In the summer of 1971, a lawyer named Lewis F. Powell was mulling over the anti-capitalist movement brewing in the “respectable elements of society”. It troubled him, so he wrote a memorandum calling for “fair and factual treatment” of the system of government and “constant surveillance” of politicians and the media. He seemed more alarmed by the anti-corporate ideology he saw creeping into these institutions than by any specific inaccuracies they were generating. Two months later, Powell was nominated by President Nixon to the US Supreme Court: fact-checking as a political weapon was born.
US politicians and commentators are still using this weapon forty years later, demanding fact-checks on every other sentence that comes out of candidates’ mouths. Like Powell, these vigilante fact-checkers are spurred by dislike of their opponents’ ideology, picking fights that can harm reputations. Don’t like Romney’s views on energy? First off, check if he’s lying about anything. If you can discredit the man, you’ve automatically discredited his ideas.
In the last ten years, the USA has seen the rise of a new breed of fact-checkers. They are stubbornly non-partisan and are on a mission to find the truth behind political claims. They chew on statistics, complex datasets and speech transcripts. The end result is a thoroughly researched and balanced article, which – crucially – readers can trust.
Pants on Fire
Among the heavyweights are FactCheck.org, a ‘consumer advocate’ fact-checking project set up in 2004, and its gleeful cousin PolitiFact, which interrogates political claims and rates them on the ‘Truth-O-Meter’ (‘Pants on Fire’ is reserved for the worst whoppers).
Still, facts hold only a fleeting interest for some. Mitt Romney advisor Eric Fehrnstrom seemed to think the public would not notice contradictions in a political campaign. When describing how Romney was able to change direction after the primary season, he said, “you hit a reset button for the fall campaign and everything changes… It’s almost like an Etch A Sketch, you can kind of shake it up and we start all over again.” Help us Mr Fehrnstrom! We’ve lost our collective memory!
Yet fact-checking has never had such a high profile. There has been a flurry of media interest on the subject, not all of it positive, and fact-checkers have sprung up attacking each other as well as politicians. Romney’s pollster Neil Newhouse felt threatened enough to declare his campaign would “not be dictated by fact-checkers”, indicating just how central fact-checking has become to US politics.
And does it make any difference? PolitiFact’s 2008 survey was inconclusive: most readers thought their preferred candidate was more careful when using facts, but that the other candidate was not.
But what difference should fact-checkers be trying to make? PolitiFact founder Bill Adair told the BBC, “Our goal is not to get politicians to stop lying. Our goal is to inform democracy, and we are trying to give voters the information they need to make wise decisions.”
The trouble is, they're not succeeding. After the 2008 election FactCheck.org's polling proved "millions of voters were bamboozled anyway" by a series of inaccurate claims from both sides. Only the best informed voters see the products of fact-checkers' research, and millions of voters don’t even know these websites exist.
I run the UK's equivalent of FactCheck.org, Full Fact. At Full Fact we don't just publish research, but also make sure that claims that are demonstrably untrue get
corrected. We’ve seen bad information affecting decisions on everything from
passive smoking to knife crime, and these things are too important to get wrong.
Perhaps the encouraging sign for the UK is that rather than brazen out mistakes, a decent proportion of the politicians, journalists and pressure groups we ask for corrections are actually conscientious about making sure errors are fixed.
Fact-checkers should not dictate the debate – interpreting the facts is what politics is all about. But there's something to be said for making sure we're all debating reality – and on that front we're ahead of our US counterparts.