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The Fifth Wave: Who Fact-Checks the Fact-Checkers?
In the panic that followed the 2016 election, Facebook and other tech platforms instituted “fact-checking” to appease political, media and other elites eager to reassert control of national narratives
The election of Donald Trump in 2016 triggered an epistemological panic among the people in charge of our institutions. Truth had crumbled into post-truth. News had been perverted into fake news. Facts now spawned in disreputable corners to confuse rather than inform and guide the public.
A guilty party was immediately identified: the great digital platforms, Facebook above all, that conveyed astronomical volumes of information to the public beyond the reach of elite influence or control. Enormous pressure was applied by members of Congress, presidential candidates, media figures, academics, even Hollywood stars, to tame Facebook, Google and Twitter. With the advent of Covid-19 and the approaching 2020 presidential election, the parent companies of the digital platforms found it the better part of wisdom to capitulate. Last to surrender was Twitter, in August 2021.
And so the platforms became the guardians of truth—only they were unable to think at any level higher than “facts.” Truth was hard but somehow facts were easy—all you had to do was verify them. In this manner the booming “fact-checking” industry began its peculiar career.
But how do facts relate to truth? That question can’t be detached from the iron bonds of culture and history. So allow me, good reader, a brief detour through the genealogy of facts.
Science, Faith and Facts
In the Aristotelian universe that Christianity took over with a few minor edits, everything, including human beings, had an end purpose, a telos, and every statement of fact implied a judgment based on that purpose. By measuring proximity to the telos, facts were considered the building-blocks of the moral framework of the world.
By the time of the skeptical Enlightenment, however, philosophers were denying the idea of a telos and an objective moral framework and affirming the freedom of individuals to choose from a multitude of purposes. The facts had nothing to say in that quest—because, as David Hume famously declared, one cannot derive an ought from an is. Facts were neutral and inert. They lay embedded in reality, like an ore, until science extracted and smelted them into truth.
But how do brute facts become potent truths? In high school science, I was taught that reflection on the data would somehow engender a guess about the truth: a hypothesis. But if facts are neutral and inert, that’s not a coherent explanation. And if we observe how scientists actually work, we soon learn to invert the equation: The hypothesis precedes the facts and is interested only in facts of a certain kind.
Facts exist at the speculative frontier of the great frameworks of truth erected by science—what Thomas Kuhn, scholar of scientific revolutions, called “paradigms.” They matter only if they support or falsify the framework.
How do scientists choose between competing frameworks of truth? Kuhn speaks of a “transfer of allegiance” based in part on “faith that the new paradigm will succeed with the many large problems that confront it, knowing only that the older paradigm has failed with a few. A decision of that kind,” he concludes, “can only be made on faith.”
It sounds subjective, almost political—which is to say that the search for truth is an all-too-human adventure. Ordinary persons, no less than scientists, are along for the ride. I have never seen an atom or visited China—but I have faith in the sources that tell me such things exist. In the end, the answer to, “What is truth?” mostly hinges on another question: “Who decides?” The line between knowledge and power is blurry at best.
Tech Lords, Media Zombies and Fact-checkers
We can see that the obsession of Facebook and Twitter with fact-checking was based on the usual misunderstanding of the scientific method. They considered facts to be neutral and inert, simple to prove or disprove without much ideological fuss. Unfortunately, that only works if all of us agree on the framework of truth that integrates the facts—and it is precisely the disintegration of these frameworks in the digital age that triggered the epistemic crisis. In every domain, the ruling paradigms have lost their hold—but there has been no paradigm shift, only noise and struggle.
Given the lack of a framework, the answer to, “Who decides?” could only be partial and arbitrary. The public could decide, either directly, by the facts it valued, or in some algorithmic form. That would spin democratic society into a massive transactional churn, in which the truth of any proposition would go up or down unpredictably like the stock market. Whether such an arrangement would end in anything other than anarchy is an interesting question.
And, of course, the elites who run our modern institutions could decide. They did so in the last century, when government, media and the scientific establishment were the unchallenged arbiters of truth. The elites have endured a collapse of status and authority, but they retain their hold on the levers of power. For good reasons and bad, they wish to impose truth from above on the masses. Democratic society in this scheme would resemble a zombie movie version of the 20th century: Camelot of the living dead.
There can be little doubt that the lords of Silicon Valley, proprietors of the digital platforms, felt the need to appease the politicians in Washington and accommodate their own young, progressive workforces. The move to fact-checking begged many awkward questions about our post-truth moment but was flattering to the elites, who expected, as pedigreed “experts,” that the task of fact-checking would fall to them. In this they were correct.
Remarkably, Facebook, Twitter and Google have subcontracted fact-checking to the news media—more accurately, to a handful of traditional media players clustered around the Poynter Institute, including Reuters, the Associated Press and Agence France-Presse. There could be no pretense of impartiality in the choice: Since 2016, the media has served as the attack dogs of the elite class. It commoditized opposition to Trump into a business proposition, as old-fashioned journalism, with its veneer of objectivity, gave way to a post-journalism that preached polarization to anxious liberals.
The public has hardly applauded this transformation: According to a recent survey by public relations firm Edelman, roughly six-in-ten Americans believe they are being lied to by journalists. But fact-checking was never an attempt to regain the public’s trust. It was an exchange of protection for status, with a lot of money thrown into the bargain. To the question, “Who decides?” the semi-dead news media, with the blessing of the tech lords, returned a zombie growl: “We do.”
Politics, Truth and Consequences
Under such conditions, the facts will always favor the left side of the argument. Matt Taibbi tells a story about a peer-reviewed article that questioned the data integrity of Pfizer’s Covid-19 vaccine trials. Because two notorious anti-vax figures shared the article, Facebook’s fact-checkers condemned it as “missing context” and restricted access to it. When the author queried Facebook, the company responded with a number of false claims about the content of the article. When these claims were refuted, the fact-checkers charged the author with not being “unreservedly supportive” of the Pfizer vaccine. The “missing context” tag, Taibbi observes, “should be understood for what it is: an intellectual warning label for true but politically troublesome information.”
Bjorn Lomborg, a perfectly orthodox believer in climate change but a dissenter on what to do about it, had his comment on Facebook fact-checked as “misinformation” because it cited a peer-reviewed study that concluded more people died from cold weather than hot. During the 2020 presidential election, Twitter blocked a New York Post article with embarrassing information about Hunter Biden’s laptop—information Twitter founder Jack Dorsey later admitted was accurate. All the platforms blocked or flagged any claim that a leak from a lab in Wuhan might be the origin of Covid-19, because Trump favored that theory. The list of such incidents is long. In Aristotelian fashion, facts are once again oriented toward a telos: the end of Trumpism.
An article in Scientific American on the psychology of fact-checking concedes that the activity is subjective and “messy” and recommends “adversarial fact-checking.” Maybe teams of conservatives should fact-check the liberal media checkers—and libertarians would then fact-check the conservatives—and Marxists would do the same to the libertarians—and so on in an infinite regress until everyone on earth is checking the truth of what everyone else has posted online. I know certain denizens of the web who have already ascended to this ideal existence.
Even in such a fact-checking utopia, nothing would change. The quarrel today is not over facts but over the process that produces facts. The failure to agree occurs, and will continue to occur, because there’s no framework of agreement. Until one is found that can survive the rigors of the digital storm, the elite panic will only intensify.
In my last contribution to this space I wrote that news, fake or real, rarely changes the public’s mind. That is not to say that the current use of “facts” as political weapons lacks consequences. When you drive your opponents out of the public square, they will gather somewhere. If you push Trumpists out of Facebook and Twitter, they could well show up in 4chan. If you silence Trump under the spotlight of social media, you reward QAnon in the shadows. The evident corruption of the elites with regard to the truth has given rise to a cognitive underclass that believes in nothing and thus might believe in anything.
The first step out of the labyrinth is for the public to insist that digital platforms live up to the open society in which they operate. However, we are unlikely to arrive at the endgame until the shock of a powerful paradigm shift—say, Web 3.0—does to Facebook and Google exactly what they did to the newsprint version of the media.