Your own facts
Does the 2016 election mark the end of objective truth?
—Daniel Patrick Moynihan
Aletter from a reader caught my eye this week. “I’m having trouble trying to understand some of the writings that folks are sending in regarding the voting count,” the reader wrote. “In the popular vote Mr. Trump received 62,972,266 votes [and] Ms. Clinton received 62,277,750. So ... he received 694,516 votes more than she did.”
This one would be easy to clear up, I figured, since that’s simply not true. I wrote back with the numbers as tallied by CNN, which at that point has Ms. Clinton up 61,329,657 to 60,530,867. Figuring that might be considered a liberal source, I added that Fox News had the exact same numbers. I provided links to both and to an article on Politifact debunking the notion that Mr. Trump was winning in the popular vote count.
An hour later, the person wrote back: “According to Snopes.com and not a Democratic sponsor group CNN you are incorrect.” I replied that Fox News surely couldn’t be considered a Democratic site and added a link to a Washington Post article explaining the origin of the numbers the reader cited. According to The Post, the top link on Google search for “final election results” was at one point a fake news site called 70News, which cited as its source a tweet by a random guy named Michael who posts a wide variety of conspiracy minded material, including assorted anti-Muslim and anti-Semitic content.
Interestingly, Snopes.com does have a story about this, but it serves to debunk the very point the reader made. Noting that final totals aren’t yet in for all states, it says, “Hillary Clinton apparently won the popular vote by a considerable margin but lost the election to opposing candidate Donald Trump.”
Should I have been surprised by this exchange? Probably not. After all, Mr. Trump won the presidency despite being the all-time “pants on fire” champion from the fact-checking website Politifact, which found that 70 percent of the 334 statements of his that it sought to verify were mostly false or worse. Politifact checked out 293 things Ms. Clinton said and found 75 percent of them to be half-true or better. Two percent of her statements earned “pants on fire status” compared to 17 percent of his.
I called Bill Adair, the former Tampa Bay Times reporter who founded Politifact, to see whether his spirits had been crushed by this election. Now a journalism professor at Duke, he says he is actually heartened to the degree that this election saw an explosion of fact-checking across the media. In many cases, it’s no longer just the province of sites like Politifact but is being baked into standard reporting. If a lie can get halfway around the world while the truth is still pulling on its boots (a maxim whose origin is, appropriately, murky), good, real-time fact checking can close the gap.
If anyone believes it, that is. This election exposed the degree to which voters are willing to express profound skepticism about mainstream news sources while exhibiting utter credulity for information disseminated by little-known and blatantly partisan sources if it supports their prejudices. Mr. Adair says he first noticed the phenomenon when covering President George W. Bush’s re-election campaign in 2004. He would ask Bush voters where they got their news, and they would say from Rush Limbaugh’s radio show but that they also watched Fox News to make sure their sources were balanced. Now, with the explosion of social media, matters have gotten much worse.
Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg has been resistant to the idea that his site played a role in influencing the election, but the company has nonetheless updated its policies to try to prevent fake news sites from profiting from Facebook advertising. Google is doing the same. Whether that will make a difference remains to be seen, but it at least shows them creeping closer to a crucial understanding: They are publishers, whether they like it or not, and they bear some responsibility for the information they disseminate.
We in the traditional media obviously have a role here. Coverage of this election was heavy on analysis of the outrage du jour and its effect on the horse race and light on digging into the substance of the issues at stake. We need to do better, but so do individual consumers of news. They need to start asking questions about whether what they’re reading and watching is substantiated or if it just repeats what they want to hear. The Internet can make the fake look credible, but it also gives anyone the power to check the facts. Watch the raw video. Go to the source. Think The New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, Associated Press, Politico, CNN, Fox News, NBC, ABC and CBS are wrong about who won the popular vote? Go to the websites for state election boards and check. (I did, and yes, Hillary Clinton got more votes.)
“I hope that we can establish new norms, new expectations and understanding about partisan news,” Mr. Adair says. “Partisan news sources are a big cause of the division in this country. We can’t have a conversation if we can’t agree on the same facts.”