David Icke and produced health misinformation about COVID-19, has nearly 2 million subscribers. “There may be an unfortunate disconnect between less prominent fact-checking organizations and the portion of the electorate that’s still open to persuasion on the choice of a president,” says Barrett.

YouTube has become a hall of mirrors for misinformation, despite efforts by the platform to keep harmful content off its site (it has promised to take down videos that have been edited to misrepresent real events and videos that mislead voters about the voting process). Still, shocking falsehoods sit frame to frame with credible reports from news outlets such as CNN, Vice, and The New York Times, as well as from fact-checkers such as Politifact. Roughly a quarter of Americans get their news on YouTube, according to a recent survey from Pew Research.

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Some platforms have adopted overt partnerships with fact-checkers in an attempt to identify and minimize misinformation. Politifact is part of Facebook’s effort to do so, along with a group of other fact-checking organizations. However, the problem with fact-checking partnerships like Facebook’s is that the platforms ultimately have the final say about whether content is tagged as untrue or kept from reaching larger numbers of people. Reports reveal that Facebook has at times rescued certain posts from being categorized as misinformation if the company felt that it would upset some of its conservative users, undermining the efforts of fact-checkers such as Politifact. When it comes to the election, the company has struggled to follow its own misinformation policies and keep ads that spread falsities about the security of mail-in voting off its platform.

I will say this: Fact-checkers alone cannot solve the problem.”

Angie Holan

“I will say this: Fact-checkers alone cannot solve the problem,” says Holan. “Everybody has a role to play here from the technology companies, to the people themselves who share misinformation. I think the problem of foreign interference needs to be looked at by the government . . . We need so many different solutions to address the situation.”

Holan says it’s her organization’s role to set out the facts, but it’s the American public’s responsibility to educate themselves on how to spot misinformation. Her organization provides lots of tutorials that advise readers to be wary of articles that incite an emotional reaction and encourage them to look for verified sources of information. She also thinks that the media can play a role, especially in situations such as the debates, in providing real-time verified information when political candidates try to stretch the truth.

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Barrett agrees. He thinks there are ways media outlets could be more supportive of fact-checking efforts. He points out that while mainstream news organizations do their own fact-checking, they would be wise to pay regular attention to the work of independent fact-checkers.

Related: Facebook is quietly pressuring its independent fact-checkers to change their rulings

“It would be a good idea for mainstream media organizations to report more systematically on the work of fact-checking organizations, especially when particular candidates gain reputations for spreading falsehoods and disinformation,” he says.

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Misinformation has always been a part of tight electoral races. Now, technology has amplified its damaging effects. With the sitting president doing everything he can to undermine the legitimacy of the upcoming election through lies and disinformation, the stakes have never been higher.

About the author

Ruth Reader is a writer for Fast Company. She covers the intersection of health and technology.

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