Invasion of the Fact-Checkers
In the past five years, a cadre of fact-checkers has marched through the institutions of journalism and installed itself in the U.S. media as a privatized, quasi-governmental regulatory agency. What’s wrong with facts, you say? Fueled by a panic over misinformation, the fact-checking industry is shifting the media’s primary obligation away from pursuing the truth and toward upholding vague notions of public safety, which it gets to define. In the course of this transformation, journalists are being turned into rent-a-cops whose job is to enforce an official consensus that is treated as a civic good by those who benefit from—and pay for—its protection.
At Meta—the parent company of Facebook and Instagram—content flagged as false or misleading gets downgraded in the platform’s algorithms so fewer people will see it. Google and Twitter have similar rules to bury posts. In reality, America’s new public-private “Ministry of Truth” mainly serves the interests of the tech platforms and Democratic Party operatives who underwrite and support the fact-checking enterprise. This, in turn, convinces large numbers of normal Americans that the officially sanctioned news product they receive is an ass-covering con job—an attitude that marks many millions of people as potentially dangerous vectors of misinformation, which justifies more censorship, further ratcheting up the public’s cynicism toward the press and the institutional powers it now openly serves. On and on it goes, the distrust and repression feeding off each other, the pressure building up until the system breaks down or explodes.
Has any story ever been more energetically fact-checked than Hunter Biden’s laptop? The news broke just weeks before the 2020 presidential election, and was so effectively buried by accusations of disinformation and social media bans that it became synonymous with the power of the new truth regulating bureaucracy. Shortly after the first reports of the laptop, The New York Times‘ Kevin Roose modestly acknowledged the role that misinformation journalists like him had played in pressuring tech companies to take “more and faster action to prevent false or misleading information from spreading … in order to prevent a repeat of 2016’s debacle.”
And it worked! Only it turns out, as The New York Times now acknowledges, that the original reporting silenced by the fact-checkers was accurate. What was it about again? Oh yes, the evidence of corrupt business dealings involving then-candidate Joe Biden, his family, and a Ukrainian energy company. A Times article from last week on an ongoing Justice Department investigation into Hunter Biden notes in passing that emails relevant to the investigation “were obtained by The New York Times from a cache of files that appears to have come from a laptop abandoned by Mr. Biden in a Delaware repair shop. The email and others in the cache were authenticated by people familiar with them and with the investigation.”
Here’s another recent incident that illustrates why some people might be wary of the fact-checking authorities’ claim that they are acting to protect the public. Last month, Instagram placed a warning label on an American human rights lawyer’s post blaming rising inflation in the United States on “corporate greed.” Certainly not! Independent fact-checkers duly found the statement was “missing context and could mislead people.” The warning linked to a fact-check in the French government-backed news outlet Agence France-Presse (AFP). On the authority of that single article, which quotes three American experts—a neoconservative think tank employee, a liberal think tank employee, and a university economics professor—the offending post was effectively disappeared.
You may wonder why Facebook’s designated fact-checker for a claim about inflation in the United States is a state-backed French agency, or who determines how many experts are required to issue a ruling—and what qualifications make one an “expert.” All fine questions to have asked five or six years ago when the planet-sized logical inconsistencies might still have been a liability. At this point, it’s like arguing that America’s tax laws don’t make sense. The industrial fact-checking complex is not a debate society or a branch of science pursuing the truth wherever it leads. It’s an institutional fixture with hundreds of millions of dollars in funding behind it, along with battalions of NGOs and formerly broke journalistic authorities who are more than happy to cash fat checks and proclaim that America’s ruling bureaucrats at the FDA, the CDC, the FBI, the CIA, the Fed—and the entire alphabet soup of government agencies—along with the ruling Democratic Party, are never wrong about anything, at least nothing important.
Which is not to say that the fact-checkers are inflexible. The opposite is true. A matter settled this month with a single link and a few hand-picked quotes in favor of Truthful Federal Bureaucrat X or Noble Ruling Party Flesh Puppet Y can easily be resettled a few months later with different links if the political winds shift, by revising the record of the past without ever acknowledging errors of judgment or fact.
This exact scenario has played out dozens of times just in the two years since the pandemic started. Remember back in May 2020, when Donald Trump said he was “confident” vaccines would be available by the end of the year? NBC fact-checked that claim and determined that “experts say he needs a ‘miracle’ to be right.” That October, when Trump said a vaccine was imminent, an organization called Science Feedback, one of Facebook’s official fact-checking partners, declared that “widespread Covid-19 vaccination is not expected before mid-2021.” In reality, the vaccine rollout began two months later, in December 2020. Since then, the U.S. fact-checking complex has spent inordinate amounts of time and energy linking “Trump,” “Trump supporters,” “regions of the country that supported Donald Trump,” and, of course, the beloved “anti-vaxxers” as the cause of lower-than-hoped-for vaccine uptake, as the vaccine migrated from being a symbol of Trump’s clownish grandiosity and fibs to symbolizing the wisdom of his opponents, defenders of The Science.
Then there are those hard-to-miss moments when factual reports of obvious blunders are recontextualized as “mostly false” or “misleading,” in order to spare political officials and their patrons the trouble of defending their unpopular policies. In early February, the Washington Free Beacon reported that the Biden administration was “set to fund the distribution of crack pipes to drug addicts as part of its plan to advance ‘racial equity.’” The report was quickly seized on by conservative commentators and politicians who picked up on the fact that millions of Americans would see such a plan as, on its face, idiotic, and cartoonishly racist, and thus an embarrassment to the White House. In the old days, the revelation might have led to some lower-level bureaucrat stepping forward to fall on his or her sword, or at least admit blame. But times have changed, and now instead of managing public fallout from the gaffe, the advanced guard of the fact-checking bureau can issue official decrees that there never was a gaffe and any suggestions of one are misinformation, while erasing the evidence of contrary views.
Which is exactly what happened in the case of some bureaucrat’s brilliant plan to hand out free crack pipes to promote racial “equity.” Within days, the fact-checking lobby leaped into action to defend the honor of the White House. Snopes and Politifact both declared the Beacon’s report “mostly false,” while Factcheck.org referred to it as misinformation. The New York Times, The Washington Post, CNN, Reuters, Forbes, USA Today, and dozens of other members of the media’s fact-checking clusterfuck issued similar verdicts, backed by their brand names and by official-sounding pods at big-name universities.
What is striking here, aside from the level of unanimity, is that none of the fact-checkers disputed the assertion that the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) grant included funding for “safe smoking kits” to be distributed to drug users. Rather, they simply echoed the government’s denial that crack pipes would be included in the kits—a denial made only after the Beacon article was published—and then seized on the fact that not all of the $30 million set aside for the grant would be used to purchase the kits, which the Beacon had never asserted, in order to claim that the entire story was false. In true Stalinoid fashion, Snopes added an editor’s note to its entry explaining that it had changed its rating from “Mostly False” to “Outdated” after HHS “stipulated that federal funding would not be used to include pipes in the safe smoking kits.” Translation: The Beacon’s reporting was essentially accurate all along, and labeling it false was a stalling tactic to buy time for the government to prepare a response that could then be retroactively applied to rewrite the past.
By putting an official stamp on obvious manipulations of language, the fact-checkers license false and misleading coverage by outlets that playact the quaint 20th-century practice of objective news reporting—calling balls and strikes—while also batting for Team Democrat. The convergence of fact-checking and Democratic Party priorities is not a matter of speculation. The Democratic National Committee calls for establishing a “political misinformation policy” and repeatedly cites the International Fact-Checking Network’s partnerships with tech companies as a model for the party’s national censorship policy.
Once the fact-checkers issued their professional verdicts, multiple articles appeared that slammed the Beacon’s report while affirming its central claims. The Chicago Tribune decried the “misleading ‘crack pipes’ uproar” in a piece that also acknowledged the “slender glass tube used to smoke crack cocaine and other drugs” are, in fact, “the key part of so-called safe smoking kits” distributed by local groups. But instead of drawing attention to the use of crack pipes for smoking crack—an uncomfortable association freighted with unsavory and potentially racist connotations—the article coaches readers to understand that the “slender tubes” are “an innocuous part of the arsenal” for harm reduction specialists. In its own article on the controversy, The New York Times acknowledged “some harm reduction programs do include sterile pipes—which are used for smoking methamphetamine and fentanyl as well as crack cocaine,” before declaring with utmost seriousness that “nonpartisan fact-checkers have debunked the claim” that the Biden administration “intended to pay for distribution of pipes.”
The episode illuminates one of the central ironies of the boom in narrative regulators. Fact-checking trades on readers’ respect for older journalistic values like objectivity without acknowledging the role of the prestige media in deliberately undermining those values by implicating them in the continuance of racism, sexism, and other toxic bigotries. The result is a familiar yet peculiar double game: If an article points out that a network of bureaucratic and educational activists are inculcating the notion that math is racist, that claim is right-wing hysteria. But when a journalist determines that crack pipes are innocuous, that is fact-checking.
Another driving force behind the growth of the fact-checking complex is the necessity of enforcing loyalty to progressive ideas that can’t survive on their own.
As far as the accusation of overt partisanship goes, the record of the new “fact-checkers” speaks for itself. During the 2020 election, “fact-checks” were repeatedly used as blunt weapons to neutralize information that was potentially damaging to Joe Biden—Hunter’s laptop being the most egregious example, but only one of many. During the Democratic primary campaign, Biden was routinely attacked for having contributed to mass incarceration with his 1994 crime bill. “That 1994 crime bill, it did contribute to mass incarceration in this country” then-presidential candidate Kamala Harris told reporters in 2019 when she was running against Biden. The following year, after Biden clinched his party’s nomination, an Instagram post by a left-wing Bernie Sanders supporter that accused him of contributing to mass incarceration was marked “False” with a label warning users: “Independent fact-checkers say this information has no basis in fact.”
Fact-checking didn’t originate as a partisan Democratic plot against reality, though. It became a necessary feature of the new journalistic industrial complex in order to inoculate large tech platforms from government regulatory pressure and the threat of “private” lawsuits from the NGO sector. In other words, it was a concession by tech companies to the not-so-subtle threat that if they didn’t start censoring themselves, they might get their windows—or their monopolies—broken by the state. In that framework, at least, fact-checking is just as potentially dangerous to Democrats under a Republican-controlled White House and Congress as it is to Republicans when Democrats rule Washington.
Yet in reality, when it comes to benefiting from state censorship, Democrats and Republicans are not created equal. Another driving force behind the growth of the fact-checking complex is the necessity of enforcing loyalty to progressive ideas that can’t survive on their own. Stripped of their specialized language and social and bureaucratic context, key articles of Progressive Church faith are repulsive to most ordinary voters, regardless of gender or race. That is true of the racialized approach to education that was just roundly rejected by San Francisco parents in recent school board elections. It is also true of calls to defund the police, to teach transgender ideology to kindergarteners, and of approaches to addiction that appear to promote continued drug use. Policies that Biden administration officials would have boasted about in front of an audience of academics and public health administrators sound different—meaning, crazy—to people who have not been socialized to accept professional class bullshit. That’s where the fact-checkers come in with their tin badges and unearned air of authority. They can declare that a story is not merely mistaken or overwrought but dangerously defective—because we, the fact-checkers, paid by the tech giants and NGOs that are in turn funded by a seemingly endless tide of dark money from billionaires who want to be woke, or at least buy a woke insurance policy, said so.
Politics aside, fact-checkers fill a gap in the American system of government, which increasingly and for at least several decades now has looked nothing like the system described in high school civics classrooms and textbooks. Because the U.S. state now routinely exercises its power through administrative decrees, rather than through laws passed by the elected representatives of the people, it must rely on subcontracted nonofficials to enforce compliance with its dictates. This method of governance relieves policy makers of any obligation to build broad majorities that support their ideas. Maybe it really is a good idea to distribute crack pipes to addicts because it will save lives, as advocates claim. But if they believed they had the truth on their side, we might expect to see the people who champion these policies arguing for their merits and convincing a coalition of voters to support them. Instead, we see the opposite: the naked use of power and coercion to stifle arguments by people who believe they have a mandate of heaven, and the truth is whatever they say it is.
The fact-checkers have proved to be crucial compliance officers for the state, filtering out troublesome information before it reaches the public, torturing “the facts” until they conform to officially sanctioned narratives, and smearing dissenters as dangers to the public or stooges of Vladimir Putin. That’s the information ecology we are living in, and as a reporter I can tell you it stinks.
Fact-checking dates to the early 20th century, when publications used it as an internal auditing procedure to ensure their work’s accuracy before it was published. This inward-facing quality control mechanism was both costly and time-consuming, but it gave publications that employed it an air of trustworthiness and prestige.
That all changed when the internet came along and ended the media’s control over news. The first of the modern fact-checking sites, Snopes, was started in 1994 as an early online community organized around urban myths. FactCheck.org followed in 2003, and PolitiFact—now operated by the Poynter Institute—was established in 2007. This new breed of fact-checkers had a conflicted relationship with the internet. They recognized the immense power of a global information index to do real-time research and debunk false claims made by public officials. But at the same time, they saw the internet undermining the foundations of journalism’s authority with the public while also destroying its business model.
The trend lines for journalism and fact-checking have been moving in opposite directions for three decades now. Between 1990 and 2017, daily and weekly newspapers lost more than a quarter of a million jobs, over half of their workforce. The decline accelerated during the pandemic with at least 6,154 media workers laid off from the beginning of March 2020 through August 2021 and 128 news organizations shut down during the same period. As journalism collapses, it opens up a space for successor practices grouped under the banner of countering disinformation. In 2014, there were 44 fact-checking organizations in the United States, according to the Duke University Reporters’ Lab census. As of the June 2021 census, there were 341 “active fact-checking projects,” 51 more than in the previous year.
“Publishers hope fact-checking can become a revenue stream. Right now, it’s mostly Big Tech who is buying,” ran the headline of an article published last September by Harvard University’s Nieman Lab. In other words, the same internet platforms that have turned journalism into a hollow shell while incentivizing the hyperpolarized clickbait that cratered public trust in the media, and which happen to be major donors to the Democratic Party with an existential interest in pleasing the government, are also the benefactors of a new meta-journalism that places itself above mere reporting as the final arbiter of what is true, while benefiting from labor costs that are a fraction of what was spent in traditional newsrooms.
Today’s fact-checkers no longer have time to keep their own publications honest because they’re leading a crusade to hunt down and expose dangerous untruths everywhere else. An example from The New Yorker magazine, once justly famous for the care and quality of its in-house fact-checking department, illustrates the change. In 2018, Talia Lavin, a fact-checker at the magazine, used her personal Twitter account to falsely accuse a disabled U.S. Marine combat veteran working as a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agent of having a Nazi tattoo because she mistook an insignia used by the unit he served with in Afghanistan for a fascist symbol. After deleting the tweet while criticizing ICE for exposing her error, Lavin resigned from The New Yorker. “I just feel like I made a small mistake and it’s destroyed my life,” she said at the time.
Hardly. Lavin’s mistake became a public audition that launched her career as a new-style “fact-checker” and “expert” on extremism. Weeks after leaving The New Yorker, she was hired by Media Matters as a “researcher on far-right extremism.” In less than a year she had signed a book deal.
What’s notable is that Lavin’s initial act was part of a far larger campaign in which people who think of themselves as left-wing activists and journalists execute White House national security directives. The Biden administration’s “National Strategy for Countering Domestic Extremism,” released last June, was one of many national security documents that called for expanding the government’s surveillance authorities and legal powers in what amounted to a new Patriot Act on steroids. The strategy calls for increasing social media monitoring and implementing new screening policies for government and law enforcement employees, which also happens to describe exactly what Lavin was doing.
The current American fact-checking apparatus was constructed to solve an unproved assertion: that a lack of government regulation over social media swung the 2016 election in favor of Donald Trump. “The country’s most prominent fact-checkers fought a losing battle against the flood of fake news during the presidential campaign,” declared an article in Politico published shortly after the election. The article rested on the false premise that there existed at the time a recognized hierarchy of “prominent fact-checkers.” The reality was that in the earlier journalistic landscape, fact-checking was a job mostly reserved for recent college graduates whose apprenticeship in the journalistic trade involved making sure that busy reporters correctly reported the date of Moldova’s first democratic election after the fall of the Soviet Union. You can only marvel at the audacity of powerful NGOs planting stories in the press to foster an illusion about the power of fact-checkers that in short order created that very reality.
At first, Mark Zuckerberg resisted charges that social media policing, or the lack thereof, was responsible for the results of the 2016 election, saying it was “a pretty crazy idea” and that it was “extremely unlikely hoaxes changed the outcome.” But under pressure from leading Democrats including Hillary Clinton, a coordinated push from the party’s halo of nonprofits, and a coup from his own employees, who include some of the Democratic Party’s biggest donors, Zuckerberg buckled.
On Nov. 17, 2016, a new organization called the International Fact-Checking Network (IFCN) published an open letter to the beleaguered Facebook CEO. “We would be glad to engage with you about how your editors could spot and debunk fake claims,” the IFCN generously offered on behalf of the letter’s signatories, a group of 20 nominally independent fact-checking organizations grouped under its network. The following month, Facebook announced that the IFCN would be its main partner in a new fact-checking initiative that would vet information—all information—on the world’s largest and most influential social media platform. So who is the IFCN again?
The IFCN was launched in 2015 as a division of the Poynter Institute, a St. Petersburg, Florida-based media nonprofit that calls itself a “global leader in journalism” and has become a central hub in the sprawling counter-disinformation complex. Poynter’s funding comes from the triumvirate that undergirds the U.S. nonprofit sector: Silicon Valley tech companies, philanthropic organizations with political agendas, and the U.S. government. The nonprofit sector, as it’s euphemistically called, is an immense, labyrinthine engine of ideological and financial activism that was valued at almost $4 trillion in 2019, the overwhelming majority of which is dedicated to “progressive” causes. The IFCN’s initial funding came from the U.S. State Department-backed National Endowment for Democracy, the Omidyar Network, Google, Facebook, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and George Soros’ Open Society Foundations.
With no formal membership, the IFCN acts as the high body for the dozens of fact-checking organizations grouped under its umbrella that have endorsed its code of principles. According to the organization’s website, its mission is “to bring together the growing community of fact-checkers around the world and advocates of factual information in the global fight against misinformation.”
The IFCN’s fact-checking operation offers something different to all of the various players who directly and indirectly shape its mission. For government officials, it provides a means to outsource both political messaging and the responsibilities of censorship. For technology companies, it’s a method of exercising control over their own regulators by putting them on the payroll. And for journalists, watching their industry collapse and their status erode as the public turns on them, its steady work in one of the media’s only remaining growth fields, as information regulators.
The consequences for anyone who resisted the new mandate were serious. Social media companies and newsrooms that did not get with the program and empower the brigades of truthy technocrats were accused of helping Russia, bringing fascism to America, supporting white supremacy, and worse.
Contrary to the preferred self-image of data scientists, neutrally officiating claims from the sidelines, fact-checkers tend to see their work in salvationist terms. In his final day on the job in 2019, the IFCN’s founding director, Alexios Mantzarlis, published a blog post where he wrote: “fact-checkers are no longer a fresh-faced journalistic reform movement; they are wrinkly arbiters of a take-no-prisoners war for the future of the internet.” Mantzarlis provided a useful overview of their guiding mission, which is to turn back the tide of populism empowered by the internet and restore the hierarchies of knowledge, which, in the technocratic mind, are the proper foundation of liberal societies. Mantzarlis now works at Google as a policy lead.
The pandemic would shine an especially harsh light on the role of fact-checkers as information cops for America’s power elite—and the dangers of that role. Far from identifying “dangerous misinformation,” fact checkers were instrumental in the multipronged effort to suppress inquiries into the origins of the global pandemic that has killed nearly 6 million people. In February 2020, The Washington Post chided Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton for promoting a “debunked” “conspiracy theory” that COVID-19 had escaped from a lab. In May 2020, the Post‘s Glenn Kessler, who is a member of the IFCN advisory board, said it was “virtually impossible” for the virus to have come from a lab. Those were the facts … until a year later, when Kessler published a new article explaining how the “lab-leak theory suddenly became credible.”
How to understand the epistemological process that could lead a seasoned fact-checker to do a 180 on a matter of utmost public importance in less than a year? The simple answer, which has nothing to do with Kessler’s individual character or talents, is that when it really counts, the fact-checker’s role is not to investigate the truth but to uphold the credibility of official sources and their preferred narratives. Kessler’s mind changed at the very moment when the Democratic Party machinery began charting a new course on an issue that was hurting the party at the polls.
A key feature of the modern fact-checking apparatus is that individual errors can quickly become system failures. That the various members of the IFCN, spread out over news organizations across the world, overwhelmingly agree with each other is no surprise, since consensus is the point of their work. But in a closed network, error-based consensus can easily acquire the weight of legal regulation, with seeming unanimity serving as “proof” that opposing opinions are laughably ill-informed, or dangerous, or simply insane. That is precisely what happened when Google, Facebook, and Twitter, with the full weight of the “facts” behind them, collectively censored information about the “fringe” lab-leak conspiracy.
Then there are questions that more directly impact public health, like vaccine safety and masking. Last November, the BMJ, a British medical journal founded in 1840, published an article based on claims made by a whistleblower who had worked for Ventavia Research Group, while the company was contracted by Pfizer to assist in its COVID-19 vaccine trials. According to the BMJ report, the whistleblower, Brook Jackson, alleged that during the trials Ventavia had “falsified data, unblinded patients, employed inadequately trained vaccinators, and was slow to follow up on adverse events reported.” After a week of record traffic for the BMJ’s website, the magazine discovered that posts sharing the article on social media were being tagged with the familiar warning, “independent fact-checkers say this information could mislead people.”
Says who? The determination was made by Lead Stories, one of the partnered organizations in Facebook’s network that, in a data sample taken in January 2020, was responsible for half of all fact-checks that month on the social media platform. It doesn’t take a particularly close reading to see that while the BMJ’s original investigation is scrupulously put together with hard evidence and measured claims, the Lead Stories takedown is built on sloppy insinuation, sleights of hand, and an underlying credulity toward official sources. In its “fact-check,” Lead Stories draws attention to the fact that Jackson’s Twitter account “agreed with anti-vaccine activist and COVID misinformation-spreader Robert F. Kennedy Jr.’s criticism of Sesame Street‘s storyline in which Big Bird encourages kids to get a COVID-19 vaccine.” That’s just the kind of ad hominem, hard to follow, logic-chopping argument that would get laughed out of the room at a high school debate camp but has become the final word on real matters of public health.
Nor is any appeal of these decisions practically possible. When the BMJ’s editors appealed to Lead Stories to remove the “missing context” warning label it had placed on the original BMJ article, the fact-checking site’s editor, Alan Duke, denied any responsibility. “Sometimes Facebook’s messaging about the fact-checking labels can sound overly aggressive and scary,” Duke responded to the journal. “If you have an issue with their messaging you should indeed take it up with them as we are unable to change any of it.” The BMJ’s editors then turned to Facebook, where they were told: “Fact checkers are responsible for reviewing content and applying ratings, and this process is independent from Meta.” Is that clear enough for you? Kick rocks, sucker.
My point here is that the convergence of government power with fact-checking is neither a conspiracy nor an accident. A 2018 report from the Columbia Journalism Review offered “lessons for platform-publisher collaborations as Facebook and news outlets team to fight misinformation.” It also offered a warning:
“If Facebook creates entirely new, immensely powerful, and utterly private fact-checking partnerships with ostensibly public-spirited news organizations, it becomes virtually impossible to know in whose interests and according to which dynamics our public communication systems are operating.”
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