Six lessons for 2017 from an Irish factchecker in a fake news

first_img 363 Views’s FactCheck is a signatory to the International Fact-Checking Network’s Code of Principles. You can read it here.For information on how FactCheck works, what the verdicts mean, and how you can take part, check out our Reader’s Guide here.  Dan MacGuill Share54 Tweet Email1 Tweet thisShare on FacebookEmail this article Six lessons for 2017 from an Irish fact-checker in a “fake news” era After fact-checking Irish public debate during a tumultuous year for politics, the news media and the concept of truth itself, there are ways we can all improve public debate in 2017, writes Dan Mac Guill. Friday 20 Jan 2017, 12:01 AM Is it possible they genuinely believed what they were saying was true?Is it possible they relied on information that would explain why they made the claim, even if it was bad information?Is there some evidence out there that could be interpreted in a way that supports their argument, even if that meant it was interpreted wrongly?If we want healthy public debate, we should emphasise accuracy (in ourselves and others), but avoid unfair and unfounded attacks on character.4. “Getting it right” is not the same thing as “being right” Source: Shutterstock/CastleskiAccurately stating a fact doesn’t mean you’re right on the broader issue. And making a false claim doesn’t mean you’re wrong.Over the past year writing articles for‘s FactCheck, I’ve noticed an interesting phenomenon, repeated again and again. Here’s how it typically happens:A TD supports a policy of providing free, unlimited tea for teachers (bear with me).In a radio debate, she tries to support her argument by claiming all the tea sold in Ireland comes from plants grown indigenously on traffic roundabouts across the country, providing thousands of jobs.A fact check shows this to be false (obviously).Then, some of her supporters dismiss the fact check, reiterate her claim, deny her claim was false, and so on.They do all this rather than simply accepting that the deputy didn’t have her facts straight on the roundabouts, but arguing that she’s still right to call for free hot drinks for educators.Meanwhile, some opponents of the “tea for teachers” policy point to the fact check as definitive proof that our TD is wrong on the bigger issue.Of course she got this detail wrong, they argue, because she has the entire policy wrong.This equation of “getting it right” and “being right” is quite common, but it’s a serious problem for a few reasons.First, anyone who’s ever had an argument with a partner or sibling or friend knows well that it’s perfectly possible, and very common, to have your facts straight, but still be wrong on the bigger issues (or vice versa).Second, you’re setting an intellectual trap for yourself. If you present a link between being accurate in specific instances and being right on issues, what happens when someone from your side makes a false claim?Or when one of your opponents gets their facts right? What does this mean for your view of them, the facts, and the credibility of the fact-checkers you previously used to advance your argument?And finally, it’s damaging to public debate. When fact checks are selectively commended or attacked purely to advance political or ideological causes, this undermines everyone’s credibility.And when “getting it right” and “being right” are equated – when the stakes are unnecessarily increased in this way – it makes it even less likely that politicians and other public figures will publicly acknowledge their factual errors, even while reiterating their broader arguments.This corrodes trust and good faith in public debate, so this year, we should try to be more confident in our principles and not make every mistake, however trivial, a hill to die on.Which brings us to the next point…5. Politicians and public figures almost never admit their mistakes – they should do it more, but we should make it easier for’s FactCheck has examined more than 160 factual claims since last February. Many of them involved politicians, naturally, but in only two instances did an Irish politician admit they had made an error – Richard Bruton and Willie O’Dea.An elected official accepting they made a factual error could help restore their credibility, somewhat ironically. And it adds, once again, to the degree of trust and good faith in our public debate. It helps correct the public record.Politicians should do it – and be asked to do it – far more often. But when they do, the rest of us should publicly acknowledge them for it.It’s also in our power to make it easier for them to admit when they get it wrong.Too often, the cost of being found to have made a false claim is: immediately being labelled a liar (see Point 3), having your broader argument unfairly and irrationally dismissed (see Point 4), or being dragged into a bout of partisan mud-slinging (see Point 2).If we can wean ourselves off these bad habits, we can lower the cost for politicians of admitting their mistakes, and thus add to the foundation of good faith in public debate.Even so, political leaders and influential public figures should still do the right thing and publicly accept that they’ve said something untrue, even if it hurts them personally.6. Not every news article that includes errors, or that you don’t like, is “fake news” Source: AP/Press Association ImagesAnd we should stop using that term to describe almost everything.Lack of accuracy, context and balance in news is, of course, a problem, as it always has been.But what is generally referred to as “fake news” is fundamentally different.It involves the intentional invention and fabrication of entire stories, often crafted to provoke as much shock or disgust or confirmation of biases as possible, in order to foster social media virality, with the ultimate aim of making advertising money for its creators.Just last week, a long-established, major US television news network (CNN) broadcast a story about a purported intelligence report including explosive allegations about US President-Elect Donald Trump.It was purportedly based on information provided by inside sources and was presented with the disclaimer that it is unverified. That’s not “fake news”.And yet, US President-Elect Donald Trump deployed that term to attack the report, on Twitter and in a press conference (starts 22.29).As readers and journalists, we should reach some sort of consensus about the definition of “fake news” – what specifically it is, and what it is not.If, in 2017, we start to use “fake news” as Trump did (that is, in an inaccurate and politically-motivated way), the term will lose its meaning.And if that happens, we should probably just stop using it.Ultimately, what really matters is whether the contents of a news report, or meme, or online posting are accurate, and not so much how we label one particular strain of falsehood.Dan Mac Guill is a journalist and writes for’s FactCheck. center_img I started fact-checking Ireland’s public debate at the beginning of February last year, as part of‘s general election coverage.After a positive response from readers, FactCheck became the Republic of Ireland’s first and only fully dedicated fact-checking service, as it remains today.What I didn’t know then is that the ensuing 10 months would represent one of the most tumultuous years in living memory for politics, the news media, and even the concept of truth itself.Here’s what I learned from that experience, and how I believe we can all take some simple steps to improve the health of our public debate in 2017.1. Fact checks can have an impact Source: Yui Mok/APRecent research by American academics found that people exposed to fact checks in an experimental scenario ended up with a higher level of accuracy in their beliefs than those exposed to placebo (non-fact check) articles.Another study from last year found that this ability of readers to “heed facts” was not significantly impacted by their pre-existing political affiliations.So wherever you are in the world, find your local fact-checking organisations (map here), follow them on social media, and read and share what they publish. It really can work.2. No side has a monopoly on honesty and accuracyI promise you. And no one party, group or ideology is uniquely prone to inaccuracy.And no, falsehood and exaggeration are not tendencies that are linked with only certain sets of beliefs, certain political philosophies, or certain affiliations.They are human tendencies, to which all sides, in every debate, are prone. So if truthfulness in public debate really is what we value most, we should stop throwing stones in glass houses.3. Not every false claim is a lieAnd not everyone who makes one is a liar.More often than you might think, people make honest mistakes. (Including FactCheck). They use the right source, but the wrong information. Or the right kind of information, but from a questionable source.Of course there are lies in public debate. Just as surely as there are sincere errors and perfectly true statements. But before we condemn someone as a “liar”, we should ask ourselves these questions: Jan 20th 2017, 12:01 AM By Dan MacGuill 36 Comments Follow TJ_FactCheck on Twitter Find more FactChecks here Short URLlast_img read more