PolitiFact – exposing lies in politics

One of the most wonderful internet projects I’ve ever seen is PolitiFact – just look at the depth of it; no wonder it is a winner of Pulitzer Prize!

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Its primary ambition: to remedy the false information spread by politicians. According to PolitiFact statement:

“Every day, reporters and researchers from PolitiFact and its partner news organization examine statements by members of Congress, state legislators, governors, mayors, the president, cabinet secretaries, lobbyists, people who testify before Congress and anyone else who speaks up in American politics. We research their statements and then rate the accuracy on our Truth-O-Meter – True, Mostly True, Half True, Mostly False and False. The most ridiculous falsehoods get our lowest rating, Pants on Fire.”

To my mind that is a truly great thing about the Truth-O-Meter – it allows more nuances in fact evaluations than just true/false. The truth, after all, should rather be imagined as a spectrum, a matter of degree. And as you can see in the screenshot above,  the nuanced evaluation does not make the evaluation unduly complicated – on the contrary, it allows more space not just for more subtle distinctions, but also humor.

Each fact gets thoroughly researched – I’ve seen many articles where sources number more than 20.  There is always the name of the person who has written that specific article. See below how a typical Truth-O-Metter looks like.

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Returning again to their self-description:

PolitiFact writers and editors spend considerable time researching and deliberating on our rulings. We always try to get the original statement in its full context rather than an edited form that appeared in news stories. We then divide the statement into individual claims that we check separately. When possible, we go to original sources to verify the claims. We look for original government reports rather than news stories. We interview impartial experts.

The thing that I particularly like about Politifact website: it is not just the politicians whose statement gets subjected to truth-check. The team also looks at other opinion makers that influence political attitudes, such as political chain-mails (their truth record is quite atrocious!) and  pundits (see, for example, how Nobel laureate Paul Krugman is doing truth-wise)!

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There are two more interesting parts in PolitiFact: 1) Flip-O-Meter; 2)  Pledge-O-Meter.

Flip-O-Metter has to do with a politician flipping on his/hers previous statements:

Like our Truth-O-Meter, the Flip-O-Meter begins with good journalism. When a candidate is accused of flipping, reporters and researchers examine the candidates’ statements and voting records. Have they hedged their words over time? Shifted their tone? Changed their voting patterns? Then, we rate whether the candidate has truly flipped: No Flip – No substantial change of position. The candidate has been consistent. Half Flip – A partial change of position or inconsistent statements. Full Flop – A major reversal of position; a complete flip-flop.

See in the screenshot below how two of leading US politicians have flipped on their previous statements about gay marriage or abortion: PolitiFact has the full story and analysis on those flip-flops.

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Pledge-O-Metter is about tracking politician’s promises! See how Obameter looks like!

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So in all it an excellent public accountability tool – that allows voters and media to get a quality information on the truth and falsehood of various political statements, prevents politicians from getting away with spreading false information (that might get on their permanent record via PolitiFact!), and does all this in a considered, nuanced way that respects the complexities of social and political domain.

I only wish we had one in Latvia!

[Iveta]

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