Why did Fact Checker PolitiFact lie

Fact checkers also produce fake news

Social media platforms such as Facebook or Twitter subject posts to a fact check. But who actually controls this inspection authority?

False news, falsehoods and conspiracy theories are spreading more and more online - for example, the claim that Bill Gates created the coronavirus to make money with vaccines. Platforms such as Facebook and Twitter react to this rampant “infodemia”, as the World Health Organization called it, with extensive fact checks that do not stop at even the most powerful.

Twitter, for example, has repeatedly provided the statements by the elected US President Donald Trump with a warning, the last time on election day when he was talking about voting fraud. After the tabloid "New York Post" recently published a story about allegedly compromising emails and videos on an old laptop owned by Joe Biden's son Hunter, the short message service blocked links to the article and temporarily blocked the newspaper's account. What Twitter boss Jack Dorsey thought was a mistake in retrospect: The blockade of the URL, he said, was wrong.

Facebook has reduced the reach of the story for the duration of an internal fact check. The group cooperates with a number of external fact checkers who check contributions for accuracy. In Germany, Austria and Switzerland, this task is taken over by the Correctiv research agency or the DPA news agency (dpa fact check) and, more recently, AFP, which wants to set up its own office in Berlin.

In the USA, in addition to news agencies and newspapers (including AP, Reuters, “USA Today”), specialized portals such as “Politifact” or Factcheck.org are involved. Above the post, for example, it says: "Information that XY has published has been classified as incorrect." Or: "The core statements of the information are factually incorrect."

Process completed, verdict cannot be challenged

It is generally welcome when social media companies take action against untruths and fake news or remove misleading information. But apart from the fact that the tone of these warnings sometimes sound a bit instructive (“Before you share this content, you should know that it is being questioned by Correctiv”), the question arises of how transparent and comprehensible these checking processes are.

Facebook has listed nine evaluation criteria on its website that fact checkers use when checking content, for example “false”, “partially false”, “true”, “satire” or “opinion”. The distinction between "false" and "satire" can cause difficulties in practice and lead to contradicting evaluations, because formally viewed satire spreads false news, the true is to a certain extent expressed in the untrue and exaggerated.

There is no “right” or “wrong” in such interpretations, which is why it always depends on the argumentation of a train of thought. But what if the fact checkers are wrong and their statements themselves are erratic? Who actually checks the fact checker?

The apodictic note “Incorrect information - checked by independent fact checkers” suggests that the checking process has been completed. You can have the reason displayed. "Publishers", such as media companies or bloggers, can also object to a rating. However, this possibility of challenge is not open to normal users. The seal of approval comes with an absolute claim, as if Facebook were ultimately judging facts.

The question of whether there is a provable factual assertion or a subjective assessment is thus prejudiced. But wasn't the rational questioning, the potential refutability of supposedly incontrovertible truths, one of the central promises of the Enlightenment? Facts are not set in stone. What is wrong today can turn out to be right tomorrow - and vice versa.

And who determines the truth? Facebook? The fact checker? The public? These are not just questions from the introductory seminar on epistemology, but questions of extremely practical relevance. Because a Facebook post that is marked as “wrong” is discounted in the news feed - and barely noticed.

Tichy and the 500 scientists

The publicist Roland Tichy sued this practice and won a lawsuit against the Correctiv research agency before the Karlsruhe Higher Regional Court. The magazine “Tichys Insight” had published an article about an open letter to the UN Secretary General António Manuel de Oliveira Guterres under the heading “500 scientists declare: There is no such thing as a climate emergency”. After the post was shared on Facebook, the fact-checkers from Correctiv intervened - and provided the post with the following note: "No: There are not '500 scientists': allegations are partly false."

The fact checkers questioned the professional background of the signatories. The subject of their examination, however, was not the article in "Tichy's Insight" but the open letter to which the portal had referred. And that is precisely what is misleading, the judges ruled. The labeling gives the impression that "only or at least primarily factual claims (" facts ") are in question," when it is all about an evaluative opinion.

The fact checkers are only allowed to check the facts of a post, but not the reported statements of third parties. Above all, a special justification is required if opinions are placed in a hierarchical relationship: “In the competition of opinions, there is no objective yardstick for classifying them into 'right' and 'wrong', 'good' or 'bad'; The formation of opinions and evaluations are subjective processes ”, it says in the judgment.

"The state therefore has a duty of neutrality in journalistic competition: it must not favor or disadvantage certain opinions or tendencies through funding." Tichy's lawyer Joachim Steinhöfel added: "According to this judgment, the question of what is true, false, right or incorrect should be left to political discourse on Facebook as well."

A success for fact-twister Trump

A case from the USA proves the epistemological errors and confusion these fact checks can lead to. Donald Trump said a few months ago at an election rally: “So now the Democrats are politicizing the corona virus. You tried the impeachment hoax (...) And that is your new hoax. " The station NBC News then headlined: "Trump calls the corona virus the new hoax of the Democrats." This story was promptly classified as “wrong” by fact checkers on Facebook, just like a report from “Politico”.

But was that a hoax? Is it possible at all to report untruthfully about untruths? Has Trump now called the corona virus a hoax or just the concerns about it? It's hard to get to the core of the meaning. Trump's confused statements do not stand up to heuristic analysis.

The fact that the fact-twister Trump is being strengthened by a fact-checking portal points to the epistemological deformations of the digital public, where true and false no longer seem to be valid description categories for reality. What is the added value of a fact check that declares a true report on the half-true statements of a politician as a hoax? Isn't that a bit “meta” for the common Facebook user? Is it at all right to show what is wrong, to brand what is the - surprisingly little reflected - basic assumption of fact checks? Can't there also be something right in the wrong? Is there a need for a factual TÜV that certifies the facts ex officio?

Of course, fact checks have the noble purpose of exposing falsehoods and lies. But by serving a preselected message board with an instruction leaflet (“misinformation”), you patronize the user - and thus saw the foundation of a rational debate. The individual is no longer trusted to judge what is true and what is false.

The problem with fact checks is that the fact check often represents an expression of opinion which, in the guise of facticity, claims the validity of a "correct" opinion. In the end, the fact checks themselves contribute to the politicization of facts that they actually want to avoid.