The central issue of the 2016 Presidential election has become "which candidate is the biggest liar."
Now let's be clear up front, this has not played out as an empirical question for most of America. Despite the overwhelming evidence presented by fact-checking organizations showing that Donald Trump lies at the highest rate among all the candidates we have had this year and that Hillary Clinton has lied the least, the opinion polls tell a very different story.
Many polls find that the voters think Hillary Clinton is untrustworthy. These polls paint her as untrustworthy, or more untrustworthy, than Donald Trump. But the poll numbers are not uniform across demographic groups. For example, Latinos find Clinton to be more trustworthy than Trump by a substantial margin, according to a recent Fox News Latino poll.
In the lead up to the Presidential Debates, the news media was fixated on a debate about the appropriate role of the moderators. Should they fact-check the candidates, or not? Should fact-checking be left to the candidates themselves on the stage? Pundits were divided on this issue, though many former moderators argued that the moderator should not fact-check. Ironically, Chris Wallace of Fox News Sunday, in the lead up to the first general election debate, argued that moderators should not fact-check, despite his own fact-checking while he moderated an earlier GOP Primary debate.
As for expecting the candidates to fact-check each other during the debate, Clinton argued during the second Trump-Clinton debate that if she spent all her time fact-checking her opponent, she would have no time to talk about what she plans to do if she is elected President. Instead, she told viewers to go to her website to see her campaign team live fact-checking her opponent. Meanwhile, Donald Trump's campaign has mobilized his supporters to use the hashtag #BigLeagueTruth to live fact-check the debates.
A perusal of the content of the two candidates' fact-checking operations reveals lots of documentation from Clinton's website as her team debunks many of Trump's statements. But the timeline for #BigLeagueTruth is littered with assertions that Clinton lied, but few specifics with respect to exactly what lies she said and even less verified documentation demonstrating her lies.
That said, it is clear that Trump's supporters are galvanized by his hashtag strategy. The fact is that supporters for both candidates spend a lot of time on social media policing the statements of the other candidate and defending the statements of their own. Some of this citizen fact-checking relies on documentation, but much of it is driven by opinion and emotion.
And so we see the major (and not-so-major) media outlets taking to the web and to social media to live and post-live fact-check the debates. Just to get a sense of how wide-spread fact-checking the debates has become, here is a cross section of who is doing it:
- Big name media outlets on the right (Wall Street Journal and Forbes)
- Big name media outlets on the left (NPR, New York Daily News and the Huffington Post)
- Mainstream media outlets (USA Today, ABC News, PBS Newshour, NBC News, The New York Times, The Washington Post and CBS News)
- Local news outlets (ABC15 Arizona and PennLive)
- Fact-checking organizations (PolitiFact and FactCheck.org)
- Foreign news media (Radio New Zealand)
- Hip media outlets (Heavy.com and Mic.com)
- Partisan advocacy organizations (ThinkProgress and NewsBusters)
The marriage between these fact-checking operations' websites and their social media channels are key. As the websites publish detailed analyses of statements made, their social media channels push the information out to a public that is ready to devour and regurgitate the information. What results is an explosion of chatter about who is lying and who is telling the truth in the debate akin to the chatter we get on Twitter during a UFC fight or any other live sports event. Fans duel each other as the candidates dual on stage.
But are the social media pundits paying attention to each other? I've long criticized people who live-tweet conferences for posting steadily on the event hashtag, but rarely reading, sharing or replying to the posts of others on the stream. The tendency to talk past one another undermines the potential value of social media with respect to creating a conversation about the topic at hand.
When it comes to the candidate debates, we are definitely seeing a lot of retweets, but not as much conversation. For the most part, the back and forth discussion on the debate hashtag is dominated by trolls and their targets verbally sparring, though never in a constructive way, as John Locke and Thomas Jefferson would have preferred.
Interestingly, the fact-checkers at GQ magazine are telling people to stop live fact-checking the debates. The argument hinges on a couple key points: 1) double- and triple-checking facts, which is important to good fact-checking, cannot be done live without a large staff and 2) most of the supporters of the two candidates really do not care about the facts, anyway. This argument may apply to the amateur fact-checker or to news outlets with limited staff (which describes most of them, these days), but I am not fully convinced that this is always justified advice. Still, there is something to be said for waiting until more thorough analyses can be assembled the next day. Fact-checking the fact-checking is always a good idea.
As we contemplate how social media is transforming politics, it is important to remember the market dynamics of social media. At the same time that we can point to social media's role in the rise of shallow, attack-oriented discourse, it also is spurring the rise of the fact-checking industry. And while we still have some ways to go before we fully achieve Locke and Jefferson's notion of rational discourse among a fully informed electorate, the rise of the fact-check election is definitely a step in the right direction.