Political fact-checking operations have proliferated over the last several campaigns. The Annenberg Public Policy Center launched the original FactCheck.org. The St. Petersburg Times’ PolitiFact won a Pulitzer for famously calling out politicians’ pants when they were on fire. And The Washington Post just launched a new and permanent Fact Checker column. Collectively, they have debunked death panels, vicious lies about light bulbs and birtherism.
But there’s a problem with the whole concept.
“The danger of print fact checking is that we have to describe what it is that’s deceptive before we correct it,” said Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center (and chair of Miller-McCune’s editorial advisory committee). “In the process, you’re laying down a memory track of the deception.”
Fact checking, in other words, can reinforce the whopper that needed checking in the first place. And cable news shows— in their subsequent coverage of the checked fact — can be among the worst enablers.
“When you think you’re commenting on how dumb an ad is,” Jamieson said, “you’re actually letting its message get through.”
The next generation of campaign season fact checking could ramp up the whole idea while mitigating some of these unintended consequences. Annenberg is now working on a third cousin to FactCheck.org — the aptly named FlackCheck.org — and it could be a next step to even more sophisticated, real-time, multimedia policing of political fibs.
“We’re trying to get rid of the possibility,” Jamieson said, “that you’re processing the deception more clearly than you’re processing the correction.”
FlackCheck’s solution is to produce videos that deconstruct political ads in their own language, calling out not just the stated factual inaccuracies, but also the visual cues, music and insinuation that all support a deception. And they’re trying to do it with humor.
The site will go live in January, but there are a couple of examples — audition tapes from the team assembled for the project — up now. One video offers a comprehensive takedown of nearly every frame in this summer’s shocking “Give me your cash” ad attacking California Democrat Janice Hahn (who is seen with those ubiquitous demonic red eyes which, the fact-checking narrator clarifies, she does not have in real life).
Another series of videos targets the “Taliban Dan” ad that now-ousted Democratic Representative Alan Grayson ran last year, pulling his opponent’s words out of context to imply that Dan Webster advocates making women submit to their husbands.
“Unsurprisingly, Mr. Grayson sounds equally ridiculous when taken out of context …” FlackCheck’s response video says. FlackCheck then proceeds to artfully splice together several of Grayson’s own public appearances. Lo and behold: “Look, women are foot-dragging, knuckle-dragging Neanderthals. Look, what I want is to eliminate women’s rights. And I tell seniors: die quickly!”
The underlying point is pretty serious — scary, almost — but the clip is a riot.
“We’re thinking that there is an audience that is unlikely to read a print fact check but that is nonetheless politically attuned, that it is far more likely to get its news from The Daily Show, that processes things visually very comfortably,” Jamieson said. “We think humor is the most powerful way to put in place corrections. The danger otherwise is it sounds as if you’re trying to nag, you’re trying to teach, you’re being patronizing.”
FlackCheck instead wants to distance you from the message, reframe it as what it really is — a deception — and tell that story through humor that will make the deception easier to remember and recognize.
“Now you’re looking for the deception, you’re remembering our joke, and, as a result, it doesn’t work on you,” Jamieson said. “Then hopefully you send it to all of your friends.”
The team is hoping to turn around its videos within 24 hours of an ad’s first airing, so that you’ll already have seen FlackCheck’s joke — and been inoculated against the deception — by the time you see the ad a second time. The project plans to put out two such videos a week focusing on the presidential campaign (which assumes a lot of dubious advertising).
“The challenge for us is can a team of seven produce this stuff in a real time?” Jamieson said. “And we’re running an attack campaign against Abraham Lincoln at the same time.”
Ah yes, the attack campaign against Abraham Lincoln. This is an important piece, too. FlackCheck doesn’t just want to correct lies; it wants to teach people how the process of political deception works. Every week starting in January, the site will put up an ad savaging the long-dead president, just to illustrate how one of the greatest leaders in U.S. history could have been defeated by a mediocre general in the age of attack ads.
Jamieson says she’ll know the project is working when its videos go viral on social media, and she’s assuming those videos will reach people who don’t visit FactCheck.org. But researchers will also be testing the videos in the lab to measure if the strategy does in fact increase viewers’ retention of the corrected material.
And the project will really know it’s a success when the debunked deceptions find their way onto television news — but through coverage that doesn’t further propagate deceptions.
“They don’t have to put the deceptive part of the ad up to talk about the ad,” Jamieson said. And FlackCheck will be following and grading the news, too, with particularly harsh judgment reserved for the Sunday morning political talk shows that have time to think about what they’re broadcasting before they go on air.
This could be the beginning of a whole new era of political fact checking. Jamieson and others have envisioned a kind of live fact-check meta-tagging. Say you’re watching a Republican presidential debate on the Internet. Rick Perry tells a big one about Mitt Romney’s Massachusetts health care legacy, and suddenly a little bubble pops up on your screen to correct him. This isn’t technologically feasible yet, but we may be getting there.
“That’s a really interesting idea, because so often those things are in completely different places, different spaces, in different times,” Jamieson said. “As a result, you don’t actually get them put together, your brain has to do that. That assumes you remember everything you’ve read and seen, and of course you don’t.”