Your own facts

Does the 2016 elec­tion mark the end of ob­jec­tive truth?

Baltimore Sun - - MARYLAND VOICES - “Ev­ery­one is en­ti­tled to his own opin­ion, but not to his own facts.” —An­drew A. Green

—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.”

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