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One of the criticisms many people have about the web and social media is that they allow anyone to say or write whatever they want regardless of accuracy, but the corollary is that this same democratization of media allows anyone to challenge those statements and fact-check their validity. Based on that principle, PolitiFact — the Pulitzer Prize-winning “truth vigilante” service that is run by the Tampa Bay Times — wants to expand its reach beyond just politicians and so has launched a new feature called PunditFact.
The goal of the new service is an admirable one: to “fact-check statements found in newspaper columns, blogs and websites, as well as the claims made by guests and hosts of TV and radio talk shows.” But the Times is going to have a much bigger job on its hands than it did with statements made by politicians. Why? Because so much of what we call punditry consists of opinion, invective, innuendo and misdirection — a veritable gamut of sophistry.
How do you fact-check an incorrect opinion?
PunditFact was seed-funded by Craig Newmark, the founder of Craigslist, who has made it his mission to try and promote trust and accuracy in journalism and who said of the launch: “I just want news I can trust, and PunditFact is a real contribution in the direction of trustworthiness and accountability.” The new service has also received $625,000 in funding over two years from the Ford Foundation and the Democracy Fund — the latter of which is a charitable vehicle set up by eBay co-founder Pierre Omidyar.
In a statement about its principles, the site said it is adding the new feature because it wants readers of political news to “become better consumers in the fast-paced trade of political information.”
“In today’s news media environment, there is great pressure to be first, to be provocative and to be popular. The consequence is the slinging of misinformation either by neglect or by design. And online, it is too easy to construct polished realities out of individual perceptions.”
The problem for PunditFact is going to be two-fold: On the one hand, much of what is said by pundits on TV and radio talk shows and in blogs and newspaper columns falls into the category of opinion rather than fact — it may rest on one or two factoids, which presumably can be verified, but the vast majority of what is being said is speculation and invective. How does one fact-check statements like “Obama is evil” or “Obamacare is the worst thing since the Holocaust?”
Fighting the filter-bubble effect
The second problem is the so-called “filter bubble” phenomenon, which David Carr of the New York Times discusses in a recent piece about the deliberate ignorance many people (including Supreme Court justice Antonin Scalia, apparently) practice when they consume the news: in other words, they gravitate towards sources who confirm the things they already believe. Even if PolitiFact and PunditFact do present conclusive evidence that a claim by Rush Limbaugh or Paul Krugman is incorrect, is anyone who is already devoted to that point of view going to be disturbed by that evidence? Unlikely.
On top of those two factors, PunditFact is going to face the same challenge as any consumer of news — namely, the vast proliferation of sources. If the service wants to try and fact-check every questionable statement by a TV talk-show guest, radio-show host, newspaper columnist or blogger, it’s going to need a massive staff and millions of dollars in funding. It would probably require a structure the size of Wikipedia just to scratch the surface.
That’s not to say PunditFact isn’t a valuable effort, because it is. Any project that has truth as its objective should be supported — and it’s even more valuable that PunditFact and PolitiFact provide annotated evidence to support their conclusions. As I’ve said before, there is a very clear social value in having fact-checking done in public, with as much transparency as possible. It is still likely to be a drop in the ocean of questionable commentary and biased argument, but every little bit helps.
Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Shutterstock / Donskarpo