Double Check: Are fact checkers the new 'Ministry of Truth'?

By: matthew ross&
February 18 2022

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Double Check: Are fact checkers the new 'Ministry of Truth'?

The Washington Free Beacon, a conservative news outlet, recently published an article about federal funding for harm reduction programs. The article sent shockwaves through the right-wing media sphere. Its headline –“Biden Admin To Fund Crack Pipe Distribution To Advance ‘Racial Equity’” – and accompanying claims caused senior Republicans to tweet that Biden is offering “crack pipes for all.

The fact checking outlet Snopes marked the Beacon story as being "mostly false," because the kits were a very small part of the program itself. Also, the smoking kits used in the harm reduction programs don’t contain “crack” pipes.

Snopes also noted that the Beacon’s implication that this was all that was being done to advance racial equality was inaccurate. The grant’s "terms encouraged recipients to advance racial equity while working for harm reduction, not the other way round — a crucial distinction which many outlets got wrong.” 

The outrage surrounding the story led the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to release a statement clarifying that no federal funds would be used in its harm reduction programs for smoking pipes. In response to this, Snopes changed its rating to "Outdated."

Snopes changing its rating sparked yet more outrage. Right-wing media figures and conservative politicians cited the correction as “proof” that fact checkers are biased, that their activities amount to politically-motivated censorship. However, the reality is that Snopes behaved according to professional fact checking standards and updated its page to reflect the verifiable facts of the story.

Media personalities who promote false and misleading statements tend to be quick to attack anyone who points out their distortions, including professional fact checkers employed by news outlets and social media platforms to identify misinformation and disinformation. 

The most common rhetorical tactics used to attack and discredit fact checkers can be boiled down to three main accusations. 

"Fact checkers are paid shills."

On February 9, 2022, far-right conspiracy theorist Paul Joseph Watson posted a video to his YouTube channel, which was cross-posted to with the headline “Fact Checkers are the Ministry of Truth.”

In the video, Watson uses the story from the Washington Free Beacon to discredit Snopes. He gish galloped his way through a series of instances where Snopes supposedly “got it wrong,” arguing that independent fact checkers can never be trusted. They are "corrupt mouthpieces for the establishment," Watson claimed, in a representative instance of the accusation that the actual role of the fact checker is to serve the interests of shadowy elites.

According to this worldview, fact checkers could be in the thrall of George Soros, the CIA, the Deep State, or perhaps Satan himself and are guilty of confusing, misleading, and outright lying to the public.

The anger in the video’s comment section is palpable: fact checkers are "deceitful," "evil," "lawless," "truth-suppressors," "imposing their beliefs on others," and "damaging every aspect of political life." Comparisons to Hitler and Stalin are commonplace, as are references to the Ministry of Truth.

Watson’s accusation – that fact checkers’ sole purpose is to serve the interests of shadowy elites – is a misrepresentation of something that is actually true: Many fact checking organizations receive outside funding; this  funding often comes from a foundation, think tank, institution, company, or government. 

However, transparency about funding is part of the bedrock for the International Fact Checking Network (IFCN) Code of Principles, to which Logically, Snopes, and many other reputable fact checking organizations are signatories. Another key principle is that the names and professional biographies of all of the fact checkers appear on the page. While it's understandable that some funding sources will make readers suspicious of fact checking organizations' editorial independence, IFCN signatories are committed to letting readers make that judgement for themselves by being as transparent as possible. There is nothing shadowy about this. 

"Fact checks are just opinions."

Freedom of speech, which includes the right to have an opinion, is a foundational principle in many countries. In debates around misinformation and disinformation, terms like “free speech” take on a variety of meanings that are often detached from any individual laws in question.

In Watson’s video, he alleges that fact checkers are motivated by the desire to push stories they do not like down on social media algorithms – a practice he likens to censorship. 

A similar position was taken by former Fox News host John Stossel, who took his war on fact checkers to court, suing Facebook (now Meta) and two non-profit fact checking organizations. Stossel alleged that having fact checks appended to two videos he shared on social media concerning climate change amounts to defamation and led to a decrease in his ad revenue. Facebook responded by filing a motion to dismiss the lawsuit on the grounds that it couldn’t be held liable for independent fact checkers' "protected opinions." Numerous media outlets ran with this wording, crowing that Facebook had admitted that fact checks were "just opinions."

But, of course, the fact checkers were entitled to the same free speech that everyone else is. Science Feedback, one of the fact checkers named in the suit, responded with an explanation of its process and a defense of its rating, which it said was informed opinions based on evidence and the consensus of the scientific community.

Lawsuits against fact checking organizations have been tried before, and the Stossel case is ongoing. Stossel claims his freedom of speech is being censored, despite having access to multiple social media platforms. All opinions might be legally equal, but not all opinions are equally right. 

"Fact checkers are political hacks."

“Wow, turns out fact checkers aren’t neutral bastions of impartiality after all!” Watson sarcastically stated, before repeating the smear that fact checkers are politically-motivated and engage in "agenda-driven censorship."

This point is almost always framed as a "leftist agenda" pushed by "fact checking activists" who deem any contradicting viewpoint as misinformation. These rhetorical frames reinforce the idea that fact checkers are ideological actors, that fact checkers are the ones in need of fact checking because they push "radical left policies" and arbitrarily silence conservative voices while spreading misinformation themselves. 

The question of who gets to judge what is and is not misinformation is an important one, and it is clear that the question is at least in part political.

The question of who gets to judge what is and is not misinformation is an important one, and it is clear that the question is at least in part political. Some things are objectively true or objectively false, but politics comes in when making decisions about which things are important. No one can fact check every claim being made all the time, so media organizations make choices, decide which claims to check and which claims to let slide. 

IFCN signatories have a commitment to nonpartisanship, and must  publish the methodology that they use to select fact checks, and  ensure that they don’t publish too many checks in favor of one party or another, or they risk losing their status. 

“IFCN signatory status may not be granted to organizations whose editorial work is controlled by the state, a political party or politician,” the charter reads. If the organization receives some funding from a government, then it’s okay as long as the auditor from the IFCN “determines there is clear and unambiguous separation of editorial control from state or political influence.”

While constantly accusing fact checkers of being biased, some media personalities engage in rhetoric imbued with their own political biases. This smear is useful when the facts do not conform to espoused political ideas. Partisanship in the media is a real phenomenon, and many outlets have slants. Good faith media criticism is warranted, especially as the line between editorial opinion and factual news reporting is becoming increasingly blurred, further muddying the waters of what is and is not valid. This compounds distrust in the media and exacerbates the information crisis that necessitates fact checking in the first place. 

But these tactics are deployed frequently by propagandists to distract their audiences from the actual content of their claims. By appeals to abstract notions and ad hominem attacks, the substance of the issues at hand can be brushed aside. Journalism costs money; it sometimes has political content and sometimes contains errors. All of these same arguments can be applied to anyone who makes these rhetorical claims against fact checking as a practice, and none of these arguments address the specifics of factual claims.

We at Logically have made our stance on fact checking clear. It is healthy for democratic societies to have transparency and accountability in news reporting and for lies and mistruths not to go unchallenged. Fact checkers and journalists are human beings with blind spots and biases, but by maintaining rigorous standards of conduct and remaining accountable for our words, we participate in good faith within the struggle to get at the truth.

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We rely on information to make meaningful decisions that affect our lives, but the nature of the internet means that misinformation reaches more people faster than ever before