Fact-checking outfits are supposed to help prevent the spread of misinformation by assigning tidy ratings that place publicly made statements into camps of truths and falsehoods. The effort is noble, given mounting evidence that people share information in pernicious ways. Studies, for example, show that many , and that a majority of social media users . Given this troubling tendency, it must be assumed that the reader of a fact-checking article might see only the verdict. But can the verdict be trusted to tell the whole story? It is not difficult to find instances that suggest otherwise.
PolitiFact, for example, recently by MSNBC host Joe Scarborough that “President Trump’s Republican Party will create more debt in one year than was generated in the first 200 years of America’s existence.” It rated this claim as “Mostly True,” and pointed out that the had been given to a similar claim that Jeb Bush made about President Obama back in February 2016. But it can just as easily be argued that this verdict is not fair to either president.
PolitiFact offered important caveats in assessing Scarborough’s claim, writing that “decisions made by Democrats or by both parties long before Trump’s tenure have shaped how much was added to the debt in 2017.” The article elaborated that “net interest on the debt accounted for 6.6 percent of federal spending in 2017, and mandatory spending — outlays that are essentially on autopilot, including Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid — accounted for an additional 63.3 percent of federal spending.” PolitiFact also noted that “the inevitable grind of inflation and population growth puts an upward pressure on the scale of the debt,” concluding that “unless and until the United States reverses course and starts paying down the debt, every new president will preside over ever-larger amounts of debt.”
In other words, the issue is systemic and cannot rightfully be pinned to Donald Trump or Barack Obama. It is to PolitiFact’s credit that it included these caveats. But those caveats would have been lost on the reader seeking vindication for his political prejudices, or who simply couldn’t be troubled to read the whole article.
did a similar injustice to conservative firebrand Ann Coulter. Snopes assessed a claim, propagated via a viral image shared on social media, that Coulter had tweeted that “many men have no choice but to rape because they have no opportunities to date attractive women.” They assigned this inquiry a rating of “correct attribution,” meaning that Coulter had made the controversial statement in question.
This rating, while narrowly correct, does not mean much in itself. The Snopes article reveals that Coulter’s tweet was a sarcastic quip in response to the claim of another social media user that “many Mexicans have no choice but to go illegally to USA because they have no opportunities at home.” Amusingly, Snopes even linked to a tweet warning Coulter that her comment would be taken out of context, observing that the admonition “precisely anticipated the current brouhaha.” Snopes’ verdict of correct attribution, when taken alone, does not put the brouhaha to rest. Instead, the reader is left to assume that Coulter advocated for the violation of women.
Another Snopes piece dealt with the claim by a Facebook group called “The Christian Left” that the United States has dropped off the list of the 20 most democratic countries in the world. Snopes rated this claim true, as the U.S. fell off of the Economist Intelligence Unit’s list of top 20 democracies, which has been compiled annually since 2010. However, within its article, Snopes noted that the U.S. also dipped into the 21st spot in 2012 and 2016. Presumably, the fact that the U.S. dropped in the rankings resonates with readers of “The Christian Left” because they associate this decline with the current administration. But obviously there was more to it.
And that’s the rub with fact-checking verdicts in general — there is more to it. In order to be truly informed, a reader must consume and consider the entire fact check. Should the reader fall into the common tendency of failing to look beyond the headlines, fact checks can easily become an agent of the very misinformation they are supposed to prevent.
Bill Zeiser is editor of RealClearPolitics Fact Check Review.