Fact Checking... Doesn't Matter?
My optimism was based on the rise of websites including the award-wining PolitiFact (http://www.politifact.com/) and the competing partisan sites Media Matters (http://mediamatters.org/) and NewsBusters (http://newsbusters.org/). Media/politics focused sites Mediaite (http://www.mediaite.com/), Politico (http://www.politico.com/) and The Daily Caller (http://dailycaller.com/) also offered hope politicians and pundits would be held to account.
I tell students I care about facts, statistics, and lab results. Since many, if not most, of the students with whom I work are business, technology, and science majors, they appreciate this emphasis on the empirical. But, it turns out even some of the most intellectually gifted students have limited interests in the fact checking of political claims.
Asking a student if she cared that PolitiFact ranked a statement by a particular politician a lie, her response was, "PolitiFact is worthless according to DailyKos." Of course, I've heard similar responses from other students, simply substituting the fact-checking and partisan sources. Left and right, fact checking is selective when it is pursued at all.
Logical, scientific students don't want to believe factual refutation of political statements supporting the biases of the students. I am surrounded by students with the highest SAT/ACT scores. These young men and women are more engaged politically and socially than most other people. And yet, they are as resistant, if not more so, to challenges of their deeply held assumptions than other media consumers.
I dedicate much class time to our flawed ability to consider competing facts. Humans are not reasonable, logical computing devices. We tend to reach conclusions and then justify those conclusions by selectively accepting and rejecting information. The research on this problem is extensive. I provide various journal articles to students and almost universally they claim to be above such human weaknesses. But, we all filter media and must struggle to get beyond that instinct.
But, I had hoped that the explosion in fact-checking sites and easy access to a myriad of opinions would lead people to be curious. I imagined more people reading sources from across the political spectrum. The Web was going to elevate public discourse because someone was always going to check the statements of political figures.
I was wrong.
Instead, it turns out people stick to like-minded, biased, and often uncivil sources. Website readers are often profiled statistically for advertisers and political organizations. The reports reveal that we have become less interested in other points of view.
Why doesn't fact checking matter? For a rhetoric instructor, it is disappointing.