Can fact-checking solve the misinformation pandemic?

Fact-checking is presented as the antidote to misinformation, but it’s not a silver bullet.

The presentation of journalism’s highest honor to what was then a novel idea — using “probing reporters and the power of the World Wide Web to examine … political claims,” as the award described — marked a turning point for the nascent fact-checking industry.

“After [the Pulitzer] there was tremendous interest [in fact-checking] not just across the United States, but around the world,” said Mark Stencel, co-director of the Reporters’ Lab at Duke University, where he researches political fact-checking. “And we suddenly had this explosion of fact-checking that has grown into the journalism movement that it is today.”

Despite the growth in their ranks, fact-checkers are overwhelmed. Their numbers are dwarfed by the volume of misinformation spreading across the internet, often onto cable TV and into the real world — more effectively than ever before.

Over the last decade, researchers have tested how well fact-checking works at changing minds and behaviors. They’ve discovered that fact-checking does make us better informed, but whether or not we change our behavior is a different story. It turns out misinformation is not just about what we know is true or false.

“The science is clear that we don’t proceed from facts to opinions,” said Brendan Nyhan, a political scientist at Dartmouth College who has extensively studied online misinformation. “In the case of promoting vaccination, for example, more information is not necessarily the solution.”

Fact-checking is also dwarfed by the sheer scale of misinformation and disinformation campaigns. What’s more, dutiful fact-checks are not always reaching the right audience. In an increasingly fragmented media landscape, this weakens the opportunity for a diverse polity to believe they share truth.

As misinformation dominates the public debate over many of the most important issues of our time, including covid-19 and vaccination, it’s worth looking at to what extent fact-checking is the right tool to meet the challenges of the moment — and what else is needed.

Fact-checking can change minds

Fact-checks “reduce false beliefs, full stop,” said Ethan Porter, who leads the Misinformation/Disinformation Lab at George Washington University’s Institute for Data, Democracy and Politics. “Compared to someone who has seen the misinformation without a fact-check … people who see just a fact-check are more accurate as a result.”

Published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the study looked at fact-checks in Argentina, Nigeria, South Africa and the U.K. in the fall of 2020, covering topics including covid-19, economics and politics. According to that study, fact-checking decreased people’s reception to misinformation, and misinformation did not significantly sway participants overall.

Fact-checking can expire

“Scientifically, we’re quite confident that at least when people see accurate, factual information, it does improve the accuracy of the factual beliefs,” said Nyhan. “The effects aren’t necessarily massive. And, importantly, they don’t always last.”

And the “hostile media effect” — wherein people on opposing sides of an issue find the same information to be counter to or biased against their respective worldviews — holds true for fact-checks as well. Consequently, some people can view fact-checks that challenge their existing opinions as partisan.

In the face of these stakes, this tool’s shortcomings are serious, too. One of the biggest criticisms of third-party fact-checking is that it’s simply not reaching the people who most need it. The audience for stand-alone fact-checks is skewed, with self-identified liberals and registered Democrats more likely to interact with and buy explanations from fact-checkers. And perhaps most distressingly, even if people have the correct facts in front of them, it doesn’t necessarily influence their behavior.

“One of the big concerns that all of us in the fact-checking world have and share is a concern that the people who are reading this journalism are not necessarily the people who need it most — that the message, the corrections and amplifications and clarifications that come out of these journalistic fact-checks … doesn’t always reach the public that needs it most,” Stencel said.

Consumption of fact-checking also skews toward people who are already more politically engaged, “the most likely to have strong predispositions in the first place, and therefore to know which candidates they support,” Nyhan added.

“When it comes to actually having contact with that kind of deep-in-the-weeds political content, that’s just not something normal people do,” he said.

Misinformation isn’t just about what is true and what is false

Perhaps the most beguiling aspect of misinformation is the extent to which truth isn’t always the key to behavior. In fact, research suggests that debunking a false claim might not even be the answer to changing how we think and act on important issues.

Information is instead up against a bevy of psychological and personal reasons why people make the choices they do, like community and cultural norms, and religious and identitarian beliefs.

“It’s not obvious that the best way to get people vaccinated is to focus on debunking misperceptions about the efficacy of vaccines,” Nyhan said. “People have lots of reasons for the attitudes they hold. They have lots of reasons for the behaviors they engage in. Knocking out one particular factual claim doesn’t necessarily change their minds.”

Social media can exacerbate people’s reliance on intuition and emotion when choosing what kind of information to share with peers, Rand and Pennycook argue — even if people do not seek to share incorrect information.

This belief corresponds some with party affiliation: 70 percent of Republicans believe fact-checkers are not one-sided, compared with 29 percent of Democrats.

Fact-checking operations were set up in a specific media landscape. New players have accelerated the challenge.

The sites were an outgrowth of a response to a culture of nastiness that took hold during the 1988 presidential campaign. During that time, journalists and scholars, including Kathleen Hall Jamieson, now of the Annenberg School of Communications at the University of Pennsylvania, argued that “there’s a journalistic obligation here to adjudicate matters that are consequential,” in Hall Jamieson’s words.

From there, similar sites popped up, including the Pulitzer-winning PolitiFact, which operates local partnerships and ranks statements on a Truth-O-Meter. Reuters, the Associated Press and Agence France-Presse operate fact-checking arms, and projects have cropped up worldwide.

According to those criteria, nearly 350 such projects operate in at least 102 countries worldwide, with more than 60 based in the United States.

Many of these global operations developed in response to a particular media landscape — one that has shifted dramatically with the advent of social media.

Many experts question the scale of these approaches, however, and their efficacy in reaching non-English speaking audiences. Fact-checking on Facebook does not reach the level of individual posts or infiltrate private groups devoted to sharing misinformation, for example.

“You now have the capacity to microtarget [misinformation] to very limited parts of the audience, and the fact-checkers can’t even find the stuff, so by the time the fact-checkers find it, it’s had its impact,” Hall Jamieson said. “So the partnerships between the fact-checking community and Facebook, for example, are actually really important, because it increases the likelihood the fact-checkers can find it before it really starts to go viral.”

And some experts have criticized platforms, particularly Facebook, for not doing enough to counteract the harm on their platforms.

“If that company truly cares about the cause of a well-informed public, it should bear the cost of bringing fact checks in front of the people who would benefit most from seeing them — the people who have been exposed to misinformation,” they wrote.

The fact-checkers themselves are aware of these challenges and considering ways to make the tool more accessible and appealing.

“Maybe there’s other formats to use, or maybe there are ways to generate fact-checks that appeal to, that are structured in a way that engage a suspicious reader,” Stencel said. “Almost every fact-check will walk you through the methodology of the fact-check. But maybe if you don’t declare the outcome at the beginning of it, you can get someone to walk through the evidence and maybe go, ‘OK, that makes sense to me.’”

And still, the global fact-checking industry continues to grow. Facebook and Twitter are expanding their reliance on this tool to quell misinformation on their platforms.

But none of these innovations solves the broader crisis facing media as a whole, like low levels of public trust and extreme polarization.

Without a more systemic approach to the issue, fact-checkers are ultimately left to play Whac-A-Mole with new claims. But the claims will keep coming.

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