The Truth Spectrum
“Well, I hope the fact checkers are turning up the volume and really working hard.” In an especially telling moment of the first presidential debate on September 26, Hillary Clinton addressed fact-checking directly—an almost meta moment in what had been a debate dominated by two versions of facts and two versions of “truth.”
The 2016 election cycle has seen many such clashes between the two major candidates—Donald Trump has been frequently criticized for his exaggerations and misrepresentations, and Hillary Clinton has been labeled “crooked.” Both candidates are attempting to garner the trust of voters in a political environment affected by a general distrust of politicians.
This is where fact checkers come into the picture.
Fact checkers are designed to fill the gap between what candidates say and what’s really happening. They are meant to hold candidates accountable to the truth and provide information to the voters that politicians may not be providing. Fact-checking has become increasingly prominent in this election, not only because of the specific candidates running, but also because of a general political atmosphere in which politicians and the media alike face apprehension and skepticism.
Many media outlets, such as WIRED, the Washington Post, and NPR, offer fact-checking outlets as one part of their larger platform. But groups also exist that are entirely dedicated to bipartisan and non-profit fact checking, such as Politifact and factcheck.org. These groups are intended to analyze statements made by candidates from either party in an unbiased way—to discern the simple facts. Both websites became prominent in the year 2007 and have been fact checking the past three presidential elections.
However, fact checking has roots beyond its current online iterations. Simon Rosenberg, founder of the New Democrat Network (NDN), worked in “The War Room” on the Clinton campaign in 1992, and refers to that election as the first in which there was “real-time fact-checking.” He worked on a rapid response team that would point out when their opponents said misleading statements by contacting journalists and producing press releases. According to Rosenberg, being able to question politicians’ truthfulness is “part of democracy.”
What is different about the 2016 election, however, is that fact checking has become much more immediate. This was apparent in the first presidential debate, during which NPR produced a Fact Check site with a live-updated transcript. Though moderators traditionally intervene very little in debates, Lester Holt functioned as a real-time fact checker during the debate by correcting and clarifying some of Trump’s false statements, like . Bloomberg News broke with tradition from other cable news networks by announcing they would have a fact checker running on-screen during that same debate. CNN did something similar when covering an earlier statement made by Donald Trump claiming that President Obama was the founder of ISIS. During its coverage of the statement, the network put up a caption stating, “Trump calls Obama founder of ISIS (He’s not).”
Fact-checking has even gone beyond journalism. It’s become a part of political strategy. Clinton surprised voters in the first debate when she announced that her campaign had changed her home page to a fact checker, telling the audience, “If you want to see in real time what the facts are, please go and take a look.”
This expansion of fact checking has come about because voters are dealing with an entirely new kind of candidate—Donald Trump. Rosenberg referred to Trump as “an unorthodox politician who has struggled with the truth.” Articles detailing the ways in which Trump lies have been rampant in this election. “It’s far more of an issue than it’s been in the past because usually what we’re debating is an argument and not facts,” Rosenberg said. He explained that former elections have been about differences in opinion and ideologies, but Trump has instead been asserting his own versions of “facts.” Indeed, Toronto Star reporter Daniel Dale posts a daily update listing the lies that Trump said that day under the hashtag #TrumpCheck. It has become clear that Trump goes far beyond simply another political candidate exaggerating or misrepresenting the truth.
As a point of comparison, factcheck.org recorded 14 “incorrect or twisted factual claims” between the two candidates in the first presidential debate of the 2012 election. In contrast, for the first debate of 2016, factcheck.org recorded 18 checked facts—14 of which were false claims made by Trump alone. Eight were claims that Trump had made and had been proven wrong on before. Thus, a pattern emerges: Trump is not only making false claims, but he is also sticking to them. According to Politifact, only 14 percent of statements made by Trump on his campaign thus far have been true or mostly true, with the vast majority, 54 percent, being entirely false. This compares to 53 percent of Clinton’s statement being true or mostly true, and 14 percent being entirely false.
Though fact checking services seem like a necessary check on political candidates, many voters do not trust them. Some trace this back to the public’s general distrust of mainstream media. On both sides of party lines, there is a notable distrust of information from “mainstream media.” In a recent Gallup poll, only 40 percent of Americans responded that they have a “great deal” or “fair amount” of trust in mass media to portray news fairly and accurately. Fact checkers face a similar apprehension. According to a poll by researchers Brendan Nyhan and Jason Reifler, only 59 percent of Democrats had “very favorable” opinions of fact-checkers, versus 34 percent of Republicans. Thus, it seems there is no consistently trusted resource where American voters look for objective or bipartisan information.
Among Republicans, Trump perpetuates this distrust, showcasing himself as someone who tells the truth but is misrepresented by mainstream media. Indeed, he called this into attention in the first presidential debate with his statement, “Now everybody in the mainstream’s gonna say, that’s not true. Look, it’s true.” On the other side, then, Clinton responded by using her campaign’s fact checker to push back against Trump’s frequent references to the “truth.”
Some wonder if we now inhabit a sort of “post-fact society” in which politics no longer deals with “truth” and facts have become malleable. Lucas Graves, who recently wrote the book Deciding What’s True: The Rise of Political Fact-Checking in American Journalism, told Vox’s Dara Lind that he doesn’t agree with this view, but that he believes this perspective “underscore[s] the need for journalists to do anything they can to steer political debate onto firmer ground.”
It’s clear that media and journalism largely hold responsibility for emphasizing the importance of truth. Partisan media bubbles, however, have provided a major obstacle to this endeavor, working as spheres in which people are able to confirm their own biases rather than finding an objective truth. And according to Rosenberg, the problem is currently exacerbated by “a candidate…whose connection to reality and truth is more tenuous than we’ve seen in the modern era.”