The night of November 8, 2016, was a painful one for just over half the people who voted in the US presidential election. Many fact-checking journalists – even the ones who managed to stay impartial – had their heads in their hands too. Because for the second time in a year, a major world political event had ended with victory for the side that told the most lies.
Whatever you felt about the case for and against Brexit, or the relative merits of Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, there can be little dispute that the campaigns did not play by the same rules of truthfulness.
Without the firepower of Treasury number crunchers and economics think-tanks on their side, Vote Leave built the Brexit campaign around one big, resounding number: Britain was sending the EU £350m a week, which could be spent on the NHS instead. This was of course, nonsense, as everyone from the UK Statistics Authority to the Treasury select committee pointed out (fact-checkers saw this one coming a long way off: it was a variation of an old canard circulated by UKIP years before the Referendum).
In America, the country that invented fact-checking journalism, reporters started nailing Trump’s frequent falsehoods from day one of his campaign. By election night, news desks buckled under the weight of bulging dossiers of mendacity.
But fact-checking proved to have very little answer when confronted with naked shamelessness. The campaigners knew their veracity was being questioned, and took no effort to correct themselves or even offer a coherent defence. Statements that had been proved blatantly untrue became central to both the Trump and Brexit campaigns. This wasn’t supposed to happen. Fact-checking had been around for a decade or so but came into its own last year, regularly breaking into prime- time TV on both sides of the Atlantic for the first time. It should have made a difference.
The concept of fact-checking rests on a number of assumptions: lying is a bad thing; we can generally agree that certain things are demonstrably true or false; the public don’t like being lied to; prominent people don’t like being called liars and will therefore be more careful in the future. In their most high-minded moments, fact-checkers like to think that they are raising the standard of public discourse, encouraging politicians to be more honest and promoting evidence-based thinking. All of these assumptions came under extreme pressure in 2016. Did fact-checking fail as a concept, then? Should we all give up?
First of all, we have to be honest about the scale of the challenges we face.
What do fact-checkers actually do? We take the statements, claims and narratives that shape public debate and we check them against the best evidence available. Very often, this means consulting experts. How else do you sensibly tackle questions of climate science, international law, epidemiology and other highly specialised fields? If, as Michael Gove put it, people really have "had enough of experts", there is very little fact-checkers can offer them. We have no real answer to anti-intellectualism.
It’s also hard for us to reject the criticism that we are part of a loosely-defined "liberal elite" class that is being attacked by populist political movements and punished by voters around the world. In a sense, journalists are reaping what we sowed here. After all, fact-checking is predicated on the idea that politicians are habitually dishonest and often lie to voters for self-serving reasons. It served our purpose to promote this kind of mistrust in authority, but now readers are extending the scepticism to include the media too.
For journalists who joined the profession for idealistic reasons, we liked to think that we were holding the establishment to account. It is painful to realise that viewers and readers increasingly see us as being part of the establishment.
Look at the big fact-checking organisations in Britain and America and you see a pattern. Who funds these operations? Universities, NGOs, media organisations with ties to the state, newspapers and broadcasters that are widely perceived to have a liberal bias. For a great deal of people, organisations like Channel 4 News, the BBC, the Washington Post and Politifact personify the liberal elite. The accusation often levelled against us that we are sanctimonious and superior. It is particularly hard to refute this when you are doing journalism that points out other people’s errors and falsehoods.
It’s also hard to say for sure whether fact-checking works. Academics, mostly in the US, have started to try to measure the effects on readers and politicians but the evidence is a mixed bag so far.
Researchers have found that some politicians watch their words more carefully if they fear being fact-checked – but others twist the findings of fact-checkers dishonestly to attack their opponents.
The extent to which fact-check articles are widely read and believed is still being investigated. Different studies have disagreed on whether fact-checking can even backfire by reinforcing false beliefs in some readers.
Reasons to be cheerful
I’m going to suggest why fact-checkers should keep calm and carry on after their annus horribilis, and a potential way forward that might answer some of our critics. The main reason to carry on exposing falsehoods is that there are people who obviously want us to stop, and those people may not have our best interests at heart.
Donald Trump’s presidential campaign saw an onslaught on the truth from both the campaign itself and from counterfeit news sites peddling an outlandish string of hoaxes and fabrications, most of them rabidly pro-Trump.
"Fake news" became the phrase of the moment – a problem over which politicians, journalists and internet giants began to wring their hands. The phrase quickly became devalued through overuse – and twisted and weaponised by some, notably Trump himself. But fact-checkers know what we mean by fake news: fabrication, hoax and propaganda that masquerades as honest reportage, and
cloaks itself in some of the trappings of traditional journalism.
I found it frightening to see how quickly a sense of hopelessness spread around newsrooms at the end of 2016, fuelled by a nihilistic strain of commentary. We were now living in a "post-truth" age where facts didn’t matter, or where the evidence of the eyes could be disputed with Orwellian "alternative facts". Some of my colleagues rushed to embrace this pessimism with indecent haste, as though the ascent of a celebrity property developer to the US presidency was a good reason to abandon concepts of truth and objectivity that had served western civilisation for millennia.
But until we know whether we are really dealing with a genuine organic loss of faith in our traditional standards of democracy and journalism or a determined campaign to undermine that faith and warp our perception of the public mood, we would do well to hold our nerve.
Why else should we carry on with fact-checking initiatives in particular? Because we know that there is a growing public appetite for it. Channel 4 News ran a string of video explainers in the run-up to the EU Referendum that was some of our most widely shared and watched content, racking up millions of views on Facebook, our main social media platform. Experimenting with different formats paid off: there was a huge demand for informative journalism that debunked myths and falsehoods.
In the US, fact-checkers reported similar success. Both new formats like live-blogs written to comment on televised debates, and traditional long-form articles, attracted record numbers of readers. At the very moment when fact-checkers were plagued by existential doubts about our usefulness, we found that the public were more interested in our work than ever.
The most pressing reason to carry on pointing out falsehoods, even when politicians and voters don’t appear to care, is that it’s the right thing to do. Stop meticulously detailing Trump’s falsehoods, and lies become the new normal. Fail to point out that some people who called for Brexit did so on a false prospectus, and you embolden those individuals.
Of course it’s possible to be pessimistic about the current state of the world, but this is often based on an assumption that things can’t change. The journalist’s habitual pessimism is usually wrong. Wars and famines come to an end eventually. Conflicts that appear intractable get resolved. No president stays in the White House forever and no political trend remains in the ascendant for long. There’s no inherent reason why the public’s lost faith in the media cannot be restored, with a big collective effort.
How does fact-checking in particular move forward now? One answer I am groping towards as I sit at my desk is that we need to radically change our relationship with readers and viewers, becoming enablers of the public rather than informers. The most successful recent video we made at Channel 4 News was one telling people how to do their own fact-checking, spotting fake news stories using simple internet search techniques. The message was: we are not asking you to trust us as a brand or claiming to have access to secret information or skills. We are sharing the tools we have with you.
A new kind of journalism based on this kind of humility is an attractive but challenging idea: more guides, fewer splashes. More open source investigations, less privileged access to power. We would be educating and empowering people, rather than dazzling them with exclusives from secret sources. We would have to be more candid about the limits of our knowledge and resources.
It will be a tough transition to make, but the prize is a world where fact-checking stops being a niche pursuit for journalists and becomes a reflexive habit for everyone. And that’s how we kill lies and fake news.
Patrick Worrall is a senior producer at Channel 4 News, where he is currently most associated with the programme’s FactCheck section.
This piece is an extract from "Brexit, Trump and the Media", edited by John Mair, Tor Clark, Neil Fowler, Raymond Snoddy and Richard Tait, Abramis Academic Publishing, Bury St Edmunds. Available to Journalism.co.uk readers at the special price of £15.00 from firstname.lastname@example.org.