THE WASHINGTON FOREIGN PRESS CENTER, WASHINGTON, D.C. (Virtual)
MODERATOR: Good morning and welcome to the latest briefing in the Washington Foreign Press Center’s 2022 Midterm Election series. I’d like to welcome our regular members as well as overseas journalists. My name is Jen McAndrew, and I am the moderator. First I will introduce our briefers, and then I will give the ground rules.
In today’s briefing on fact-checking and countering misinformation, journalists will hear from two leading U.S. experts dedicated to providing accurate and objective information about U.S. elections. With us today are Dr. Kathleen Hall Jamieson, professor of communication at University of Pennsylvania and co-founder of FactCheck.org, a project of the Annenberg Public Policy Center. A leading expert on the science of communication and countering misinformation, she has authored or co-authored 16 books, most recently, Creating Conspiracy Beliefs: How Our Thoughts Are Shaped.
We also have Angie Drobnic Holan, editor in chief of PolitiFact, a project of the Poynter Institute. She has extensive experience fact-checking the presidency, Congress, and political campaigns, and was a reporter of the Politifact team that won the Pulitzer Prize for National Reporting on the 2008 U.S. presidential election. She also serves on the advisory board of the International Fact-Checking Network. I’d like to thank both of our briefers for sharing their expertise today.
And now for the ground rules. This briefing is on the record. The views of our independent experts are their own, and if they are not affiliated with the Department of State, they do not necessarily reflect those of the Department of State or the U.S. Government. Participation in Foreign Press Center programming does not imply endorsement, approval, or recommendation of their views. We will post the transcript of this briefing later today on our website.
Our briefers will give a presentation, and then we’ll open it up for questions. If you’d like to ask a question, you can use either the raise hand function or submit your question in the Q&A box. If you’re called on, we’ll ask you to unmute yourself to ask your question.
And with that, I will pass it over to our first presenter, Angie Drobnic Holan. Over to you.
MS HOLAN: Thank you, Jen, and thank you so much for inviting me to speak today. I’m going to talk briefly about midterm elections, how they work, how I think about them as a fact-checking journalists, and just go through some of the nuts and bolts of fact-checking an election and how we think about covering this. And I’m really looking forward to the question portion of this briefing, so please do think about what your questions will be.
So the midterm elections are something that PolitiFact has covered every year since we’ve been in existence. So we started in 2007. That means our first midterms were 2010 with Barack Obama, and then we’ve covered them ever since. This year, in 2022, we’ll be covering them again. Now, we have elections in both chambers for Congress. So the U.S. House of Representatives, all 435 members are up for election – and these are in districts all across the country – and then about a third of the Senate seats. So all Americans will be able to vote for their U.S. House members, and about a third of people will be thinking – not a third of people, but a third of the states will be electing senators.
And what this means is that control of Congress is up for grabs. So right now the Democrats hold the U.S. House of Representatives, and they have a very slim tie-breaking control of the Senate from Vice President Kamala Harris. So with these elections in November, it will determine control of Congress for the next two years, starting in January.
So I – let me just start with a little bit of political punditry and the predictions. Right now I would say the common wisdom among journalists is that the Republicans are better positioned than the Democrats to take control of one or both chambers. But I should warn you, U.S. politics has been very unpredictable of late, so I would not put a lot of stock in this.
The common wisdom is: if the president is one party, his party will likely lose seats in the midterms. It just seems to be something that we’ve seen happen in history, where if you have a Democratic president, the voters seem to say, well, let’s put more Republicans into office to counter that – and vice versa. But again, I would say we have a very closely divided electorate in the United States. Big landslide elections have not been the trend lately. And again, with these races, we don’t – it’s not like the presidency. It’s not one big election. It’s a lot of little elections in different places. So what can matter here will be candidate quality, the individual candidates, how well they run their campaign, what are issues at stake in their district or their state.
So PolitiFact fact-checks these midterm elections; we do it every year. And the way we do it is we focus on the races where it seems likely that there may be a switch of either an incumbent or a new challenger. So we’re looking at races where we’re not sure who’s going to be the winner. You’ve heard the term “safe seats” before. We kind of stay away from safe seats where there’s a long-time incumbent, there’s not a very legitimate challenger. So we’re looking at elections where it’s a – there’s a close contest and there’s a vigorous debate.
So for us this year, we are focusing on a number of swing states. I won’t go through all of them, but just to give you a flavor of them: Ohio, Pennsylvania, Arizona, Georgia, Wisconsin. Interestingly, a number of the U.S. Senate races are also swing states in the presidential races, so they’re going to have vigorous campaigns. There’s going to be a lot of chat.
Now, what kind of things are we fact-checking in the U.S. midterms? We are fact-checking a lot of the messaging in the campaigns. Now, some of this happens on social media. A lot of it happens through paid advertising. A lot of it is through public remarks that the candidates make. And so we end up fact-checking a lot of things about the economy – is always a big issue in the midterms. And then pocketbook issues are often discussed.
Now, I know right now in the U.S. a lot of the news is dominated by the war in Ukraine and the COVID pandemic, and we have seen some messaging around that. But I think a lot of what we’re seeing are claims about the economy and inflation, how well people are doing, that sort of thing.
The elections start with primaries, so that means that the candidates have to run within their own party to get the nomination. So that creates its own very interesting dynamic, and individual states set their primary dates, so there’s not one nationwide primary date. There’s lots of primaries going on across the country at different times of the year. There tends to be a wave in the spring, like April-May, and another wave in the late summer, so around August.
But, like, to give you an example, one of the first primaries is in Ohio. So we’ve been seeing these Republican candidates in Ohio having a debate among themselves that has centered around who is most loyal to Trump, and we’ve fact-checked several ads about what candidates have or haven’t said about Donald Trump. That is one of the main themes of the Republican Party right now is these candidates kind of going through how loyal they are or not to the previous president. President Trump has tended to be a very polarizing figure, not always popular among swing voters, and Republicans are trying to figure out, like, how close do they want to be to him.
A bellwether race was last fall, the Virginia governor’s race. Glenn Youngkin, the Republican, won that race, and a lot of people think that he did it by not denigrating Trump or criticizing him, but not hugging him too close, either. So now, like, there were a lot of other issues going on in that Virginia governor’s race, particularly around – public schools was an issue, and I expect we’ll be fact-checking ads in the midterms around the U.S. public schools. Again, those are kind of culture issues. But Glenn Youngkin’s stance on Trump was considered fairly artful. So we’re looking to see how other candidates in other races, what did they say about each other? How did they – how do they figure that out?
And the Democratic primary races are much more sort of arguments over which candidate is going to best represent the district. So you might see, in a very liberal district, a candidate saying: I’m the more liberal candidate. In a more moderate district, you might see a Democrat saying: I’m the more moderate candidate. And those tend to play out however the dynamics go.
Now, I should say these – elections messaging is very long-established traditional political fact-checking that PolitiFact does. We started to fact-check elections. So this is a format that we’re very familiar with. We like fact-checking elections. As we fact-check the various races around the country, we look for certain trends. We see – look to see if candidates are talking about the same issues. Because these candidates are holding federal office, like, the whole array of federal policy is open to these candidates to talk about. So sometimes I am not sure exactly what will be the hottest issues until we get much closer to Election Day. Other times it’s somewhat more predictable. But I do think the economy is going to be a big issue. Domestic issues are usually – usually dominate these races, although with the war in Ukraine, I do think we will see some foreign policy discussed in the races as well.
Now, let me say that social media and kind of internet misinformation does have a role in the 2022 midterms. It’s not that – these are not entirely traditional political races. We do see this internet misinformation come and affect these races as well. The dynamics, again, depend on what’s going on in the overall campaign. Here at PolitiFact we’ve been spending most of our debunking time lately on the war in Ukraine, especially, like, fake photos, fake videos, that sort of thing. We’re still doing a lot of pandemic fact-checking; we still see a lot of anti-vaccine claims that we have fact-checked. And then we have also been fact-checking a lot of things about the economy and especially gas prices. Gas prices are something of a perennial interest to readers.
So just to wrap things up, I mean, in conclusion, PolitiFact publishes our fact-checks on the internet. We do make our fact-checks for free, widely available. There’s no paywall. We see our fact-checks get picked up by our partner news organizations. And we have a membership model where people support our fact-checking so that it can be distributed widely through the internet. We do see the audience increase during midterms. It’s not quite the big event that presidential elections are in the U.S. I think the presidency is a uniquely compelling office for most Americans. So the midterms, the interest isn’t quite as high. Usually voter turnout isn’t quite as high. But it’s still a very busy time, I think, for fact-checkers everywhere as we try to give people the information they need to make decisions about how they would like to vote.
And we are making coverage plans to make sure that we’re covering all the races that we find to be the most compelling. And we’ll be very busy especially in September and October as we get closer to Election Day, reminding people that, in the U.S., many, many states have early voting. So now we are seeing people start voting in October. People seem to have embraced early voting so that there’s more of a kind of a voting window rather than everything happening just on the one traditional Election Day.
So with that, I will turn it over to my colleague, Kathleen Hall Jamieson, and I look forward to taking your questions.
MODERATOR: Thank you, Ms. Holan. And now, Kathleen, over to you.
MS JAMIESON: You’ve got my video blocked right now. It says host is going to start my video. “You cannot start your video because host is blocked you.”
MODERATOR: We see you, Dr. Jamieson.
MS JAMIESON: Okay, good. I’m going to tell that thing to go away, then. The – we do very much the same thing that PolitiFact does in that the – we’re going to cover the midterms in the same – basically the same way that they do. We’re going to focus on the races that look as if they’re going to be most highly contested, in large part because those are the ones that are going to have most of the deceptions in them.
And we’re going to be trying to focus on the consequential deceptions, and in particular those that would generalize outside a particular state or congressional district. So by asking whether something’s consequential, you’re asking: if people believed it, would they cast a misinformed vote? So there are many claims in politics that are deceptive, but they’re not particularly consequential. We leave most of those for the exchanges between the candidates. And what that means is we’re looking for the bigger kinds of claims that speak to central things that will affect governance.
So a first question is does this matter in terms of governance, and when it doesn’t, we hope that the fact-checking community will find a way in its fact-checking to say yes, they’re having this dispute, but for practical purposes, it’s not going to translate into governance and so it’s not going to matter to you much a year from now. It might help determine whom you elect at this point, but it’s not necessarily going to translate into something that’s going to be meaningful in terms of policy or policy disagreements.
It’s also important to note that we’ve got multiple fact-checking organizations in the United States, and because they have the same journalistic norms – the big reputable ones have the same journalistic norms – that there’s high levels of agreement across fact-checkers when they’re fact-checking not only of where they’re tending to fact-check, but the fact-checks themselves tend to come to conclusions that agree across the fact-checkers, even as sometimes they’re looking to different sources of evidence.
So as you’re looking at the United States as a whole, if you pick, for example, PolitiFact, FactCheck.org, the Washington Post fact-checker and put them in a block, what you’ll see is that you’ve got kind of a view across the terrain of the elections and a whole lot of agreement about what is and is not reflecting a reality that is notable at a time – in time. It’s because we use the same kinds of sources as we check information.
And one of the functions of fact-checking is to help its audience understand how we know what we know, and then also to ensure that their capacity is built up so that they don’t necessarily have to rely on us in order to do the same thing. So they should be able, given a new situation that’s comparable to one that we’ve fact-checked, to say, oh, they all went to the Bureau of Labor Statistics because they trust that as a source of information.
And I mention that for a reason, because we’ve now entered a polarized environment in the United States that means that the sources that we’ve turned to historically have now in some cases been challenged. In general, confidence in traditional expertise is down in the United States, as it is globally, by the way. But some of the places that we have traditionally turned to be able to say – so, for example, the Centers for Disease Control says or the Bureau of Labor Statistics says or the GAO, the government process that does an accountability function – (inaudible) into those – there now is a challenge to whether those should be used by some who find that source of evidence ideologically inconvenient.
And so one of the things that fact-checkers now need to do is to establish that they are using those sources and why they are using those sources, but we also need to bolster confidence in those sources as sources of information. And when they don’t meet their ideals – when they don’t live up to the expectations we have of them – we as fact-checkers need to call that out.
The reason I’m mentioning that is during our fact-checking of the pandemic, of COVID, there were instances in which we were fact-checking the CDC, for example; the FDA, for example. And when you are fact-checking the sources that you traditionally relied on as the custodians of knowledge, that can be a little bit confusing for the people who are reading your journalism. But it’s a necessary move for fact-checkers to make in an environment in which occasionally those agencies get it wrong, but overall, those agencies are trustworthy. How do we signal that we’re going to hold them accountable but also that we’re going to rely on them? Because overall, if we believe that they’re reliable, it becomes a challenge for fact-checking. And it’s the first thing I wanted to bookmark, because you’re going to see instances in which part of what’s going to be fact-checking is the reliability of the sources on which the fact-checkers actually rely.
Second thing I want to say about fact-checking in the United States as we come up to the midterms is there’s been a concerted attack on the fact-checking enterprise itself – that is, there have been attempts to call its legitimacy into question. And so fact-checking has changed across time in that it is no longer accepted by all in the way it once was as a journalistic enterprise that was working from common norms and as a result is trustworthy. Its trustworthiness has been challenged, and that makes it more difficult to do what it is we’re doing. It also means that our journalistic norms – we disclose our sources, we provide links to our sources – when we’re wrong and we’re called out and somebody points out that we got something wrong, we correct. It’s more important than ever that we’re featuring those.
Now, that is the backdrop. One of the things that I want to say in addition to saying we agree with everything that Angie is doing – we do much the same kinds of thing – things – is that there is very low levels of understanding even in the United States of some of the things that some of our fact-checking presupposes. So, for example, most people in the United States when asked cannot name our three branches of government. Now if you can’t name our three branches of government – legislative, judicial, executive branches of government – you can’t understand much of what you’re doing when you’re fact-checking issues that involve whether or not Congress has the authority to do something a congressional candidate has claimed he or she is going to accomplish or whether a presidential candidate is going to be able to accomplish something they say they’re going to accomplish, when they promise something to the electorate.
So there’s presuppositional knowledge that we need to build into our fact-checking, and in the international community, of course, because there’s much less familiarity with our system, you need as well as you talk about our system. So knowing that there are these kinds of confusions helps understand how it is that some forms of deception become patterns – that is, they routinely recur inside congressional and senatorial elections.
So I’d like to put up a slide and to say that regardless of the senatorial or congressional elections – if somebody will put up my slide – you can expect, for example, that people are going to fail to adjust their numbers for inflation. However, they’re going to adjust their numbers for inflation when it’s ideologically convenient for them to do it. So as a fact-checker, we would like to see all numbers adjusted for inflation. Our fact-checking will adjust numbers for inflation. And if someone makes a claim that this is more than it was then, if it’s unadjusted for inflation, you can have two people making claims that when adjusted for inflation would actually be the same claim, but the confusion is there’s been a failure to adjust for inflation. So anytime we see a number that someone offers to indict someone by saying it’s more or less now than it was then, we ask is it adjusted for inflation.
Secondly, there are some traps inside our structure, because we’ve got three branches and those branches are in tension with each other. They have checks and balances in relation to each other and there, as a result, are constraints built into our system by design at the founding to minimize the likelihood that any one of these has too much power. Well, that means that if you are in power, you can craft legislation and force votes on things to make the minority party look bad. You also, as part of the routine process of governing, will sometimes pull together large numbers of things into an omnibus bill. If you have an omnibus bill and an incumbent votes on the omnibus bill, it’ll have all sorts of disparate things in it. Some of those things the person who votes on probably doesn’t support, but they probably support other things in that bill. Now, if you’re a challenger, you look at that bill and you say what doesn’t the constituency for this congressional seat or this – in the Senate, for this state, what doesn’t it like that’s in the bill. And then you say that candidate, my opponent, voted to do X, the implication being it was a standalone vote, it was up or down, there was nothing else there.
So we look for omnibus bills in which someone is claiming that – implying that this was a vote in which you had to make only that one choice. Now, it doesn’t mean that as part of voting for the whole omnibus bill, you didn’t actually vote for that. But it does mean that to keep things in context, we need to say to readers when there’s an omnibus bill these are the other things that were in the bill that, had you voted against the bill, you could be criticized for because you voted against those things that your constituency did want.
So we watch for these kinds of moves to try to explain to voters what they mean so that they don’t cast a misinformed vote on the assumption that a person actually specifically opposed, in the case of an omnibus bill, some very specific thing when in fact the person was voting because overall for their district they saw all those other things in the bill that would help the district, and as a result they just took a deep breath, swallowed, and took the whole bill because that for their district they believe was the best possible thing.
So we’re looking for patterns of the way they deceive so that we can say to the electorate: if you knew this in this context, you might make a different judgment about that claim. That’s trying to educate about the process by finding an underlying pattern. But since those patterns exist, we can tell you that – and they’re particularly going to be dominant. There are things that are going to be more prevalent when you’re looking at a congressional election or senatorial election than when you’re looking at a presidential election.
Also, there’s – this is now across the board, not simply in senatorial and congressional elections – there is a tendency for candidates, when they make promises and they talk to the electorate, to act as if they can individually make a difference when they can’t inside our system. It’s very rare that an individual has unilateral control. They certainly don’t in Congress and the Senate. They can block some things, but they have real trouble getting things to happen on their own, because these are group activities.
At the presidential level, there is more discretion. The president has more total control, particularly in foreign policy, over what a president can do. But presidents require the legislature to do most of what they do as well. And so we look for attacks or promises that suggest somebody can do something they can’t do, but also attacks attacking somebody for not doing something they couldn’t do – that is, they supported a position, but they couldn’t get to the end result because it was a group activity and they couldn’t be responsible for that entire group.
We also look for promises that individual lacks the power to keep and we – we want to flag those as a category, because we want our people who read FactCheck.org to understand the relationship between campaigning and governance. It’s also important, by the way, when you’re dealing in a presidential campaign, which we are not this year, when you see both major party candidates agreeing to something, that we find a way to point out those areas of agreement someplace in journalism, because it’s those areas of agreement that actually forecast a likelihood that those things will become legislation that will pass in the next Congress, within the next couple of years. So trying to figure out what are those things that could matter in governance and where are the deceptions that could increase likelihood that people misunderstand, that is something that we see as one of our obligations.
We also think that it’s important that we understand how it is that the courts relate to the legislative branch, and how it is that the legislative branch relates to other legislatures, so who’s got jurisdiction for what. This is going to be important because in June, the Supreme Court in the United States, one of our three branches, is going to make a decision that may overturn Roe v. Wade, protection of a woman’s right to have an abortion within certain constraints. If that occurs, the claim and political rhetoric is likely to be among some that, ah, the Trump appointees to the Supreme Court have now denied women a right to choose on abortion, when in fact what happens, if the Supreme Court were to do that in our system, is those decisions drop down to the states, and the states then will determine – unless Congress passes legislation that protects that right through the laws.
That protection has moved through the House of Representatives, one of our two legislative branches – one of our two legislative houses. But it has not passed through the Senate and it’s not going to. It’s not going to get through the Senate. So for practical purposes, when that decision emerges in June, likely, and the deception emerges that says, ah, blame the Republicans because now abortion has been banned, we need as fact-checkers to be clear that the public understands that what has actually happened now is this is devolved to states and states are going to make that decision – some already, for practical purposes, have. And about half of our states are going to ban abortion access – in effect ban abortion access – as a result. That shifts the decision-making locus down to states from the federal level, and it’s important that we explain that as part of the fact-checking function.
So in summary, part of what the fact-checking structures are designed to do is to help people understand how we know what we know, what sources we trust and why, to hold those sources accountable when they don’t do their jobs, but also to detect underlying consequential patterns of deception so that we can put knowledge of how our system works in place to minimize public susceptibility.
And if we do all that, and we also do everything that Angie has forecast for her team and I’ve forecast for mine, then we’ll increase the likelihood that those who choose to vote will cast informed votes and that they’ll see the relationship between those votes and governance, which is ultimately the goal of this enterprise. It is to ensure that nothing in this process deceives people in consequential ways and increases the likelihood that they will regret a vote if they find out that they were deceived later, and we would hope as a result that they will not be deceived because we were there as fact-checkers to create a better understanding of how the process works, of what we can reasonably know about what candidates say and can do within it.
And with that, let’s turn it over back to the folks who are in charge and see what you have for comments and questions.
MODERATOR: Thank you, Dr. Jamieson. We will now start the Q&A for today’s briefing. As a reminder, if you’d like to ask a question, please use the raise hand function or you can submit it in the Q&A in writing. To kick us off, though, I’d like to start with an advance question submitted by one of our overseas journalists. This comes from Adelani Adepegba from The Punch in Nigeria. The question is: “What challenges did the U.S. face in countering misinformation during the 2020 presidential elections? How are these problems resolved, and what do you think is going to happen for 2022?”
MS HOLAN: Well, I think that the biggest problem we have faced as fact-checkers since 2020 is – are the claims that we fact-checked about election integrity, so was the 2020 election fair, was there election fraud. Former President Donald Trump has said multiple times without evidence that he won that election. I think all the fact-checkers have rejected that contention, as have many other knowledge authorities in the U.S., so the courts have rejected it, many of his own Republican Party have rejected it. So – but it did create a lot of discussion about how elections are conducted, how people register to vote. And we’ve spent a lot of time fact-checking those kinds of claims and are still fact-checking them even now. So – and it’s online, it’s viral misinformation, some elected officials repeat it. It was really what drove the January 6th attacks on the Capitol, were people who either believe this misinformation or said they believe it.
So I very much think we’re still going to be dealing with that, and at PolitiFact we have definitely targeted claims about nonexistent election fraud for fact-checking coverage. And the reason it’s so, just, like, dangerous for democracy is that if people don’t believe their votes count, then the whole democratic process is compromised. It’s really – it’s very pernicious misinformation.
MS JAMIESON: Yeah, I agree with Angie on the challenges that she’s identified, and we are concerned with those as well. Let me add an additional one, which I tried to feature in my earlier remarks. The – what we saw in 2020 was a politicization of those sources that we would ordinarily turn to and assume their trustworthiness. So the point at which conspiracy theories are alleging that the CDC is colluding with the pharmaceutical industry with kickback schemes that have corrupted Anthony Fauci to ensure that you’ve got tracking devices inside vaccines, and 5G networks are activating those, you have now moved into conspiracy theory where ordinarily conspiracy theories is something we would stay away from. You stay with things that are factual, that you can adjudicate they’re factual inside the fact-checking community.
But with that backdrop, what you’re doing is challenging the presupposition of the trustworthiness of the CDC at a time at which – and this is what made it complicated – the CDC had a number of serious stumbles. It didn’t roll out the testing as it should have at the beginning. It wasn’t clear about some of its messaging. So across time, as it navigated the challenges of emerging science, those who wanted to challenge its credibility were able to cite those things in order to indict unfairly by overgeneralizing their likelihood, and then harness them back into conspiracy theories.
If we can’t as fact-checkers go to someplace that we can stand on and say, by that method and that definition, this is what we know – the level of COVID is this according to; the level of unemployment is this according to; the level of – we can’t go back and go do all of that primary research on our own. We have to trust some place as a place in which we lodge to start our argument. And a challenge to those kinds of agencies, particularly around COVID, posed some challenges if what you’re concerned about in the case of COVID is that people will act in a science-consistent fashion – that is, nonetheless accept that COVID is real, it’s extensive, it can be lethal, here are the audiences that are susceptible to it uniquely, here’s the way we prevent, here’s the value of vaccination, here is the argument for why vaccination is necessary for virtually all, except those who are unable for some medical reason, to take a vaccine.
MODERATOR: Thank you. We have a question that was submitted in the Q&A from Pearl Matibe from Swaziland News in Eswatini. I’ll read her question. “Can you talk about strategies and tactics that independent journalists can employ not to infuse their own opinions in election reporting, as well as can you share who PolitiFact and FactCheck.org might differentiate between misinformation, disinformation, and malinformation? How do you see the journalists’ role in the current polarized election space?”
MS JAMIESON: Let me just start for the moment by saying that the – that set of distinctions has embedded in it the assumption that we know whether something is intentional or not. As a fact-checker, I do not make the assumption that I ever know whether something is intentional unless, in the face of extraordinary evidence, someone persistent in holding a position, and then it’s possible the person is simply delusional. So the misinformation/disinformation distinction assumes that you can say disinformation is intentionally deceptive, and I’m very uncomfortable when journalists get into thinking they can divine intention.
MS HOLAN: Yeah, I would agree with that. I think that with – as fact-checkers, we start with what is the message and is it correct or not. As far as whether something is intentional or not, I think there is some interesting journalism being done by people who are looking at kind of how messaging moves on the internet. So like, when is there – when are there coordinated messaging campaigns – say, The New York Times and NBC News do some really interesting work around that. But that’s not the primary mission of the fact-checkers. Our first mission is to say: is what this claim is – is it right or is it wrong?
As far as keeping our bias out of reporting, I mean, I think the old methods still work the best. I mean, just to approach the work with curiosity, with an open mind, looking at both sides. I tell our reporters to look at the claims that they’re examining, like try to prove it right and try to prove it wrong. Look at it both ways. And I still think – I still think that applies for fact-checking, and really, I think for political reporting it’s talking to voters and being openminded is the best strategy.
MS JAMIESON: But I think there are journalistic norms that increase the likelihood that you protect yourself from your own human biases. So fact-checkers are not pontifical. Fact-checkers are not offering authority judgments based on their assessment as individuals. Fact-checkers are making an argument and offering evidence. So a fact-checker doesn’t say, “This is right or wrong,” and then not tell you how they know that and disclose the sources that they’ve used and justify the use of those sources. So that is a protection against your own human bias, because what you’ve done is disclosed a pattern of argument that lets someone else evaluate your evidence.
Then secondly, the self-corrective norm inside fact-checking says that if you’ve gotten something wrong, you’ve misunderstood something, there was evidence that you missed, that you engage in correction – that is, you engage that alternative evidence and evaluate whether it gets to that conclusion. Also that there’s sufficient humility to say that we’re all going to get some things wrong at some point. It’s part of the reason you want multiple fact-checkers operating simultaneously. So if we see disagreement with one of the other fact-checkers, we go back and review what we’ve done, because the assumption is they’re people of goodwill and integrity if they came down and someone said: what did they see that we didn’t see? What did they find? So that kind of transparency and disclosure increases the likelihood that if there is bias, it’s detectable.
And then secondly, we do the same thing that Angie does. I’m the last person in the chain of FactCheck.org, and my job is to counterargue against whatever the fact-checker has put down on the page for me to read. So I assume I’m hostile to everything they believe; I’m going to challenge every definition they’ve got. If there’s any weakness in that argument, I am going to find it. And I am going to be as adversarial as I can because that will let them confront any bias they have got – and replaying any biases I have against any biases they have, but in a contest in which we’re trying to find out that we got something wrong, if we did. And if that process is in place, you’re protecting yourself against human bias in a second way. And having those processes in place is extremely important, because we’re all subject to human biases and it’s difficult to transcend them. So using those structures to minimize their impact is, I think, the – ultimately the defense of the enterprise.
MODERATOR: We have another question submitted from Amilcar Avila from Publinews in Guatemala. The question is: “How should we deal with so much ‘fake news,’” in quotation marks?
MS JAMIESON: Well, let me start by saying first we should stop calling it fake news. So the – there is no such thing as fake news. News, for me, is a sacred concept. So if it’s news, it’s adopting journalistic norms, and journalistic norms require all sorts of things, including self-correction. That is, if someone points out something that’s wrong, you correct. So it can’t be fake and be news at the same time. That’s an oxymoron. And when we legitimize that term, we’re delegitimizing journalism. So I want to reclaim the name “news” and say that there is no such thing as fake news.
Now, what can we do about those things that pretend they’re news when they’re not, they don’t adopt the norms of journalism? We can expose them. And what can we do when they pretend they’re us when they’re not? We have organizations that pretend they’re fact-checking organizations. We’ve had those that have even stolen our colors and our logo and our look in order to pretend they’re us. We need to unmask that. And we know that one form of disinformation that is clearly deliberate is to try to appropriate the identity of legitimate news in order to increase the likelihood that people believe it. So ABC.com.com was one of those in the 2016 election. That was trying to traffic in the reputation of ABC while trafficking in misinformation.
So I’m going to let Angie pick it up from there, but as a rhetoric expert, I start by saying there is no such thing as fake news in my world. That’s an oxymoron. Oh, by the way, I want to use an alternative word. I want to call it viral deception, because what we’re interested in is deception. We’re concerned about its virality, and that means VD. I want to identify it with venereal disease. So you don’t want to catch it, you don’t want to spread it. So I want to get all the negative affect of VD, venereal disease, attached to viral deception.
MS HOLAN: I think it’s more important than ever to go back to authoritative news sources. So I am very skeptical about getting news from social media. I just think it is not a good strategy. I hear people talking about oh, well, I saw something on my feeds. Like, that can mean anything. When I want to find out what’s going on in the world, I like to go to a news organization with a track record that I trust, and that is what I tell our readers. That’s what I advise the journalists that I work with and that’s what I would advise to you in the audience.
For me, I still like the big U.S. newspapers – The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal. For TV, I really appreciate the PBS NewsHour. It’s a nightly newscast and it has – it walks this marvelous balance of being concise yet comprehensive. So these are news organizations that I know share values of the news, and I know that they are going to vet information and do their very best to make sure that whatever they’re presenting is correct. I’m very skeptical of, like, snippets from the internet or things I see out of the corner of my eye on a TV screen. I mean, you just never know when things are being taken out of context, misconstrued, oversimplified, all of that sort of thing.
And I think that we’re seeing more efforts for media literacy, overall media literacy in the U.S., and I do think going back to news organizations with established track records should be part of that.
MS JAMIESON: At the risk of getting academic and wonky – but since I’m a professor I’m going to say that’s just my nature – when we look at what it is people know about something that should not be controversial, what they know about science statements about health, for example, what we find is that people who read longform journalism from mainstream press outlets are more likely, when you control everything else, to have higher levels of knowledge. And some of that says that when you read things that are developed with argument and evidence, you’re able to retain them differently.
And so one of the things that we need to try to increase the likelihood is that on topics that matter, people take the time to process it, and you process differently when you read than when you watch. Watching is valuable and has other kinds of capacities, but the – to get in-depth knowledge that you retain, reading still has a net advantage.
MODERATOR: Okay, we’ve got a couple more questions from two different parts of the world. The first is from Ishmael Koroma from Pan-African Visions in Sierra Leone. The question is – I’ll quote it – “African leaders are notorious for making unsubstantiated speeches, and the media most times just report those speeches as statement. How can African journalists manage and learn how to fact-check?”
And the other question comes from Germany, Claudia Kramer-Santel, and her question is, “Do you see a problem with Russia trying to influence the election in 2022 in the U.S. with fake news?”
MS HOLAN: Let me talk about Africa first. There’s some really good fact-checking going on in Africa right now. I would say Africa Check and another organization called PesaCheck are doing smart fact-checking, and I believe they’re also training fact-checkers around the continent. For more information on fact-checking organizations out of Africa, you can certainly go to the International Fact-Checking Network, but there is a fact-checking movement that – it’s not in every country, but it is in many countries and is spreading, and I would really encourage you to connect with those journalists who are doing that work.
As far as Russia trying to influence the election campaign, again, this is slightly out of our area of specialty. This is more that kind of forensic cyber journalism that I was talking about earlier. I think it’s fairly well documented that this was an issue in 2016. I’m not sure about 2022. I think we’ll have to see. It’s not always clear – the sources of misinformation are not always clear. Like, we don’t know is this someone who’s running a deception campaign or someone who’s confused. I mean, there’s so many ways for people to mask themselves on the internet, especially on a first look. I mean, I’m skeptical of this idea that nobody can figure out anything. I do think that there’s a lot of good work being done, but with us fact-checkers, we’re more looking at the message rather than the messenger.
MS JAMIESON: And look, let me address the Africa question. The – as you approach a speech by a leader, I think the first question is what is consequential in it that, if believed, might lead a person to a mistaken judgment that would matter in that person’s life. So the first challenge in being a fact-checker of something like a speech – speeches are long, they have many statements – is what’s worth fact-checking. And the way we approach it – because you don’t want to get your human bias and just say, oh, the only things that are worth fact-checking are the things I didn’t agree with. You want to fact-check everything you agree and disagree with.
You want to start out by saying what’s consequential in it, and then ask about every statement that is consequential, whether it is in fact a factually adjudicable claim or not. So is there something that a fact-checker could add to the discussion that would be helpful which in context might lead someone to see it differently? Because otherwise, the danger as one starts this process is you fact-check too much that’s trivial and the process actually becomes a distraction from what should matter, which is what’s consequential and what context would help people see it in a way that would lead them to make a more informed judgment about something that matters.
On the Russian front, I did write a book called How Russian Trolls and Hackers Helped Elect a President in 2016. There was a Russian intervention that involved at least one local race in Florida in 2016. I would say keeping an eye on not only Russians but also other nationals that would have some advantage in, for example, trying to swing the Senate in the United States would – or some key House districts – is certainly something that everybody should be watching for, but we’re not the first line of defense there. The first line of defense is the cyber capacities that have been built up across the federal government, as well as across our business and industries and the liaisons between the two, because they’re more likely – including the platform owners – they’re more likely to detect it and see it before we are.
MODERATOR: Thank you. We have another question submitted. This is from Mien Nguyen from Thanh Nien newspaper in Vietnam. The question is, “A major issue in the run-up to the November election will be the rules governing how ballots are cast and counted. Nearly two dozen states enacted legislation in 2021 that tightens voter registration and curtails or ends procedures like mail-in voting. Democrats have denounced these changes as designed to suppress the Democratic vote. How can fact-checking act fast and effective to clarify the skepticism in the voters in this matter?”
MS JAMIESON: Angie, you want to take that one?
MS HOLAN: Sure. I think – I’m not sure what the voters’ skepticism is. When we look at polling about how voters feel or about voting laws, voters are very open to ID requirements. But they don’t like it when they perceive the rules to be partisan or partisan-motivated. So I think that is one of the challenges of fact-checking, is showing the rules in context, showing what the partisan motives are.
Having said all of that, I mean, the Democrats like to campaign on this issue, too. So one of the things that we have fact-checked is examples of people who are disenfranchised or not. And a lot of the – the Democrats have not – they claim that these are disenfranchising people, but they haven’t come up with very many concrete examples. So some of this – I mean, as a fact-checker, I would say some of these voting laws seem to be a little bit of political theater, of Republicans trying to show their voters that they are doing things – their Republican voters – to secure the vote.
In most states, motivated voters are going to be able to comply with the rules and vote. Now, the concern is what about voters who are either only marginally motivated to vote or let’s say highly disorganized. I mean, those are the people that I think really are at risk for being disenfranchised. And how many of those voters are, we just don’t know. I mean, it’s a very – it’s a very tricky issue, and I think it’s a very values-laden issue. So I think the Democrats very much want to see voting as open as possible. It suits their electorate, whereas the Republicans have this obsession with nonexistent voter fraud, so they want to put all these rules in place that they see as reassuring their voters that fraud is not happening. So again, a very polarized issue.
MS JAMIESON: As a scholar, I’m interested in the kinds of issues the questioner is raising. As a fact-checker, I’m largely not because there’s not an adjudicable statement that is deceptive at issue. The underlying deception in this process is one that alleges levels of fraud that no one has documented, and that we’ve all checked – fact-checked and looked carefully at the scholarly community to say, what do we know and how do we know it? Overall, the United States does not have an election fraud issue. There just has not been evidence of significant – enough of it in enough levels to say that it is cause for widespread concern or for substantial legislative action. That doesn’t, however, mean that there’s a fact-checking issue for us apart from that when a duly constituted legislature decides it wants to do something.
So that’s an area that’s important. It’s important for journalistic discussion. But unless we can find a consequential deception, we’re probably going to stay away from it, because that’s not the role of us as fact-checkers.
MODERATOR: Okay. We’re coming to the end of our time, so I’ll just take one last question. Returning to a 30,000-foot view, this question is from Masako Shimizu from Kyodo News, Japan. The question is, “In your view, what is the biggest difference in this midterm compared to the previous midterm election?”
MS HOLAN: Well, I mean, not to be too literal, but, I mean, a big one is that Democrats control the three branches. And previously, Republicans controlled it. Now, I do think branch control is important. But it’s not as if controlling all three branches leads to comprehensive, earth-shattering legislation. In fact, I think if we look at the past history, we see even when the parties controlled all three branches, they were able to get one or two things done, and kind of big things. But, like, it was not, like, mandate for legislative change by any means.
So I think – but I think also the times are very different, where the U.S., like the world, has been through a pandemic, there is this war in Europe going on. I mean, it’s – there’s a lot of differences between now and then. I mean, it’s almost too many factors to really calculate. From a – go ahead, Kathleen.
MS JAMIESON: Yeah. We can focus on one and say: Where are the places that you can look for likely confusions on the part of – when we say fact-checking, it looks as if we’ve got this narrow function, when in fact we’re clarifiers more than we are fact-checkers. We do fact-check, but in the process, what we’re trying to do is contextualize and clarify. And we know inflation is going to be an issue, and that’s always a fraught issue, because presidents have limited control over it. There are some things a president and Congress can do that increase it. Whether they overheated the economy by passing legislation with large dollar tags is a legitimate question. What – how much of a driver of inflation was that is a legitimate electoral question.
And it’s going to be complex to sort that out. You’re going to have allegations on each side. It simply isn’t Putin’s inflation. We can say that much right now. We can say there’s a Putin factor there, but there also is the supply chain issues, et cetera, that came out of the pandemic that are contributing to this, and also some suppression of tendencies inside the economy because we were under COVID.
So we have a big, consequential issue, inflation, with a huge amount of complexity on a topic that the public largely doesn’t understand that is reflected in something as simple as gas prices, bread and milk, hence it’s got salience behind it. So when you’ve got a big, complex, messy issue like that, it’s prone to simplifications that carry deceptions with them. And so asking the question who is ultimately responsible and what can you actually do about it becomes something I think the fact-checkers can help focus the electorate on to the extent that we have an audience.
Because you always want to ask not simply how you parse this thing, but when they’re promising that they’re going to do something, can they actually do that? And with inflation, the capacity of a president to do much is severely limited. And those would doubt that, go back and take a look at 1972 or take a look at the Carter administration, and then go back and look at the history of Paul Volcker. We’ve got a really interesting history about the difficulties in grappling with inflation across time.
MODERATOR: On that note, we’ve come to the end of our time. So with that, we will conclude today’s briefing. On behalf of the U.S. Department of State and Washington Foreign Press Center, I’d like to thank Dr. Jamieson and Ms. Holan for speaking to the foreign press today. Thank you both, and good morning.