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The importance of fact-checking in a post-truth world
Oxford Dictionaries' International Word of the Year for 2016 was "post-truth," defined as "relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief." Use of the word in English language text spiked 2,000 percent in 2016 compared to the previous year. Oxford said in its news release that the spike was driven "by the rise of social media as a news source, and a growing distrust of facts offered up by the establishment."
Numerous scientific studies have confirmed what is obvious to anyone who has discussed politics with a committed partisan: facts rarely matter to an ideologue who has made up his or her mind.
Most of us are familiar with the concept of cognitive bias, where people seek only information that confirms their preconceived opinions. Even when shown neutral news coverage of a political issue, partisans are likely to view the coverage as biased and hostile to their viewpoint, choosing to focus their attention on the parts of the story that don't conform to their way of thinking. In the same way that a sports fan evaluates a referee's call, based upon which team the call favors, political activists will reject factual evidence that casts doubt on the claims of their party's leaders.
Politicians are notorious for telling voters what they want to hear. This is because the most partisan political activists simply are not persuaded by the facts. Social psychologist Jonathan Haidt puts it this way: "If you ask people to believe something that violates their intuitions, they will devote their efforts to finding an escape hatch - a reason to doubt your argument or conclusions."
This is the problem facing fact-checking organizations today. The audience that most needs to hear the fact-checkers' conclusions - the ideological partisans - often are the people least likely to believe them.
The problem is compounded by the fact that polls have shown trust in the media to be near an all-time low. Political activists - particularly those on the right - have determined that they don't like the news coming from fact-checking organizations and the mainstream media, so they dismiss their reporting altogether. As a result, popular websites and social media accounts have been created with the expressed purpose of undermining the conclusions of fact-checking organizations.
With all these obstacles, it would be easy to ask whether fact-checking is worth it at all. The answer is a resounding yes.
Although it may not be a complete inoculation against misinformation, the existence of fact-checking organizations undoubtedly gives pause to some politicians when considering whether to convey dubious information. The ability to provide real-time fact-checks during political debates and major speeches, as well as factual refutations of social media posts and interview responses, provides a great public benefit to Americans who are willing to consider new information when deciding how to vote. Without fact-checking websites, it would be much more difficult to find accurate and reliable information about claims made by political leaders.
The explosion of pay-per-click hoax news stories on social media has made it easier than ever for a bogus claim to go viral. Fact-checking sites are there to refute such fake news, ensuring it doesn't go unchallenged. Unfortunately, this problem is about to get much worse.
Aviv Ovadya, chief technologist at the Center for Social Media Responsibility, warns of a coming onslaught of technological gimmickry that will make it harder to decipher fact from fiction in political discourse. For example, Ovadya studies audio and video manipulation techniques that can make it appear a politician has made a statement they haven't, and social media bot technology that can create and sustain realistic news stories of events that never occurred.
These and other technologies are certain to keep the fact-checkers busy, making their work more difficult but even more important.
When considering the views of ideologically extreme partisans who dismiss the legitimacy of fact-checking organizations, remember that their positions are driven by cognitive bias. Those partisans are not going to change their minds, and they will not accept alternative viewpoints. Fact-checks will not persuade them, but that doesn't make those fact-checks any less true. Yes, read each fact-check with a critical eye, and take the time to learn more about the facts that are in dispute.
Use the fact-checks as a way to review available information, and then come to your own conclusion. In today's ultra-polarized environment, it is more important than ever that such unbiased sources of information are available.
Former Congressman Jason Altmire (D-Pa.) served three terms in the U.S. House of Representatives from 2007-2013. He is the author of the 2017 book, "Dead Center: How Political Polarization Divided America and What We Can Do About It." Follow him on Twitter @jasonaltmire.