Liar, Liar Pants on Fire: The Faults of Fact Checking the General Election

When Franklin Delano Roosevelt ran for an unprecedented third term as President in 1941, he promised voters, “Your President says this country is not going to war.” Less than a year later under the Lend-Lease Act, the US began deliberately shipping weapons to the United Kingdom. And that same December, in response to an attack, America had declared war on Japan. Making lofty promises and setting somewhat unreasonable goals during general election campaigns has been an unavoidable hazard since this country’s inception; our bipartisan system forces candidates to out-promise each other in order to appeal to a greater constituency.

However, the current president election place may have surpassed all others in terms of the number of lies, broad generalizations and false accusations made by candidates, going so far as to prompt Politico to declare that we are in a “post-fact world.” This upward trend in the number of falsities has been accompanied by the growing popularity of fact-checking websites such as PolitiFact.com and FactCheck.org. These websites supposedly hold politicians accountable for their statements; but even as they churn out refutations of sound bytes and speeches made by our current candidates, the lies will not go away. While there may well be an increase in the popularity of fact checking, the system itself contains both structural flaws and loopholes for those being scrutinized to avoid accountability and continue their perpetuation of falsehoods.

Fact checking came to the forefront of political journalism during the 2008 general election and has been slowly gaining force ever since. Now, with around 29 different sites claiming to be uniquely suited to judge the validity of political claims, fact checking has been important in the presidential race for the past three cycles. While each website employs a different method for determining lies, all follow the same general format, rating quotes and claims made by candidates on a scale of “truthful” to “pants on fire.” The technique inserts reporters more directly into the political world, allowing them to provide accountability.

Yet even with the meteoric rise of this new kind of news coverage, this election season has seen both candidates (although one much more so than the other) consistently labeled as “not even close” and “hardly reliable;” obviously, fact-checking has not been influential enough to fix the falsity problem. While all presidential races have been plagued with stretches of the truth in order to improve the candidates’ standings, the number of lies during this election has been unprecedented. With one hopeful being known by a coalition of voters as “Crooked Hillary” and the other baselessly claiming that Muslims cheered on 9/11 in New Jersey, the ability of fact checking as a way of adding validity to the election and coercing candidates into being more truthful has so far failed.

A closer look reveals that the current fact-checking network has significant weaknesses. One drawback is that the presence of social media and the Internet has increased the speed of the news cycle dramatically. By the time a website gets around to publishing their fact checks, the public will have already moved on to the next absurd claim. Further, those who actually go through the trouble of researching the validity of a political speech are usually only those with already high levels of political awareness. A study done by two professors on the effects of fact checking found that “almost twice as many Americans with high political knowledge reported being ‘extremely interested’ or ‘very interested’ in reading the sample fact-check article (46%) than those with low political knowledge (24%).” The same study also claims that Democrats were much more likely to believe fact checkers’ claims than Republicans.

While there may well be an increase in the popularity of fact checking, the system itself contains both structural flaws and loopholes for those being scrutinized to avoid accountability and continue their perpetuation of falsehoods.

The biggest problem with the fact checking process as it operates today, though, is its streamlined treatment of all statements. Of course, there has always been, and will always be, a certain amount of untruthfulness in the rhetoric of politicians. But what has shifted now is the scope and seriousness of the lies being told. As journalist Michael Kinsey puts it, “the role of the gaffe is receding. The old-fashioned lie is making a comeback.” While fact checking is an ideal way to chronicle which candidate actually tells the truth, there is no differentiation between a statement regarding whether Marco Rubio’s parents came to the United States in 1956 or 1959, and a racist assertion that 81% of the murders of white people are committed by African Americans. This allows racist claims like the latter to simply be treated like any political gaffe and subject to very minor repercussions.

The most recent example of this phenomenon has been the “birther conspiracy,” which questions the validity of President Obama’s American citizenship. Donald Trump first cast doubt on the birthplace of our Commander-In-Chief in 2011, continuing his accusations even after Obama presented his Hawaiian birth certificate. Only on Friday did he grudgingly admit, “Barack Obama was born in the United States. Period,” but even this claim was followed by another egregious lie: that Hillary Clinton actually started the birther movement. On PolitiFact.com – a website that has won the Pulitzer Prize – Trump’s claims that Obama was born in Kenya, that Clinton started the controversy and that he ended it were all labeled “false.” Yet even when Trump’s original assertion was proven false in 2011, he continued to defend it, and recently, Chris Christie has come out to corroborate Trump’s attacks against Clinton.

If we were to assume that the presence of fact checking holds politicians accountable for the statements they make, this incident should have never snowballed to this level. Trump should have been delegitimized by a valid, respected source, forced to admit his untruth, and the issue would have been put to rest. Obviously that didn’t happen. It seems as though, while PolitiFact had explicitly discredited Trump’s claim by providing evidence of Obama’s publication of his birth certificate in 2008, he felt comfortable enough with his position and relationship to voters to continue propagating the falsity.

This situation highlights how Trump has taken advantage of the fact checking norm and current all-time low trust in the media. By projecting himself as a maverick candidate intent on exposing the corruption in politics as well as the press, he has created his own personal paradox of accountability. The more he is called a liar by the media, the more likely his voting base is to believe what he says and view the fact checking system as contradictory to their own personal beliefs. As stated by Alexios Mantzarlis, “confirmation bias and motivated reasoning can lead people to look for information that backs up what they already believe and disregard the rest.”

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