Is Do-It-Yourself Fact Checking The Future?

May 3, 2017

In the midst of the current debate about fabricated facts, the former Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer launched a new website, USAFacts.org, where people can go to check the numbers for themselves.

The site is mainly devoted to government spending and revenue, offering a wealth of data on many fronts, including analysis on the effectiveness of different programs.

The initiative is definitely welcome, given the widespread suspicion of what the government does and where the money goes. Many people get weary of paying taxes not knowing why, exactly. Of course, even if the website promises "factual and unbiased" data, without making "judgments or prescrib[ing] specific policies," any data display involves choices, a point made by Wired. As Ballmer says in his TEDx talk, "numbers are a tool to tell a story." More importantly, it is how people interpret the numbers that makes the story, not the numbers by themselves.

For example, searching for "Crime and Police" you find the number of arrests from 1980 (10,458,260) to 2013 (11,303,198), while "violent crime rate per 100,000 persons" goes from 596.6 (1980) to 372.6 (2015). The numbers tell a story. Violent crime rates are definitely lower. Why? Here's where the interpretations would come in.

A fact-based narrative cannot be separated from who's telling it. Even the choice of topics, what makes the "headlines," reflects editorializing and consumer trends.

Meanwhile, Jimmy Wales, founder of Wikipedia, is crowd-funding his new venture, Wikitribune.com, deemed "evidence-based journalism" in a new kind of add-free news platform that brings journalists and a community of supporters together. "The news is broken and we can fix it," says Wales in his intro video. Wales contends quite convincingly that the whole ad-based social media structure is "designed to keep people clicking at all costs, confirming biases, showing what people want to see." The idea is that a community of volunteers will reliably protect the integrity of information, a concept based on the enormous success of Wikipedia.

In this model, anyone can upload an article, that will then be fact-checked by professionals and by readers. Wales contends that Wikitribune.com will be the gatekeeper of the Internet. As with Wikipedia entries, every story will be a permanent ongoing project, open to editing.

I imagine Wales and his team are aware of potential pitfalls. For example, a perverse entry with distorted facts and biased opinions may take a while to be detected. Unless the gatekeepers act fast, countless readers may be sold on believing what they read before the text is fixed. By then, social media may be exploding with distorted news that is supposed to be trustworthy. Trolls need to be banned. I'm curious to see how articles on climate change, for example, will be controlled.

As in philosophy, there is no "view from nowhere" in journalism. Journalists are people with personal views and they must work to ensure those don't invade their work. But how one journalist reports and writes a story may surely differ from another. What angle one takes or what information one focuses on could diverge. And, of course, readers come with their own baggage of social values and prejudices. The same news will impact people in different ways.

We must, indeed, fight against the trivialization and distortion of the news and the rampant downgrading of expertise we see on the Internet, and USAFacts.com and Wikitribune.com are absolutely worthy initiatives. But we must not forget that every story is told by an individual in her own way, and that it is heard by another individual in her own way, as well.

Even a fact-based narrative cannot be separated from who's telling it — and from who's hearing it.


Marcelo Gleiser is a theoretical physicist and writer — and a professor of natural philosophy, physics and astronomy at Dartmouth College. He is the director of the Institute for Cross-Disciplinary Engagement at Dartmouth, co-founder of 13.7 and an active promoter of science to the general public. His latest book is The Simple Beauty of the Unexpected: A Natural Philosopher's Quest for Trout and the Meaning of Everything. You can keep up with Marcelo on Facebook and Twitter: @mgleiser

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