The following is a news analysis.
In the fake fact-check industry, information and truth are casualties
The Poynter Institute's "Politifact" recently had to do an embarrassing reversal of its fact check that called the idea of Covid-19 originating in a lab a "debunked conspiracy theory."
The fact check about a statement by Li-Meng Yan was first published last September. It attacked a scientist who appeared on the Fox News program "Tucker Carlson Tonight." Among other assertions, Politifact flatly claimed:
• The genetic structure of the novel coronavirus rules out laboratory manipulation.
Yan's Politifact article was in lockstep with much of the media narrative that portrayed what is actually a predominant finding by scientists to be the stuff of tin-foil hat conspirators. Early on in the Covid-19 pandemic, The Washington Post falsely claimed the lab theory had been "debunked." Others widely criticized scientists and public figures who asked logical questions about a potential lab origin.
The assertion by Politifact was false then, and it is false now, according to multiple authorities. And, of course, since Politifact did not conduct its own firsthand examination of the genetic structure of Covid-19, it had no factual basis under which to make the unattributed assertion.
On May 17, Politifact issued an Editor's Note that stated:
When this fact-check was first published in September 2020, PolitiFact’s sources included researchers who asserted the SARS-CoV-2 virus could not have been manipulated. That assertion is now more widely disputed. For that reason, we are removing this fact-check from our database pending a more thorough review. Currently, we consider the claim to be unsupported by evidence and in dispute. The original fact-check in its entirety is preserved below for transparency and archival purposes.
There's no better example of a "fact check" that claims to unequivocally know the "truth" even when the truth is unknowable, when it relies on poor or disputed sources, or when it's simply plain wrong. Politifact's Yan should not have pretended to be an omniscient authority that somehow knows ultimate truth on a disputed topic.
Yet this has become increasingly common in the fact check business.
As I wrote about in my book, The Smear, fact checks have been widely co-opted by the same corporate and political interests who seek to control near every facet of today's information landscape. Instead of serving as true checks of facts, most fact checks become propaganda tools used to shape or manipulate public opinion. They select certain topics, shade the question a certain way, and even provide false or misleading information to controversialize a certain side in a dispute or issue.
The Poynter Institute is is a non-profit journalism school and research organization that gives a lot of guidance and advice on journalism issues. The group has done a lot of great and well-respected work. However, it has let some of its fact checks slip into this murky realm. (I have previously written about lapses at Poynter, such as referring to the propaganda group "Media Matters" as if it is an information authority without disclosing the fact that it's a left-wing smear group that also attacks researchers and reporters who publish on vaccine safety issues.)
The industry of "fact checking" has become so problematic that the most practical way to use most fact checks today is to understand that when a topic is chosen and a narrative is pushed, it means powerful interests are trying to shape opinion on that issue. It means the truth can likely be found not in the actual fact check, but by asking: "Who wants me to believe this and why?"