The Different Types of Dishonest ‘Fact-Checking’

Dishonest fact-checking often follow a number of basic misinformation techniques. These dishonest fact-checks (DFCs) generally fall within the following categories: Fact-Checking a claim without any actual facts; taking one side of a claim at their word while dismissing the other side’s word; playing semantics with definitions; injecting unimportant context that is irrelevant to the central claim; and fact-checking opinions, jokes and satire.

 

‘Fact-Checking’ Without Using Facts

This style of dishonest fact-check is evident when a fact-checker declares a claim to be false without actually addressing facts/figures/statistics supporting the particular claim.

A common technique seen in some dishonest fact-checks of this nature will include some variation of the statement “X person makes X claim, without evidence.” That statement in itself isn’t dishonest, but if a fact-checker doesn’t bother to look into whether there is any evidence to support the claim, it’s not accurate or fair to declare it false.

Further, stating “X person makes X claim, without evidence” often ignores the context in which those statements are made. People asserting claims in a debate, or during a press event or interview or other generally conversational scenario don’t often do so with a binder full of their sources at hand to back up every claim they make off the cuff. For instance, if a public official asserted a claim about a crime statistic after having reviewed that statistic on their own time prior to then repeating those statistics off the top of their head at a press engagement, a fact-checker could take note of the fact that that official didn’t have a printed out copy of the source they are referencing to then claim the official is asserting a claim without any evidence. Just because an official didn’t read off the name of a study or say a URL out loud it doesn’t mean that no evidence exists. It should be incumbent on fact-checkers to search for the evidence to support a claim before dismissing that claim out-of-hand.

Further, when various studies or statistics conflict with one another on a given claim, it is inappropriate for a fact-checker to ignore that split in debate and simply side with their preferred studies/statistics to declare a claim as false.

 

Picking Sides With Conflicting Claims

As mentioned above, when fact-checkers fail to vet the conflicting studies and statistics and simply choose their preferred claims, they are not really fact-checking, they are just choosing which information to ignore to dismiss a claim they disagree with.

This practice can play out even further, for example, when a politician makes a claim about an opponent, or when a news publication runs an expose raising claims, questions and lines of investigation about the subject of their reporting. When a fact-checker then turns to those accused individuals, what’s likely to happen is those officials will say the claim made against them is not true. In this case, if a “fact-checker” simply takes an accused side at their word to “debunk” the claims made against them, they aren’t really determining what’s true from false, so much as playing the part of a public relations firm on behalf of an accused party that they may prefer.

Fact-checkers should be careful to actually call on accused parties to demonstrate exculpatory evidence to dismiss claims against them before simply declaring things as utterly false. Now, if a party is making a claim that is impossible to reasonably disprove, say for example a tabloid news publication citing no actual sources to assert a politician is secretly a reptilian lizard person, a fact-checker can reasonably dismiss that claim as “lacking any evidence” but the same could not really be said for a tabloid magazine citing an anonymous source who claims they saw a politician engaging in an extramarital affair. In that second exemplary claim, unless a politician can show exculpatory evidence that shows for example that they weren’t present in the location where they were accused of engaging in an extramarital affair, a fact-checker cannot declare the claim affecting that accused politician as “false” out-of-hand.  Don’t take one opposing side at their word. Look for the evidence, whether it’s positive or dispositive of a claim.

A real-world example of this kind of fact-checking without actually addressing the conflicting claims came in September of 2020 when PolitiFact claimed that a guest of Fox News host Tucker Carlson aired a “debunked conspiracy theory” that COVID-19 was created in a lab. PolitiFact eventually archived that fact-check as more evidence surfaced suggesting validity to Carlson’s guest’s claim. While PolitiFact can be commended for admitting they were wrong, the fact of the matter is evidence supporting the lab-origin theory did exist at the time Carlson’s guest made his claims. PolitiFact addressed some of that information, but rather than characterizing the theory as a matter of open and ongoing debate, they ruled at the time that it had been definitively debunked and thus had no validity.

 

The Semantics Game and Unimportant Context

Sometimes, fact-checkers may try dismiss a claim as “false” not by finding sources of evidence but simply by quibbling over the definitions of words, entering into an argument of semantic definitions as opposed to looking at whether something is essentially true or false

Sometimes this technique can look like taking a claim that is essentially true and diminishing it for its reliance on non-literal colloquialisms. An example of this occurred in the 2016 U.S. presidential election cycle when reports came out that then-candidate Hillary Clinton had a private email server that she used to store government information and that she then deleted that information using a type of software known as BleachBit, a tool not only used to delete computer files but to also prevent them from being recovered after deletion. Clinton’s use of BleachBit became a noteworthy issue because the tool’s use was seen as an extraordinary step to prevent investigators from seeing what was on her email server. Then-candidate Donald Trump referred to this extraordinary file deletion effort in a colloquial sense when he said Clinton “acid-washed” her email server. Depending on one’s point of view, Trump’s comments could be seen as a literal act of pouring caustic liquid onto a computer server, or colloquially as taking an extraordinary measure to delete files using a specialized software. Nonetheless, the important part about Trump’s claim is that Clinton deleted sensitive information in a manner that those files could not be recovered.

Rather than expounding on this issue or considering whether Trump was referring to “acid-washing” in the figurative sense rather than the literal sense, fact-checkers at NBC News said “nope,” declaring the claim as entirely false and adding little more context than “Clinton’s team used an app called BleachBit; she did not use a corrosive chemical.”

 

This context was readily available as it was a topic of news coverage and discussion when Trump equated Clinton’s actions to “acid-washing” an email server. By choosing to fact-check this as false, NBC News did not actually address the important point (i.e. that Clinton took an extraordinary measure to delete emails), but instead used Trump’s colloquial characterization of Clinton’s acts to insinuate to their viewers that Trump was asserting a baseless claim.

A more pronounced example of this kind of fact check could be seen when Snopes addressed the claim that a convicted terrorist sat on the board of a  Black Lives Matter funding body. The fact of the matter is that Susan Rosenberg was convicted of terrorism and did sit on the board of directors for a group that fundraises for Black Lives Matter. The essential claim that Rosenberg, a convicted terrorist, sat on that BLM connected fundraising group is true, no if’s and’s or but’s. Instead of simply stating this, Snopes described the accuracy of the claim as a “mixture” because they chose to engage in a semantic argument over what constitutes terrorism. This semantic quibbling is utterly unimportant to the overall truth of the claim because, regardless of whether someone believes the acts Rosenberg was convicted for (namely bombing a U.S. government building) were righteous or not, she was in fact charged, tried and convicted on terrorism charges.

In both exemplary cases, these “fact-checkers” turned to less relevant information (in one case an attack on a colloquialism, and in another case an argument over semantics) to obscure the essential points of a claim and insinuate that those making the claim have no relevant justification for doing so.

 

Fact-Checking an Opinion or a Joke

This type of dishonest fact-check is fairly self-explanatory. Fact-checkers are supposed to focus on facts and, when fact-checking claims, they should simply address whether a statement of fact is true or it is false. An opinion is not a statement of fact. A joke or a satirical work are also not meant to be treated as an assertion of fact. Jokes and satire are meant to provoke laughter, not to factually inform an audience.

One example of a fact-checker fact-checking an opinion came when Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) raised the opinion that when Republicans held control of the Senate, they did not create a new set of rules governing how the Senate confirms U.S. Supreme Court appointees. Cruz made this assertion of opinion in response to a debate about changing the composition of the U.S. Supreme Court to add seats, beyond the 9-seat panel existing at the time. PolitiFact ultimately chose to declare Cruz’ opinion false.

PolitiFact declared, “The GOP had the power to do what it did, but it doesn’t mean they weren’t rigging the game.” This is a pure statement of opinion, in response to Cruz’ own opinion. Using one’s opinion to argue against another’s opinion is not fact-checking. Under normal circumstances news reporters are already supposed to keep their personal opinions out of their news reporting. For a newsroom role like that of a fact-checker, where the entirety of one’s position is to look at facts in as objective a manner as possible, it is utterly outside the mission of a fact-checker to denounce an opinion they disagree with.

Fact-checkers can also abuse their reputations as guardians of truth to go after obvious jokes and satire. It should be the business of fact-checkers to notify readers when false statements of fact are being made. But a joke and a satirical statement aren’t meant to be taken as a statement of fact. While people can mistake satirical articles as truthful, and it is sensible for a fact-checker to help people understand when they’ve mistaken a joke for reality, fact-checkers should exercise caution in how they label content shared by comedians and satirical websites. Social media sites rely on fact-checkers to help remove disinformation, and when a joke is labeled as disinformation and subsequently removed by those social media companies, a fact-checker has essentially made it impossible for comedians or satirists to use those platforms to tell their jokes. Fact-checkers should be sure to first call satirical content satire and simply false because the content is the premise of a joke, rather than simply fact-check satire as false in the same way they fact-check serious news publications or individuals intending to make factual claims. It is not the job of a fact-checker to quash jokes they dislike and police what other people find funny.

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