Fact checking has been a growth industry in the Trump era.
The sheer velocity of Donald Trump’s false and misleading statements — along with the proliferation of disinformation on social media — have demanded significant fact-checking to defend liberal democracy.
The market responded to the demand: According to the Duke Reporter’s Lab, global fact checking organizations grew from 145 in 2016 to 304 by mid-2020.
But will the need for fact checking lose its urgency when Trump leaves the White House?
Let’s start by recognizing reality. Fact checking Democrats this election cycle has offered a far less target rich environment. This is not because either party has a monopoly on virtue or vice, but because Democrats’ falsehoods during their presidential debates have been comparatively pedestrian — likely to focus on competing claims about calculating the 10-year cost of Medicare for All, or who wrote-what-gun control bill, or how many manufacturing jobs have been lost, or when a candidate really started supporting a raise in the minimum wage.
Make no mistake: It’s essential to clarify policy disagreements and insist on fact-based debates. But it’s not exactly got the moral urgency of fact checking the President’s retweet of baseless Osama Bin Laden conspiracy theories, or blaming rising Covid-19 infection rates on more testing, or demanding the investigation of political opponents, or saying that Joe Biden is “against God” — all in the final weeks of the 2020 campaign.
But even if President-elect Biden is not going to be found the “single largest driver” of coronavirus misinformation in the world, as a Cornell University study declared Trump, the need for fact checking is not going away.
That’s because the disinformation ecosystem is still proliferating via social media and the hyper-partisan fragmentation of society. Trump is a symptom rather than its root cause. There is every reason to hope that the presence of a president who does not lie all the time will not exacerbate our divides on a daily basis. But it would be dangerously naïve to believe that the underlying infrastructure of hate news and fake news will be solved with a new president.
“If we do not have the capacity to distinguish what’s true from what’s false, then by definition the marketplace of ideas doesn’t work,” former President Barack Obama recently told The Atlantic. “And by definition our democracy doesn’t work.”
Democracy depends upon reasoning together. And that’s what is being threatened. The old KGB hand, now Russian President Vladimir Putin understood that social media presented an unprecedented opportunity to proliferate disinformation, while most Americans were still waxing poetic about its potential to bring people together.
In fairness, it can do both — but without established guardrails and updated standards, we’ve learned the hard way that lies spread faster on social media than the truth. The prominence of the toxic nonsense QAnon conspiracy theory in Republican circles, and exit polls showing that 51% of Americans think the efforts to contain the coronavirus are going well (when cases are spiking and our country has almost 20% of the world’s deaths) indicate just how much the rot has set in.
Reforms are necessary. As I’ve written before on CNN Opinion, “Social media and tech platforms have a responsibility not to run knowingly false advertisements or promote intentionally false stories. They must disclose who is paying for digital political ads and crack down on the spread of disinformation. The Honest Ads Act would require the same disclosures that are required on television and radio right now. This is a no brainer. The profit motive from hate news and fake news might be reduced by moving digital advertising toward attention metrics to measure and monetize reader engagement and loyalty, incentivizing quality over clickbait. But perhaps the single biggest reform would come from social media companies requiring that accounts verify they are real people, rather than bots that bully people and manipulate public opinion.”
But these reforms will not be speedy, and they are not sufficient. The core responsibility of journalism is to tell the truth — especially at a time when our civil discourse is polluted by lies. We need to call balls and strikes and help people make sense of all the chaos that surrounds them. And, of course, every administration needs to be held to account by the press, even if not every president calls journalists “the enemy of the people.” That’s why we need to not just fact check, but add perspective — the very thing we have least of in our politics today — offered up with a bit of history and humor, as I try to do with my daily Reality Checks on CNN’s “New Day.”
Some of these efforts will be evergreen — searchable for people looking to separate fact from fiction or simply to get up to speed on a given topic. Others will surf off the day’s news-cycle. But, in the larger sense, we need to fight and win the war on disinformation, especially at a time when ethno-nationalist autocracies around the world are cracking down on freedom of the press to solidify their hold on power.
It would be a huge mistake to assume that simply because the velocity of lies from the White House is likely to decrease dramatically that the need for fact checks has expired. Instead, it has only transformed to a broader arena than a presidential beat. It’s the part of news that people need most now, the tip of the spear that fights for the idea that everyone is entitled to their own opinion but not their own facts.
This is necessary for a substantive, civil and fact-based debate, which is a precondition for a functioning, self-governing society. And that’s why fact checking will remain a core responsibility for journalists in the future.