The Case for Independent Fact Checking — Our Future May Well Depend On It
Watching any kind of political event, press release, or news story has become farcical over the last few years. In 2020 it’s become intolerable.
A Class of Spin
There has always been an element of spin inherent in the political machine, but with the advent of ubiquitous easily accessible social media it’s become far too easy for facts to be either misrepresented or outright ignored during press events.
The US Presidential election of 2020 is a case in point where statements are made by individuals across the political spectrum that really don’t stand up to close examination.
It’s not for me to comment on individual events, as I’m attempting to stay apolitical in this piece, but any internet search regarding press briefings illuminates a litany of blatantly false statements.
And yet, there is no law that prevents elected officials from deliberately misrepresenting facts. It is up to other people to take up the case of litigation against such individuals which is usually either financially or practically impossible. This leaves the individuals in question free to be able to say what they like, when they like.
With such easily accessible social media outlets, as referred to above, such messages are rapidly and widely circulated and often taken as gospel by the consumers.
A Lack of Trust
As habitual users of social media, the majority of the population has come to develop an uneasy reliability upon the facticity of information presented.
Yet, the providers of such networks have no solid legal responsibility to either fact check or remove any articles that they distribute which may be of questionable authenticity or truthfulness.
This prevents us, as a society, with two concerning dilemmas:
- Should the providers of social media platforms act as the arbiters of truth for data presented on their platforms?
- If an article or press release is deemed to be factually incorrect then what action should be taken by the provider?
The Rot of Commercialism
In past times when news would be reported by conventional media such as television, radio, or newspapers there was a greater, inherent, trust in authenticity.
For example, national broadcasters such as the BBC (UK) or RTÉ (Ireland), have a responsibility to the people as they are at least partially funded from the general tax base and are held to purpose by deliberate legislation (Whether they are always successfully held to account is another question.)
It is ultimately with the advent of commercial television and radio that the rot began to set in — when the profitability of a business started to depend upon the revenue generated by advertising and sponsorship.
As profit seeking began to take priority, commercial interests would begin to dictate the spin on reported news stories. Commercial news organisations would seek to serve a specific demographic of the population — more often than not political but also historically, class based.
Commercial reporting organisations, along with state sponsored ones, were then shaken to their core by the deluge of incoming social media companies many of which became a conduit for not just reported news, but user generated content based upon that news.
We are now at the point where this fracturing of news reporting and its subsequent dissemination has reached its tipping point and is becoming a threat to the fundamentals of both free speech and democracy.
Whether it be in the reporting of factually incorrect statements as truth or be the circulation of baseless conspiracy theories — the very fact that it is reported lends an air of credibility.
Checking the Facts
There are, of course, several ways in which this can be addressed — but none of them can easily exist without significant effort in a market dominated by profit seeking and general commercialism.
Independence of Organisation
Independence of profitability and editorial influence is one solution. An organisation closest to this model is the BBC (UK) where its funding depends primarily upon general taxation and not commerical success.
They serve no adverts and are funded from a mandatory license fee for users freeing them from, at least, advertiser control.
Unfortunately, the downside of such institutions as the BBC are the continual accusations of editorial bias based on political lines — they cannot be seen to be bias in any way — and this is a never ending issue.
With continual criticism comes an air of distrust and that is what we’re trying to avoid. News agencies need to cultivate an air of trust through demonstrating editorial independence — this is close to seeming unattainable in modern times.
The social media deluge against any hint of bias and even modern deliberate campaigns seeking to discredit such institutions continually weaken their standing. They must indeed seek to improve, but there is ultimately no defence again unfounded allegations and deliberate disinformation in this case. Throw enough mud and it will begin to stick and the BBC has been a victim of this, sometimes justified, sometimes not, through modern times.
Independence of Facts
An alternative is to set up an independent fact checking body, somewhat akin to a Wikipedia of News, that has its own content deliberately inserted alongside any existing news content.
Think of this as a live fact checking service that annotates broadcasts deemed to convey important, perhaps sensitive, issues.
In fact, this has already been suggested for the US 2020 Presidential elections where individual networks have begun to do their own fact checking. Of course, a proper solution is an independent body, but at least this is a start lest we end up where we started with news organisations ultimately cherry picking the checking of their own presented content.
All news organisations would be mandated to contribute to the fact checking service in order to obtain and retain their broadcasting license or permission and conveyance of its stream would be mandatory.
Alarm bells may be ringing in that this is akin to setting up a Ministry of Truth which would be mandatory for all, but I believe that the benefits of setting up an ultimately transparent and accountable organisation devoted to fact checking would far outweigh the potential downsides should sufficient safeguards around funding, political inteference, and staffing be built in legislatively.
Regulation of Social Media
Finally, the real elephant in the room is now social media.
Networks have begun to introduce their own fact checking by highlighting information that may be, or has been proven to be, incorrect. For example, Twitter labelling factually incorrect or doctored information.
Unfortunately, as with individual organisational based fact checking this method isn’t ideal and is subject to the editorial bias of the social media system in question — one network may decide a story is factually incorrect, but another may decide it is factual and genuine.
An idea solution here is to inject the editorially independent fact checking service above into social network systems. Again, the network in question would be mandated to pay for the privilege of circulating information and having it independently fact checked.
This could be made more palatable to social media companies by having representatives from each social network participate in the distribution of fact checking but not, obviously, in its determination of authenticity.
Summary: The Future
It is not just the dissemination of information that is vital, it is also the authenticity as many people take what is presented to them from any perceived authority as factual.
In order to prevent factually incorrect or deliberately engineering disinformation from circulating it is proposed to introduce a mandatory, independent, fact checking body rather than depend upon individual organisations to provide reliable fact checking themselves.
This would not prevent inaccurate information, or downright lies, from being circulated but they would inherent lack the fact check ‘seal of approval’ by not submitting to the process. This would shift the air of suspicion to those which do not allow fact checking of their content.
Clearly there are issues, clearly further discussion is needed, but we in 2020 stand at a fork in the road and the way we’re looking does not look at all pleasant. We must do something.