Why fact check websites mostly

swing and miss

With the national preoccupation with ‘fake news’ has come a cottage industry of web-based services offering to arbitrate content as either fact or fiction.

While each is offered in good faith, a cursory review shows two major problems: One is that none are set up to respond in real time to reader questions. And secondly, almost all of them are staffed by the same mainstream news reporters and editors that many targets of fake news have already turned away from.

There are about 30 fact check operations in the U.S. today, according to a roster maintained by the School of Public Policy at Duke University—the number was closer to 40 during last year’s presidential election.

Duke researchers are also keeping tabs on services in other countries as well. There’s one in Nigeria, the Buharimeter, presumably to monitor email investment opportunities by local princes.  There are also outposts in Bosnia, Croatia, Kosovo and Slovankia; three in Ukraine; none listed for Russia.

Most are affiliated or are run by an existing newspaper or new broadcast network. Most of them focus their attention on public officials or candidates for national or statewide offices.

One, the Gossip Cop based in New York City, sits in judgment over content from the celebrity media.

They all use some sort of whimsical grading system. “Pants on fire,” is a common label for a statement found to be untrue. The Canadian Press uses the image of a butcher’s scale loaded with baloney for the same purpose.

Snopes.com claims to have been around the longest, saying they got started in 1994. Snopes also has a fairly wide array of topics covered. At their home page recently, one could learn if actor Eddie Murphy was dead or not; if there’s was a nuke alert on the Korean Peninsula; and if April 22 was chosen by a murderer as Earth Day to coincide with the birthday of Vladimir Lenin.

The answers?

No, but Murphy’s brother died recently. No, but the Korean Peninsula is still a hot spot. And no, but Ira Einhorn, an environmental activist in the 1960’s and 70’s was convicted of killing his girlfriend in 1997 and claimed to be a co-founder of Earth Day.

FactCheck.org is probably the most established of the serious truth monitors, launching in the mid-1990s with a grant from the Annenberg Foundation. Today the operation is a project of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania.

Most of the funding for FactCheck comes from donations of individuals. According to disclosures on their website, last year they received 1,013 separate donations with an average contribution of $108. The Trump family was not listed.

Also prominent in the field is PolitiFact, established by the publishers of the Tampa Bay Times, which itself owned by a nonprofit journalism enterprise created by the paper’s former owner. PolitiFact won a Pulitzer Prize in 2009 for its work and has since become something of the Starbucks of the industry, sponsoring franchises in about a dozen other states including Texas, New York and California.

The work performed almost all of the sites reviewed is professional and well presented. One complaint would be that one or more should have an option that allows a reader to get a specific question answered immediately. All the sites have a method for emailing the editors, but that’s really not the same.

The other problem is that these guys are preaching to the choir. People that read newspapers and trust mainstream journalism will use these sites, people that don’t won’t.

A case in point is Climatefeedback.org, which offers “a worldwide network of scientists sorting fact from fiction in climate change media coverage.”

It’s a great resource, but not likely to be the first choice of someone confused about an article that might have come from a Russian hacker linking a murderer to Earth Day and to Lenin.