By Keaton Peters
With the rise of social media and increasing political polarization, fact checking is more necessary than ever, yet it is also more challenging to get the public to believe fact checks. Social media allows misinformation to proliferate rapidly, and in an increasingly hyperpartisan political environment, narratives that fit a political agenda easily gain traction, whether they are true or not.
“The biggest problem you face in fact checking is confirmation bias,” said Glenn Kessler, the chief fact checker at The Washington Post. People are more susceptible to only believe facts that support their pre-existing beliefs, and discard what does not confirm their biases.
Kessler was speaking at the 24th annual International Symposium on Online Journalism (ISOJ) panel entitled “Lying in politics, weaponizing fake news and attacking journalists: What have we learned so far and how to react to the infodemic?”
The panel was moderated by Anya Schiffrin, a Senior Lecturer and director of Technology, Media and Communications at the Columbia University School of International and Public Affairs. For Schiffrin, the stakes of hyperpolarization are high, and journalism is more needed than ever to discern truth. “When there’s polarization, journalists are on the front line and truth is on the frontline,” Schiffrin said.
After Schiffrin’s introduction, the panel started with remarks from Khaya Himmelman, who outlined two recent examples of misinformation to illustrate how it can start small but eventually becomes dangerous. Himmelman is a New York-based journalist who wrote about political misinformation for The Dispatch before accepting a job at The Messenger.
“Misinformation often starts in small, obscure places before it goes viral,” Himmelman said, describing the case of two election workers in Fulton County, Georgia, who were falsely accused of doing their job in a way that helped Joe Biden win the state in 2020. The lie started on a little-known right-wing news website Gateway Pundit, but it was eventually repeated by Donald Trump in his now infamous phone call with Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensberg. The election workers are suing the Gateway Pundit for defamation.
Himmelman’s second example illustrates how misinformation can spread when there is an emergency and the government response is either late, inadequate or both. In the recent train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio, Himmelman said false information spread rapidly because “it's very easy for conspiracy theorists to step in when details are still murky when the government doesn’t step in quickly.”
“Misinformation spreaders will take advantage of this moment,” Himmelman said.
Also on the panel, Bill Adair, the founder of PolitiFact, a Knight Professor of Journalism and Public Policy at Duke University and director of the Duke Reporter’s lab, wanted to find creative ways to bring vetted information to audiences.
“Fact checking needs a reboot. Fact checking is failing to reach the people that need it the most,” Adair said.
Adair believes journalists need to get creative about how to reach more Americans and suggested “fact checks at gas pumps” on the screens that typically show advertisements as drivers fill up their gas tanks.
In addition to street-level ideas like putting fact checks at gas stations, Adair is also looking at using artificial intelligence to improve fact checking, but on the flip side, he also said it creates a “whole new battlefield,” as it could also increase the spread of misinformation.
“AI will help us detect misinformation and help us to clone fact checks and deploy them where needed,” Adair said.
There are significant gaps in fact checking in the United States at the level of local government. While individuals such as Donald Trump have been fact checked countless times, Adair cited statistics that less than half of U.S. governors and only 8% of Congress members and only 47 representatives at state governments had ever been fact checked.
Outside of the United States, efforts to fact check politicians have also created increasingly hostile relations between the press and the heads of state it holds to account. The ISOJ panel included Sérgio Dávila, editor-in-chief of Folha de S.Paulo, one of Brazil’s largest daily newspapers, and one that was often the target of attacks by former president Jair Bolsonaro.
Dávila played a video compilation of Bolsonaro criticizing Folha de S.Paulo’s coverage and degrading its journalists, and he spoke about how Bolsonaro and his sons led an online campaign of sexual harassment falsely accusing a female journalist who wrote negative coverage about Bolsonaro of exchanging sex for a scoop on the story.
With Bolsonaro out of power, Dávila said the newly elected President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, known as Lula, is “much more respectful,” but Dávila expressed concern over Lula’s attempts to create an official government fact checker.
“That’s absurd; that’s Orwellian,” Dávila said.
Multiple panelists emphasized the need to diligently fact check claims coming from either side of the political divide. Since he made fact checking a permanent feature of The Washington Post’s coverage starting in 2011 to do “fact checks of discrete statements by politicians,” Kessler said he has faced vitriol from both the right and the left when they did not agree with his fact checking.
Going forward, Schiffrin hopes to see more narrative arcs to fact checking that go beyond the truth and falsity of the claims themselves and “systematically figure out what are the financial motivations” underlying the spread of misinformation.
With the 2024 election campaign season already heating up, fact checking is more important than ever.
“Fake news is not going anywhere, but there are things we can do to get ahead of it,” Himmelman said.
Keaton Peters is a freelance journalist based in Austin, Texas, pursuing a Master's Degree in Journalism at the University of Texas at Austin. His stories have been published in the Austin-American Statesman, Reporting Texas and Branch Out, where he typically covers energy, the environment and politics but loves telling compelling stories no matter the beat. Before becoming a journalist, Keaton had a brief career in nonprofits and was a Copy Editor at the Daily Californian, the student newspaper at the University of California at Berkeley, where he graduated with a Bachelor's in Rhetoric.