In today's Sunday Long Read, Vivienne Fairbanks at The Walrus argues that in order for America to escape the "post-truth" Trumpism era, we'll need more than fact, but truth.
OF COURSE, few people outside of journalism know about traditional fact-checking. Even within the industry, the practice has become increasingly rare over the past decade of media layoffs and budget cuts. But it’s the approach I’m most familiar with: behind-the-scenes and meticulous, with a touch of pretentiousness. This standard was established by Time and The New Yorker in the early 1900s, when magazines were most concerned with protecting themselves from public criticism and libel lawsuits. (Back then, fact-checking was a woman’s job. According to the Columbia Journalism Review, writers such as gonzo journalist Tom Wolfe saw The New Yorker’s fact-checking department as “a cabal of women and middling editors all collaborating to henpeck and emasculate the prose of the Great Writer.”)
This kind of fact-checking, however, wasn’t built for the immediacy and viral spread of online news. Amid the growing phenomenon of “fake news,” journalists needed something more reactive. The term fake news became widely used during the 2016 US presidential election, when the internet was flooded with inaccurate information. A BuzzFeed News investigation at the time showed that many of these deliberately false headlines came from an unexpected source: content writers in Macedonia were profiting off the advertising revenue from the increased traffic on their sites.
False content online has only multiplied over the years. But the fake news designation has also been used to serve all kinds of purposes—including, increasingly, to disparage real news reporters—so most experts now avoid the term. Instead, researchers usually talk about disinformation, which is purposefully false, and misinformation, which is unwittingly false (either because the publisher made a mistake or because the person sharing the content did). As false content spreads through social media networks, it can oscillate between the two, and it can manifest in various forms, including memes, tweets, or “imposter” content made to imitate real news stories. Last summer, for example, a list of advice—some accurate, some dangerously inaccurate—about COVID-19 prevention made the rounds on social media, falsely attributed to various health officials including BC’s Bonnie Henry.
We now consider disinformation a defining part of the contemporary experience. In 2016, Oxford Languages chose post-truth as its word of the year. The essential characteristic of our age, the accompanying press release stated, was the loss of a distinction between truth and feeling; we were entering an era in which “objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.”
Governments and social media companies have employed various strategies to address the threat of disinformation, including closer scrutiny of political ads, flagging posts as “inaccurate,” or tweaking algorithms to favour reliable outlets. But these efforts have had little effect on the widespread production and sharing of disinformation.
Journalists and media organizations, on their end, have championed fact-checking as the silver bullet—not the prepublication kind done at Harper’s or The New Yorker but the public-facing kind done by PolitiFact or the Washington Post: instead of verifying stories written by an outlet’s own reporters, fact checkers apply the same filter to public claims, such as politicians’ statements or other outlets’ reporting, then publish the results. According to this interpretation, to fact-check someone’s claim is to find all the relevant primary sources (budget documents, election results) and point out, in a published article, any errors in their declaration. Instead of printing only what one knows to be true by virtue of having fact-checked it, journalists explicitly call a person or organization wrong in order to correct the record after the fact. In this sense, the most famous fact checker of our time is reporter Daniel Dale, who rose to fame via the ambitious goal of itemizing the lies told by Donald Trump throughout his presidency (a total of 30,573 false and misleading claims, according to the Washington Post).
In 2014, there were fewer than sixty initiatives around the world focused exclusively on checking others’ claims, according to the Duke Reporters’ Lab; today, there are more than 300. The growing instinct to fact-check isn’t particular to journalists either: it’s part of a growing cultural movement emphasizing revision and debunking. Popular podcasts such as Revisionist History and You’re Wrong About ask us to change our understanding of well-known stories, while tell-all memoirs promise to give us the “real story” about crime, government misconduct, and our favourite celebrities.
Like many journalists, I used to subscribe to what philosopher Neil Levy calls the naive view of fake news: that today’s problems of political polarization and extremism are caused at least in part by the spread of inaccurate information, and that “careful consumption and fact-checking can eliminate the problem.” According to this view, people who share false content do so because they believe it to be true. Everyone means to share real news—they are simply making a mistake when they don’t. If this were true, then by simply correcting the record, we would make all of our post-truth problems go away. Instead, those concerns have grown, and I now wonder: What if it is precisely our manner of clinging to the idea of “facts” that has aggravated the problem?
I’ve now come to believe there’s another, more salient characteristic of our age, beyond the post-truth designation. It is a relic of the past few centuries of rationalism in the Western world: the idea that there can ever be a definitive distinction between fact, on the one hand, and everything else, on the other. We maintain that journalists—our de facto heroes in the fight against mis and disinformation—are capable of distilling truth from the murky waters of interpretation, opinion, and ambiguity in such a way as to present the only true reality of the world. Implicit in the presentation of 2016 as the year after which facts needed to be differentiated from their “alternatives” is the idea that it is actually always possible to do so—that we can know immediately and with absolute certainty, for example, that homemade cloth masks provide reliable protection against COVID-19. In theory, it may seem easy enough to agree on whether a statement is true: simply check whether all available evidence supports the claim or at least does not refute it. But, in practice, we struggle to agree on what makes a fact and how to present it—even as we agree on the importance of being able to do so. We intuitively maintain that opinion and truth exist in different realms, yet removing interpretation entirely from factual reporting is impossible.
Today, I believe the naive view of facts has only fuelled the rise of disinformation and polarization. Fact check has become a political signal such that journalists’ very attempt at neutrality ruins any chance of communicating with those who don’t already believe them. This is not just a media industry problem; it is a pressing issue with consequences for everyone hoping to engage in productive dialogue. Though journalists have clearly invested in fact-checking, trust in news media has continued to erode, and researchers have found that exposure to contentious media discussions about fake news decreases trust further. According to Gallup’s annual governance poll, by 2020, 60 percent of Americans said they trusted mass media “not very much” or “not at all.” This problem cannot be solved only by fact-checking Trump’s press conferences: those who already believe Trump have no reason to accept our fact checks. Without a trusted forum for conversation, we lose the ability to establish a common ground from which to converse and debate; we lose the ability to understand or negotiate with one another at all.
We need a new baseline, a new normal where facts and truth matter again, and the disinformation is stopped. But we're not equipped for either, and this week's Long Read goes a long way as to explaining why.