Fact-Checking Sites Are Changing Politics

Jude Abeler Contributor
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WASHINGTON — Journalists highlighted the recent explosion of political fact-checking stories, and their “happy consequences” on the behavior of politicians Wednesday at the Woodrow Wilson Center.

“This is a very skeptical age,” said Angie Drobnic Holan, editor at PolitiFact.

“The work does not go unnoticed. It’s not like a rock thrown in a pond that sinks to the bottom, there are ripple effects.”

She said that whether politicians actually change or not, they notice the reports, and are usually called to account in some way, usually through their peers, constituents or other political reporters.

The frequency of fact checking stories increased by 50 percent between 2004 and 2008, and exploded by more than 300 percent between 2008 and 2012, according to new research data shared by the American Press Institute.

While fact checkers maintained that their primary goal is to inform citizens, there are undeniable and measurable effects on the conduct of politicians.

“The politicians who were told, warned, or threatened with these letters that they were going to be fact checked were far less likely to receive poor ratings,” said Jane Elizabeth, senior research project manager at API, citing research from after the 2012 elections.

“It shows promise,” she said.

Former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich even held a press conference during the 2012 elections specifically to tell one of his super PACs to recall an ad that had received the worst possible rating of “four Pinocchios” from The Washington Post’s Glenn Kessler.

Not everyone who receives bad ratings makes these kinds of changes, however. The silent treatment is also a common response towards fact checkers in the media.

“A super PAC associated with Harry Reid called Senate Majority PAC ran some of the worst campaign ads of the last cycle. I reviewed three or four of their ads in a row, and each time gave them four Pinocchios,” said Kessler.

“There just got to a point where the person who dealt with the press simply said, ‘I’m just not answering your questions anymore.'”

He said individuals in both political parties stretch the truth in order to advance their particular interests, regardless of what fact checkers say.

If a factual error doesn’t make that much of a difference to the narrative, some will adjust their statements or assertions on the margins, Kessler said, “but if a party has something they feel will move voters, it’s just not going to matter.”

Holan agreed, and pointed out that a lot of campaigns “are really more emotions based than anyone would like to admit,” and politicians are reluctant to back off certain claims they really like.

Another API researcher, Mark Stencel, recalled an infamous statement from individual working for one of Barack Obama’s campaigns:

“You just decide the fact checker is wrong.”

The speakers made it clear that you cannot always expect to change the behavior of politicians, and that is why their efforts are directed at the people.

The goal is “not to stop them from lying, but to let voters know who was lying,” Kessler said.

“It’s a public service I’m happy to spend time on no matter how few hits it gets.”