What is a Fair Fact Checker?

Let’s face it. Some sources lean to the right. Others lean to the left. That’s why we need the CounterChecker app. Efforts to be non-partisan are noble, but our biases always seem to come out of the closet before long. Are professional fact-checkers exceptions?

the Politifact Pants on Fire Truth-o-Meter indicator
Credit: Mike Licht, 2016. License: https://goo.gl/yzNjnQ.

Currently, the most prominent American fact checking organization is Politifact. Owned by the Poynter Institute, a non-profit school for journalists, Politifact was first a project of the St. Petersburg Times, which is now the Tampa Bay Times. It’s Editor-in-Chief, Angie Holan, is one of seven Advisory Board members that determine who can be a member of the International Fact-Checking Network (IFCN). Membership in the IFCN is the primary requirement Mark Zuckerberg has for allowing a Fact Checking organization to debunk news on the Facebook platform.

Politifact makes its money primarily from advertisements on its own site and receives compensation for selling its content to online publishers. It also receives grants and individual donations from over 4,000 individuals to its Truth Squad, which amounted to over $1/2 million in 2020. Facebook and Tiktok have also paid Politifact substantial sums representing more than 5% of their revenues each. Click here for details. In short, Fact-Checking can be quite lucrative if you’re on top of the game. Sitting on the top spot of the IFCN and having this relationship with social media is putting Politifact at a distinct advantage.

Members of the IFCN agree to the IFCN Code of Principles. The IFCN Advisory Board needs four votes of seven to approve an organization in a vetting process. Perception by the Advisory Board at the time of application of compliance with the IFCN’s Code of Principles is the essential requirement for approval. Five of the Advisory Board members are not Americans and would likely be less familiar with American news sources than Angie Holan. So, it is fair to ask what influence Angie Holan has as a decision maker, at least for American Fact-Check Organization membership approvals, if not the entire world.

There are twenty nine organizations that have been approved at the time of this writing. That’s out of a growing pool of over three hundred fact-checking organizations worldwide. An international Advisory Board would be indispensable for such a purpose. The other American member is Glenn Kessler. It was Kessler who chose to run a daily count of mistruths and false claims made by Donald Trump while in office as the Chief Editor of the Washington Post Fact Checker. It was a project he didn’t let up on despite criticisms that the ongoing count included large swaths of subjective analysis that might more appropriately be classified as opinion than fact-check, counting rhetorical statements and generalities along the way, since these can be viewed as partially true or mostly false, either way. Is it possible that it was his goal to site over 30,000 lies in four years? By the end of his term, Kessler’s count was 30,573. While he is lifted up as non-partisan and as fair a journalist as there has ever been by many, it is hard to say that his partisanship did not seek some release at least with respect to Trump.

If Kessler and Holan are the decision makers at the ICFN, then might it be fair to wonder whether the ICFN itself stands in violation of its own Code of Principles? The ideals at the Poynter Institute are high. Having been vetted and approved, take a look at what the ICFN members are thought to consistently live by …

  1. To be compliant on nonpartisanship and fairness, applicants must meet these five criteria

    • 2.1 The applicant fact-checks using the same high standards of evidence and judgement for equivalent claims regardless of who made the claim.
    • 2.2 The applicant does not unduly concentrate its fact-checking on any one side, considers the reach and importance of claims it selects to check and publishes a short statement on its website to set out how it selects claims to check.
    • 2.3 The applicant discloses in its fact checks relevant interests of the sources it quotes where the reader might reasonably conclude those interests could influence the accuracy of the evidence provided. It also discloses in its fact checks any commercial or other such relationships it has that a member of the public might reasonably conclude could influence the findings of the fact check.
    • 2.4 The applicant is not as an organization affiliated with nor declares or shows support for any party, any politician or political candidate, nor does it advocate for or against any policy positions on any issues save for transparency and accuracy in public debate.
    • 2.5 The applicant sets out its policy on non-partisanship for staff on its site. Save for the issues of accuracy and transparency, the applicant’s staff do not get involved in advocacy or publicise their views on policy issues the organization might fact check in such a way as might lead a reasonable member of the public to see the organization’s work as biased.
  2. To be compliant on sources, applicants must meet these four criteria

    • 3.1 The applicant identifies the source of all significant evidence used in their fact checks, providing relevant links where the source is available online, in such a way that users can replicate their work if they wish. In cases where identifying the source would compromise the source’s personal security, the applicant provides as much detail as compatible with the source’s safety.
    • 3.2 The applicant uses the best available primary, not secondary, sources of evidence wherever suitable primary sources are available. Where suitable primary sources are not available, the applicant explains the use of a secondary source.
    • 3.3 The applicant checks all key elements of claims against more than one named source of evidence save where the one source is the only source relevant on the topic.
    • 3.4 The applicant identifies in its fact checks the relevant interests of the sources it uses where the reader might reasonably conclude those interests could influence the accuracy of the evidence provided.
  3. To be compliant on funding and organization, applicants must meet these five criteria

    • 4.1 Applicants that are independent organizations have a page on their website detailing each source of funding accounting for 5% or more of total revenue for its previous financial year. This page also sets out the legal form in which the organization is registered (e.g. as a non-profit, as a company etc).
    • 4.2 Applicants that are the fact-checking section or unit of a media house or other parent organization make a statement on ownership.
    • 4.3 A statement on the applicant’s website sets out the applicant’s organizational structure and makes clear how and by whom editorial control is exercised.
    • 4.4 A page on the applicant’s website details the professional biography of all those who, according to the organizational structure and play a significant part in its editorial output.
    • 4.5 The applicant provides easy means on its website and/or via social media for users to communicate with the editorial team.
  4. To be compliant on methodology, applicants must meet these six criteria

    • 5.1 The applicant publishes on its website a statement about the methodology it uses to select, research, write and publish its fact checks.
    • 5.2 The applicant selects claims to check based primarily on the reach and importance of the claims, and where possible explains the reason for choosing the claim to check.
    • 5.3 The applicant sets out in its fact checks relevant evidence that appears to support the claim as well as relevant evidence that appears to undermine it.
    • 5.4 The applicant in its fact checks assesses the merits of the evidence found using the same high standards applied to evidence on equivalent claims, regardless of who made the claim.
    • 5.5 The applicant seeks where possible to contact those who made the claim to seek supporting evidence, noting that (I) this is often not possible with online claims, (II) if the person who makes the claim fails to reply in a timely way this should not impede the fact check, (III) if a speaker adds caveats to the claim, the fact-checker should be free to continue with checking the original claim, (IV) fact-checkers may not wish to contact the person who made the claim for safety or other legitimate reasons.
    • 5.6 The applicant encourages users to send in claims to check, while making it clear what readers can legitimately expect will be fact-checked and what isn’t fact-checkable.
  5. To be compliant on corrections policy, applicants must meet these five criteria

    • 6.1 The applicant has a corrections or complaints policy that is easily visible and accessible on the organization’s website or frequently referenced in broadcasts.
    • 6.2 The policy sets out clear definitions of what it does and does not cover, how major mistakes, especially those requiring revised conclusions of a fact check, are handled, and the fact that some complaints may justify no response. This policy is adhered to scrupulously.
    • 6.3 Where credible evidence is provided that the applicant has made a mistake worthy of correction, the applicant makes a correction openly and transparently, seeking as far as possible to ensure that users of the original see the correction and the corrected version.
    • 6.4 The applicant, if an existing signatory, should either on its corrections/complaints page or on the page where it declares itself an IFCN signatory inform users that if they believe the signatory is violating the IFCN Code, they may inform the IFCN, with a link to the IFCN site.
    • 6.5 If the applicant is the fact-checking unit of a media company, it is a requirement of signatory status that the parent media company has and adheres to an open and honest corrections policy.

Source: https://www.ifcncodeofprinciples.poynter.org/know-more/the-commitments-of-the-code-of-principles


The CounterChecker Methodology

Regardless of whether you believe the IFCN abuses its own principles, it will not be the CounterChecker app’s job to decide. We are building a platform for discussion of fact-checks in every organization, beginning with the well-known American ones. We will start with those that are approved members of the ICFN. We suspect this will improve the quality of their material as it will prompt various corrections. Then when the kinks have been worked out of the first few iterations of our product, we will expand our scope to non IFCN member organizations and tweak our app by nationality and language.

Will that help? Will it be fair? I sure think so. If anyone on the planet is truly unbiased and fair, that is possible, but not what our platform requires for participation. What we are interested in is evidence, not perceived authority. Our method is to pit teams of researchers against one another and give each side as much room as it needs to make its case. Ironically, it might be our mere commitment to providing a platform for communication among the biased, that leaves us the only truly unbiased fact-checking source, earning us top place in deserved authority.

To put it simply, we will provide a platform that is easy to search through. We will take any existing fact-check, add it to our database, and allow it to be marked up and linked to by teams of critics. We will house the commentary, the history of mark ups and a copy of the original content, (properly linked to and credited), in what we refer to as the Tree of Truth (TOT). The TOT will serve as a directory for tracing arguments and discovering all related evidence to any disputed matter. Many fact checks may well remain unchallenged. If the fact-checkers truly lived by the IFCN Code of Principles above, it is likely that they would not be subject to many challenges or disputes. The quality and faithfulness of organizations, and their own earned authority, could then be measured by a lack of challenges.

It is often said that there are two sides to every story. Whether a fact-check is biased to the right or the left, we will invite counter-checkers to challenge that info. When challenges take place on the CounterChecker platform, it will be on a point by point, word by word basis – not a whole article basis. A lot of people have been asking how we would issue judgements. Will we have a Truth-O-Meter? Pinocchios? No. We will have “counts.” Counts are an objective way to assess whether a fact-check is itself truthful. It is not a measure of whether what the fact-check is fact-checking is truthful. The latter is to be determined by the reader.

Teams are appointed by their own organizers, headed by a chief editor on the left and a chief editor on the right. A countercheck begins by challenging an existing fact check from any organization, right or left. Any point in an article can be disputed by highlighting the text. That text then opens up a challenge page, where the reasons for challenging the point are provided. This creates a branch in the Tree of Truth. When this happens, the author of the challenged article is notified so they have an opportunity to respond to the challenge and expect a critical dialog. If they respond, the branch gets a sub-branch (a twig?). There is no limit to the dialog back and forth – challenges challenging challenges, and so on, but repeat content is filtered out through our anti-duplication algorithms. This helps our readers find information, rather than circular arguments. And there are other checks and balances planned. We have a sophisticated process for this in our nuts and bolts department, which is where our attention will be focused as a platform, rather than as a content provider.

Financing the CounterChecker Platform

We may as well start crowd funding right away. Send donations today! The CounterChecker will be a For Profit LLC. We are happy to take donations from individuals, corporations or foundations, just as every fact-checking organization does. We expect our primary source of revenue to be advertising – political advertising, in particular. We will then fund opposing research teams, paying their chief editors based on the total amount of advertising they generate.

Each chief-editor will apportion their allotments to their research teams as they see fit. We will provide analytics to help them determine how much traffic and how much ad revenue is generated with respect to any given article and the total for each of their journalists. Later iterations may include a direct payment platform to journalists. Freelance journalists may approach chief editors with sample fact-checks or counterchecks if they want jobs as counter-checkers.

We do need to offset our start up expenses, as well, so it is likely we will kick off with a Kickstarter Campaign. If you are curious about our financing, give me a buzz. Be prepared to sign a Non Disclosure/Non Compete Agreement.  Calls will also be recorded. Then we can talk about the nuts and bolts of the operation. Sound fair? Also, we will publicly disclose our funding sources over time. Understand that we cannot align ourselves with partisan sources that might result in a perceived conflict of interest. Even though we are a platform rather than content providers we still want to skirt criticism, so we do need to be selective about who we accept money from. Prepaid advertising sponsorships might be a good venue for those who fit that category but who want to support the work. Thanks for your understanding and help!

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