The lost cause of American political fact-checkers


This article is by David Smith, a lecturer in American politics and foreign policy at the University of Sydney. It was first published on The Conversation and is re-published here with permission.

“Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts.” — Daniel Patrick Moynihan.

Political fact checkers seem to perform a vital public service for American democracy. Websites such as, and the Washington Post’s Fact Checker blog have grown famous in the last four years for scanning statements by politicians and evaluating their factual accuracy. After every speech at the recent Republican and Democratic party conventions, the media turned to the fact checkers for their judgement. Had the speakers been truthful, or had they earned the scornful ratings of “4 Pinnocchios” or “Pants on Fire”?

In a world where politicians are constantly trying to get away with lies and half-truths, this idea of a neutral umpire is immensely appealing. But in any team sport, the umpire himself can be a figure of suspicion. And American politics is definitely a team sport.

For years, conservatives have argued that the fact checkers exhibit the same liberal (left-wing) bias as the rest of the mainstream media. Liberals are friendlier to the fact checkers, which amplifies conservative suspicion about their biases. But some liberals argue the opposite, that the fact checkers overstate minor inaccuracies from the left to maintain a false equivalence with the systematic lying of the right.

In 2011, a University of Minnesota political scientist found that PolitiFact accuses Republicans of lying at three times the rate of Democrats. This is a solid, well-researched number, but what does it mean? That PolitiFact is biased to the left, or that Republicans tell a lot more lies than Democrats? How you choose to interpret the number is likely to depend on your existing political inclinations. And this brings us to one of the big problems with the whole fact-checking enterprise: “facts” are not always politically innocent.

Take, for example, one of the most contentious fact-checks at the Republican convention. Vice-Presidential nominee Paul Ryan recalled that in 2008 Barack Obama had told GM workers in Ryan’s hometown of Janesville, Wisconsin that “if our government is there to support you … this plant will be here another hundred years”. However, Ryan noted, the plant closed within a year: “and that’s how it is in so many towns today, where the recovery that was promised is nowhere in sight”.

PolitiFact called this passage of Ryan’s speech “false” because the plant had closed before Obama was inaugurated, and he had not promised to keep it open, but rather expressed a belief that it could be viable with government help. and the Washington Post weighed in with similar verdicts.

Conservatives claimed they had all completely missed the point. Ryan did not accuse Obama of failing to save the plant, but of holding a hopelessly naive view that government spending could save industries. For Republicans, the speech was about a core difference in economic philosophy, not a broken campaign promise.

In fact, in an earlier version of the speech Ryan had explicitly accused Obama of breaking a pledge to keep the plant open. CNN’s fact checker noted that he had cleaned up the convention version, and awarded the revised speech a rating of “true but incomplete”.

This is the bewildering world of the fact-checker. Politicians say things in deliberately ambiguous language that can mean one thing to their supporters and something else to their opponents. They respond not to their opponents’ words, but to the most damning implications of their words. They divide their time between intentionally misinterpreting their opponents and getting outraged about being intentionally misinterpreted. Even the most high-minded fact-checkers are unlikely to escape some kind of bias as they try to turn this chaotic mess into a coherent picture.

Under these circumstances it is tempting to become completely nihilistic about facts, which is what has happened to one segment of American politics. Fox News and various talkback radio hosts repeatedly warn their conservative audiences that they simply cannot trust any other form of media. In the parallel universe they have created, Moynihan’s rule does not apply. One is entitled to one’s own facts. If, for example, you can’t bring yourself to acknowledge that Barack Obama ordered the assassination of Osama bin Laden, you don’t have to: Fox News host Sean Hannity is sure there is a tape somewhere proving that the mission to kill bin Laden would not have happened if Obama “had his way.”

This is why, in the end, fact-checkers are unlikely to change people’s minds. Paying attention to politics is highly correlated with strong partisanship. If you care enough to find out what the fact-checkers are saying about an issue, your mind is probably made up already.

David Smith does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations. This article was originally published at The Conversation. Read the original article.

The Conversation


  1. Hey everyone,

    yes, I know this post technically has nothing to do with technology, but I couldn’t help but see it as an interesting contextual window into the NBN debate ;) I indulged myself by posting it.



  2. I would love to see a similar fact checker in place for the NBN issue.

    However, it should be a blind fact checker – in other words, it should be administered in such a way that those who are checking the ‘facts’ are not aware of who has presented them.

    I know that would be pretty difficult, but should be the ideal to strive towards.

    Actually, I think that such a fact checker should be in place for every aspect of Australian politics. It is only with the NBN that I have had sufficient background knowledge to see some of the breathtaking deceits being trotted out. It would be naive to think that this isn’t happening with non-NBN politics too.

    • I agree, it’s definitely happening with non-NBN politics. Other big issues in Australian politics at the moment – such as Climate Change & Refugees – also definitely suffer from reality deficit in some (most?) of the political statements being made (really not trying to start an argument about them here, though!).

      Your point about the background knowledge required to detect this is quite a good one. Most people don’t have the inclination to do their own research to determine if they’re being fed a line or not. But in every instance where I have done so, I’ve found lines aplenty… (which doesn’t say much for politics in general, now, does it?)

      • Bem and Renaii
        I must agree,
        The General public and Voter cannot be expected to have the knowledge and expertise in all areas to be aware of the deceptions, however specialist journalists and publications can resource that and in a Democracy have an obligation to do so. The NBN because of its nature, the existence of the internet and site’s such as Delimiter, Whirlpool, Technology Spectator etc people with knowledge of the rel event factors can clarify and expose, that is not the case in many areas.
        The News comment capability on so many sites especially media ones has been curtailed, more the pity the trolls and paid agitators have limited public access to open evaluation.
        Whilst I disagree with much of Malcolms POV and spin. Kudos to him for the balls to permit full discussion on his site

  3. Clinton really made hay out of the GOP’s stance against fact-checkers in his speech, it was quite amusing.

  4. How ‘facts’ become standard doctrine.

    In the US, ‘everybody knows’ that copyright theft costs X number of jobs, $Y in lost sales, etc etc. Yet nobody ever looked at the numbers being claimed, and where they came from.

    Well… Someone did,

    Numbers being spouted for 2 decades became accepted truth, and continue to be abused today. Numbers that are either made up, heavily biased, or straight up wrong.

    Have a read. Worth it to get some perspective on how information can evolve.

  5. Repeating incorrect information constantly and constantly has become a standard tool in politics (see most of the Libs stuff on anything carbon and the ALP’s stuff on “illegal” refugees/asylum seekers).

    It seems to be much more heavily related to party politics, pretty well any independent comes across as a lot more honest (even if you don’t agree with the position they take).

  6. Interesting subject, Renai, after all the discussions here about M Turnbull’s very flexible tech wizardry.

    But in an article taking the high moral ground by tut-tutting about political porkies, it’s a bit rich to read the following:

    ‘…the fact checkers overstate minor inaccuracies from the left to maintain a false equivalence with the systematic lying of the right.’

    Leaving the politics out of it, most people probably recognise that both sides can be as big liars as each other. So it’s hard to take seriously any po-faced academic political discourse that purports to see only ‘minor inaccuracies’ on one side while claiming to discern ‘systematic lying’ on the other.

  7. It is a hard thing to do as a human but we must push ourselves mentally to find the truth or turn off the news-feed. Can you find what the political stance of Delimiter is? We all make up whatever is required to make ourselves feel ‘okay’ with our values, beliefs and so on.

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