A few years ago, a well known satirical right-wing website in the US posted an article saying that CNN uses a washing machine to spin the news before broadcasting it. Snopes.com, perhaps the world’s oldest fact-checking website pounced upon it and declared it fake news. No, they explained, CNN does not have a washing machine in which to spin the news around.
This is actually no laughing matter. Once their article was labelled as fake by fact-checkers, the right-wing website received a notice about it from Facebook. They could get demonetized or kicked off the platform. Given the current media landscape, any outlet which gets taken off Facebook will struggle to survive financially.
Like so many other things, fact-checking might have begun with a handful of good intentions at heart. But it has quickly transformed into a propaganda tool and ultimately censorship. It’s happening all over. If you are on the right, they don’t like you. They want to shut you down. But how? Using “fact-checkers.”
One good thing to come out of the recent ‘toolkit’ situation is that people have started questioning these fact-checkers all over the place. This moment could not have come soon enough. For decades, people in India believed in the socialist myth of a “neutral” media. Then, about a decade ago, they finally began discussing media bias.
Once they began looking for it, they realized it was everywhere. Today, the media cannot fool a single person in India with headlines like “Delhi man commits XYZ crime” or expressions like “one community.” If people had taken another couple of decades to wake up to the scam called fact-checking, we were most likely doomed. Luckily, that does not seem to be happening.
First with the post-poll violence in Bengal and now with the toolkit. The fact-checkers got a bit carried away with their newfound moral authority and pushed their luck too far. Their reputations crumbled.
As with journalists, once you start noticing their tricks, you can easily see through the games that fact-checkers play. So let me list here a few simple tricks
(1) Passing off counter-claims as “fact-checking”: Party X makes a claim. The fact-checker dismisses the claim in their typical headline format: “No, so and so did not happen … ” When you click on the story, you realize that their source is claims made by Party Y, which is the enemy of Party X. So that is just a counterclaim, not fact-checking.
Who gets treated as the trusted source depends on the bias of the fact-checker. This is what happened with the “tookit” situation and the post-poll violence in Bengal. Any time the West Bengal police said this or that incident is fake, or so and so committed “suicide,” their claim was taken at face value. Anyone who questioned the version of WB police was declared fake news. Even though the political interests of the ruling TMC were quite obvious. Those who question every claim of UP Police also insist that WB Police must be believed in everything.
(2) Fact-checking irrelevant details to divert the conversation: This happened after the Republic Day violence, for instance. A lot of people were angry with protesters who had stormed the Red Fort and planted some other flag there. It was looking really bad for the liberals.
So what were the fact-checkers up to? They decided to change the subject to the exact shape and colour and dimensions of the other flag and began a bunch of fact-checks based on that. How objectionable was this new flag that the protesters brought with them? Was it a little objectionable, a bit acceptable, totally unacceptable or very very little objectionable? Who cares!! It wasn’t our national flag and that’s what matters. But the job of the fact-checker is to delay and cause confusion. The more you get drawn into a fact check of irrelevant details, the more you are likely to forget the big picture of what happened.
(3) Finding random contradictions within an uncomfortable story: Suppose there is a report that members of “one community” have pelted stones on the roof of someone’s house. That spells trouble for you because you probably need the votes of that “one community.” As a fact-checker, what do you do?
Well, you go to the ground and talk to people. There is bound to be someone who challenges some random aspect of the story. I am sure there is someone who will say the stones were pelted not on the roof but on the wall of the house. There you go! That’s a “fact-check” right there! You can now use this to create a headline that says, “No, stones were not pelted on the roof of …” This is the kind of thing that was done during the Delhi riots to discredit the stories of one set of victims.
It’s all about the headline. The biggest advantage of this trick is that you don’t even have to name the source. You can just say “eye-witnesses on the ground.” And if you don’t feel like stepping out, you could just make them up.
(4) Using one fake to discredit hundred real ones: Whenever people are reporting partisan violence on social media, you are always going to find some fake images and videos if you look hard enough. You pick these up and publish screaming headlines junking all claims by the other side.
As with unnamed eye-witnesses on the ground, the fact-checker could always speed up the process perhaps by planting a fake image or two themselves. It’s elementary, really.
(5) Fact-checking as a form of trolling: Any time you make a claim, you should be able to substantiate it. That is fair. But any event can be broken down into an infinitely long chain of sub-events. No matter how solid your story is, there is going to be some sub-event in the chain for which it is impossible to find proof.
Was PMCares money used to buy ventilators? Yes, you reply, please see purchase order and receipt, here.
Okay, but were these ventilators actually supplied to states? Yes, you reply, here is proof…
Okay, but where is the proof that these ventilators were actually working? Ummm …
The fact checker now exults. Don’t have the proof that each one of these ventilators is working, eh? Your “lie” has been exposed.
(6) Using weasel words like “misleading” or “unsubstantiated”: Suppose that none of the standard tricks is working. Despite the best efforts of the fact-checker, their target has made sure that every little thing is in perfect order. The fact-checker has one last trick up their sleeve.
If they can’t label your story as false, they can always label it “misleading” or “unsubstantiated.” For the casual reader, both terms are as good as calling something false. The psychological effect is the same.
Notice that calling something “misleading” is literally an opinion, not a fact. And like I explained, there is always going to be some sub-event in a chain for which you cannot possibly have proof. Was every single ventilator bought from PMCares money working perfectly? Nobody knows. That’s an opportunity for the fact-checker to label the whole thing “unsubstantiated.”
I am sure there are more tricks of the trade that are not listed here. But here is a common sense question that can give some clarity about who the fact-checkers really are.
What do fact-checkers claim to do? Find out facts, right?
Bur didn’t we already have people for that? People whose job it was to cross check claims made in the public sphere and find out the facts? Yes, we called them journalists.
So why the need for this rebranding? Likely because people figured out that all journalists have an agenda. The myth of the neutral journalist lost its power. It had to be replaced by the myth of the neutral fact-checker.
In many ways, the fact-checker is worse than the traditional agenda-pushing journalist. The legacy format of journalism requires some amount of separation between opinion and fact. It puts a bit of pressure on the journalist to at least mention all sides of an issue. And ultimately leave it to the reader to make up their mind. Even the most shameless propagandist in old media will feel pressure to do this from time to time, just so they can look people in the eye.
But fact-checking is a new brand and so its rules are different. It crafts its headlines with absolute finality. “No, this did not happen…” End of story. No room left for doubt or disagreement, not even as a formality. The job of fact-checkers is to put a full stop to our thoughts. And that is why propagandists love it so much.