Fact checking is a growth industry. According to the latest annual fact-checking census compiled in October 2019 by Duke Reporters’ Lab, there are at least 210 fact-checking platforms currently working in 68 countries. This nearly quintuples the number offered by the first edition of the same census released in 2014. Fact checking the news is important business.
Most people – from the humble farmer in the dusty villages of Asia and Africa to the hot-shot ‘masters of the universe’ in Wall Street – own mobile phones and have ready real-time access (often free, some pay-walled) to news and information carried by the print and social media which permeate the internet. News freely or cheaply available on the mobile phone or the PC is important to livelihoods, from the bid price of the rice crop in the nearest rural wholesale market to share-price quotes on the New York Stock Exchange. And much of it is important to all of us as individuals with concerns about our jobs, our neighbourhoods, our countries and the well-being of family and friends.
Factcheckers: Pastors of the Flock
In the two of the most contentious areas of contemporary affairs – the impact of the covid pandemic and climate change on lives and livelihood – the question of just what the “facts” are remains as elusive to many of us as to our parents and grandparents who grappled with problems of their own times. But they only had access to rumours and perhaps cheap broadsheets available at the nearest street-side corner or the samizdat from underground sources in totalitarian states.
As the priests in pre-reformation Europe who curated the Bible for its true meaning on behalf of their flock of loyal, mostly illiterate believers, today’s factcheckers are self-appointed media gatekeepers. They purport to winnow out the chaff of misinformation and “fake news” from the grain of facts and narrative truth. But are they the guardians of truth and accountability as they claim or are they the enforcers of the reigning political narrative? Are they the arbiters of “consensus science” (an oxymoron) that allegedly encompasses truths about climate change or the covid pandemic? Are they the stalwarts of partisan politics, purveyors themselves of fakery and hype that they claim to combat?
In American society beset by the culture wars and an increasing politicization of life at all levels, it may not come as a surprise that we are witnessing “the downward spiral of the fact-checking profession that is primarily run by politically engaged reporters, not expert specialists in the subjects they assess by any sense of the imagination”.
Covid-19 Pandemic: Some Very Basic Questions
Over two years into the pandemic, some of the most basic questions remain contentious, and even questions of data integrity remain mired in controversy. Are covid deaths over-reported since many may have died with covid rather than of covid? Did lockdowns and masks make any discernible difference to public health? Are there viable early treatments for the disease available or are vaccines approved under Emergency Use Authorization by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) the only way to go? Are covid vaccines safe and effective? To each of these questions, the overwhelming majority of the fact checking sites (or fact checking departments of the legacy media) support the reigning narrative articulated by big pharmaceutical companies, government agencies such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the FDA, and key government officials such as Dr. Anthony Fauci. The Biden administration welcomes this, and goes further in calling social media companies such as Facebook to partner with the White House to “fight misinformation” about covid-19.
Experts with impeccable credentials who do not subscribe to the reigning covid narrative are typically marginalized or “cancelled” outright from the media by its “fact-checking” gatekeepers. There are many such examples (here and here) but perhaps the most reported recent case relates to three distinguished authors of the Great Barrington Declaration: Dr. Martin Kulldorff, professor of medicine at Harvard University, a biostatistician, and epidemiologist; Dr. Sunetra Gupta, professor at Oxford University, an epidemiologist; and Dr. Jay Bhattacharya, professor at Stanford University Medical School, epidemiologist and health economist.
From emails obtained through the Freedom of Information Act by the American Institute for Economic Research, it became apparent that the U.S. government’s two top public health officials — Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease and Francis Collins, the then-director of the National Institutes of Health – had no intentions to communicate or publicly debate with the authors of the Declaration. Instead, as an editorial opinion of a major newspaper put it, “the two sainted public-health officials schemed to quash dissenting views”.
In what would seem to be a shocking statement by a government official whose mantra is “follow the science”, Dr. Collins wrote in an email: “This proposal from the three fringe epidemiologists . . . seems to be getting a lot of attention – and even a co-signature from Nobel Prize winner Mike Leavitt at Stanford. There needs to be a quick and devastating published take down of its premises…Is it underway?”
Calling three highly-published experts from the world’s leading universities “fringe epidemiologists” is more a reflection of the accuser than the accused. Collins then spoke with the Washington Post and charged that the Declaration is “not mainstream science…its dangerous”. According to the emails, Dr. Fauci – who argues that his detractors are “anti-science” because, in his words, “I represent science”— replied that the “takedown” was underway in an article by Wired, a ‘tech’ magazine. The author of the article is “senior writer, climate” for the magazine with an Oxford University degree in the English language and literature.
Climate Change: A Decades-Old Debate
Like the media coverage of covid-19, climate change headlines in the mainstream media for the past three decades have been overwhelmingly one-sided. The basic premise is that the “science is settled” as in a tweet by then U.S. President Barack Obama in 2013: “Ninety-seven percent of scientists agree: climate change is real, man-made and dangerous” with the obvious subtext: “Who are you to challenge this?” And, as in the covid-19 context, the marginalization of climate sceptics has a long track record.
Two examples suffice how fact checks and editorializing serve to ensure that sceptics need not apply for access to the wider public. The first relates to the London-based BBC, fondly known as “beebs”, for its authoritative news broadcasts around the world as it emerged from the ashes of World War II. The British media giant was known and praised not only for its balanced news features but also for its nature documentaries. And in this space, two celebrities with the same first name – David Bellamy and David Attenborough – emerged in the 1970s, directing fascinating TV programs on nature and the environment from every corner of the globe into tens of millions of homes. As British commentator James Dellingpole wrote in his eulogy to Bellamy who died in 2019, “both were superstars…both were well on their way to becoming national treasures.”
Yet, while one, Attenborough, basks in the glow of international fame and is invited to many of the climate conferences as star speaker and delegate, the other claimed he had become a pariah as soon as he rejected group-think on global warming – describing climate change as “poppycock”. Though his climate scepticism killed his media career he remained utterly unrepentant. The BBC itself has made it clear to its staff that it will not invite climate sceptics to its interviews and panel discussions to balance debates because the “science is settled”.
More recently, fact checkers have been busy at their craft with yet another outlier: prominent physicist Steven Koonin, previously Under Secretary for Science under the Obama administration, provost of Caltech and Chief Scientist of BP. He published a book titled “Unsettled: what climate science tells us, what it doesn’t, and why it matters” in 2021 which argued against the prevailing climate alarmist narrative. Prior to its release, the Wall Street Journal (WSJ) published a review of the book and this was followed shortly by a “fact check” by a site called “Climate Feedback”. On its website, Climate Feedback describes itself as a “worldwide network of scientists sorting fact from fiction in climate change media coverage. Our goal is to help readers know which news to trust.”
This “fact check” was cited by Facebook in discrediting the WSJ review and the book itself in all user posts which linked to the book review. This was then followed by an editorial by the WSJ which pointed out that while disagreement with the book’s author is par for the course, as all science progresses with disputation, calling such disagreement a “fact check” was a false claim. Dr. Koonin himself then provided a rebuttal in the WSJ.
Factchecks Are Just Mainstream Opinions
Without getting into details about the claims of the so-called factchecker, the key point here is to note the perversions of truth in representing the arguments critiqued in such “fact checks”. Perhaps this is best revealed by the fact that Facebook argued in its legal defence that its cited fact check was “just opinion” when faced by a lawsuit brought by celebrated journalist John Stossel who had posted two climate change videos.
Readers and viewers beware of this peculiar twist to the caveat emptor clause: the “fact checks” used by the mainstream news outlets and social media to police what you read and watch are just opinions.