The term “fake news” has been thrown around so much in recent years, it's easy to forget what it actually means. We’ve even been introduced to other phrases no one could have foreseen being uttered, such as “alternative facts.” Misinformation has been spread all over the social media realm, and research suggests the issue has only become more prevalent, according to reporting from The New York Times.
Putting all this into perspective, it’s no wonder why organizations devoted to fact-checking have been on the rise. Now, after an election during which there were many false claims that the results were influenced by widespread voter fraud (and many people are wondering when we'll all be able to move on), there’s no reason to expect a shortage of faulty claims or misinformation in the coming months.
Vox investigated the process of fact-checking — discussing its importance and how people can do their own fact checks at home — by talking to staff members of PolitiFact and the state edition of PolitiFact Missouri.
Fact-checking and misinformation
“We fact check the claims that politicians make every day, and we rate them for accuracy based on our research and interviews,” says Katie Sanders, managing editor of PolitiFact — a nonpartisan, not-for-profit national news organization owned by the Poynter Institute.
PolitiFact uses their rating system, called the Truth-O-Meter, to rate the claims on a spectrum between “True” and “Pants on Fire.”
“The best, most accurate claims get a ‘True’ rating. But as we often find, politicians are spinning the facts or just misrepresenting them,” Sanders says.
Investigating misinformation on social media platforms, such as Facebook and TikTok, has been a major focus this election season for the PolitiFact team of about 15 people, Sanders says. The problem of misinformation circulating on social media has reached such a magnitude in the United States that Sanders estimates roughly half of what the team does is investigate these claims.
The misinformation dilemma has been building in the years since 2016, Sanders says. There's also more awareness of it now, whereas the scope of misinformation being fed in 2016 wasn't fully realized until the closing months of the election and after, she says.
"Part of it (in 2016) was Russian interference, but it certainly wasn't all of it," Sanders says. "A lot of misinformation that we see online is homegrown."
Everyone can be a fact-checker
There are still plenty of traditional claims being made that fact-checkers need to investigate in addition to the misinformation online. The PolitiFact team made the decision to educate their readers, and social media users, with some basic fact-checking tips and strategies, Sanders says.
"While we're doing a lot of work, we know we can't get to everything," she says.
The product of this decision was PolitiFact's reporting on "7 ways to avoid misinformation about the election." Even though most of the steps refer to election misinformation, Sanders says the tips offered can be applied to many types of misinformation in general.
Students in MU's journalism program are offered an elective where they can write as reporters for the state edition of PolitiFact Missouri. They apply the same process as the national organization to a local and state level. Articles from PolitiFact Missouri are published on the PolitiFact's website, as well as in the Missourian.
One thing that Veronica Mohesky, MU student and reporter for PolitiFact Missouri, has learned from the class is that everyone has the capability to be a fact-checker — not just reporters. She believes more people should look into what politicians are saying: "Even local politicians," she says. "There's some important things that I think just kind of get swept under the rug."
Many resources are available on state websites, which provide real facts and statistics, Mohesky says. Along with the many online resources, Mohesky says a more direct approach is also an option when you question a claim made by a local politician.
"If there's something that they said that doesn't sound right to you, ask them about it," Mohesky says. "Ask their media person, ask them on Facebook, tweet at them and see if they respond."
Paul Schloesser, another MU student reporting for PolitiFact Missouri, says the Center for Responsive Politics is a helpful resource when investigating campaign finances. This is where he found data on how much money campaigns have received and when they received it and where it came from, which he used for his most recent fact check on a claim about Rep. Ann Wagner.
Schloesser thinks it's especially important today not to believe everything you read on the internet. He offers the tip to always be a little skeptical when it comes to a claim a politician makes about an opponent. Keep context in mind, do some research behind what is being claimed and decide what the truth is yourself, he says.
Mohesky shares a similar testament: "You can't take everything that a politician says immediately as fact," she says. "You have to have a healthy level of skepticism."