Fact Checking a “Fact Checker” – An Example of How Those Unwanted Additions on Your Social Media Posts are Often More Misleading than Genuinely Informative

The recent pandemic saw the spread of more than just a virus – an increased amount of health-related, government-approved propaganda proliferated as well. As autumn approaches and some governing jurisdictions begin to bring back face mask mandates and other health restrictions in various forms around the US, we will inevitably start to see opposition to, and defense of, such coercive measures again in the news. While these decisions are framed mostly as based on scientific need by government agencies and their defenders in mainstream media, there is undoubtedly a political and ideological dimension to them as well; this is where the focus should be.

One of the most interesting aspects of the propaganda push by authorities and their media backers to “nudge” acceptance and compliance with their preferred policy is the use of “fact checkers” in social media. As we now know from journalist John Stossel’s court case, companies like Facebook consider these “fact checkers” as amounting to little more than third party opinion. But that does not stop legacy media and social media giants from using them to discount or “debunk” any information deemed deviant from the official approved narrative (and punish those that dare to convey it).

It matters little whether the reasoning in the so-called “fact check” is convincing, or the argument is even valid and sound. What matters is the headline, the label, and the implication. It is a numbers game. Audiences have been conditioned to see the “fact check” warning on any given post as an instant indicator of “misinformation” being propagated by undesirables and conspiracy theorists. Even the most obscure posts sometimes get a “fact check,” and posts that only make observations and suggestions for further contemplation. It doesn’t much matter, the thinking goes, if a few people see through the faulty reasoning or understand the “fact check” is little more than a certain perspective; most people will instantly believe what the “fact checkers” want believed by the presence of the label alone.

But this doesn’t mean you shouldn’t fact check the “fact checkers” yourself. You can learn a lot by dissecting their work and analyzing their methods, On any given topic, hopefully whatever the shortcoming of understanding in the open debate, you can spread a bit of real truth or expand consideration of possibilities to others.

Fact Checking a Fact Check

To illustrate the above, let’s take a look at a typical “fact check” and consider it from various perspectives. This one is from PolitiFact and you can find the full article here. Read it first.

Here is a screenshot of the “viral image” they are “fact checking.”

PolitiFact claims the post “misleads” about COVID-19 using tuberculosis data. As we will see, if the “viral image” is deemed “misleading,” so must PolitiFact’s article itself.

The article’s author concludes it is “mostly false” to point out that there have always been other diseases caused by various pathogens, such as tuberculosis, that lead to infections and death and there has not generally been calls to resort to universal mask mandates in a manner that has become prevalent since COVID-19. The article also mentions the implication that such COVID-related mask mandates are the result of media campaigns this time around, suggesting political motivations.

The author states that the tuberculosis statistics cited in the claims are correct but takes issue with a difference in prevalence between the US and other areas of the world. But if this was sufficient to debunk the initial claim, then authorities must recommend masks in those parts of the world for tuberculosis in the same manner as we are in the US with COVID right? The author states authorities do recommend masks for tuberculosis and links to a WHO document for proof. But if you read the document, they do not recommend universal masking of the general population to slow or stop tuberculosis. They only recommend masking “applies to individuals with confirmed or presumed TB in all health care settings, as well as to such individuals in other settings with a high risk of M. tuberculosis transmission.” The document also only recommends surgical masks, not the patchwork of cloth or other coverings that have been recommended and continue to be accepted here in the US.

Another massive difference is the nature of the pathogen. Mycobacterium tuberculosis is a bacteria and each rod is 2-4 micrometers in length and 0.2-0.5 micrometers in width. That is a lot larger than a coronavirus with a 20-500 nanometer diameter. They also behave differently and the limited effectiveness of surgical masks depends greatly on this difference. If surgical masks have not been recommended for the general population to slow or stop transmission of the larger TB bacteria in areas of high prevalence, it doesn’t follow that they (or cloth masks) should automatically be recommended in the US for smaller coronaviruses.

If anything, the author helped prove there may be different motivations behind masking guidelines in the US similar to that suggested in the original material. But the author did not get into fact-checking any political motivations, which was the actual implication made in the “viral image.”

So the reasoning for the author’s “mostly false” rating of the original material does not hold up. Really, it is not the type of material that can be rated as “mostly false” or “mostly true” because it was meant to be a part of a larger argument and point of view, not a straight-forward end of the line statement. The author’s clarification that the material is “misleading” is also curious, especially given that her own “fact-check” could be considered equally misleading.

This highlights the problem of these “fact-checkers” in modern media. They get the bang they want from their sensationalist headlines and labels without having to put in the work to really prove their point or address the totality of the issue. To be fair, the original material was not a complete argument either, but it did not claim to be.

How to Approach “Fact Checks”

Read them! As much as you might wish they would go away, they probably will not any time soon. Powerful people with a lot of money and big ambitions have an interest in shaping public opinion for a variety of reasons. Companies have also protected themselves legally by using third parties to do their dirty work. So what should an objective observer do? First, determine whether the information being “fact checked” is actually something that can be straight checked as “true” or “false.” Sometimes the fact checkers are actually correct and they may point you to legitimate information that can confirm it. These “straight fact checks” are where the usefulness of these people ends.

If the information being “fact checked” is anything more, that is, if it is part of a larger perspective, or is in itself a legitimate opinion, then the “fact checker” might be taking liberties with the subjective nature of the material to present their differing viewpoint as true and the original content as false. This is especially true for their ambiguous “Mostly False,” “Partially True,” and “Missing Context” labels. Did they leave out relevant information? Did they focus on the important part? Are they concentrating on one academic discipline and ignoring the concerns of others when it comes to multifaceted issues? Are they assuming the truth of one worldview or perspective and discounting others? These are all important questions to ask yourself as you read their work. One thing is for sure, if you do not read their “fact checks” and oppose the bad ones in some way, they will feel free to continue their tactics of blitzing people’s newsfeeds hoping to shift the opinions of enough of the unthinking masses to achieve their political or ideological goals.

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