Fears over ‘fake news’, targeted disinformation, and the rise of post-truth politics have met with a central mainstream solution: ‘fact-checking’. Fact-checking is featuring prominently in coverage of the 2019 UK General Election. ITV News, for instance, will use FullFact.org to analyse the claims made by Boris Johnson and Jeremy Corbyn in their forthcoming leadership debate, with the aim of better informing their viewers by exposing misleading statements.
This reflects the wider embrace of fact-checking as a panacea against the rise of anti-expert politics. It has been employed in coverage of US presidential and primary debates, as well as the parliamentary theatre of Brexit. Third party fact-checking organisations have also been championed by social media companies in response to demands by regulators and legislatures that they take responsibility for the content circulated on their platforms. Indeed the use of ‘independent’ fact-checkers to flag content was highlighted by Mark Zuckerberg, during his various appearances before Congress, in defence of Facebook’s practices.
However, the concept of fact-checking frames the problems of post-truth politics in narrowly positivist terms – as reducible to a lack of information (‘facts’), leading to sub-optimally rational decision-making by electorates. It has not been underpinned by a sophisticated account of the epistemic conditions for the exercise of democratic citizenship. Fact-checking occupies an increasingly central place in our political culture, but the justification for it remains largely implicit and untheorized.
There are several problematic ways in which the concept of ‘fact-checking’ frames the appraisal of political claims, which mean that by itself it cannot bear the burden our society is placing on it for improving the public scrutiny of political messaging.
- Firstly, fact-checkers focus on clarifying and contextualising only the empirical content of political claims – for instance, the different ways of measuring poverty and how these might be selectively used to tell different stories about how it has evolved. They do not contextualise and clarify the distinctive normative content of political claims – for instance, the theories of distributive justice that they implicitly support and objections which could be raised against them. This risks giving the misleading impression that if the viewer or user has understood whether a political figure has got the ‘facts’ right then her claim is sound and valid.
- Secondly, fact-checkers – by focusing only on establishing the ‘facts’ and on demonstrating their ‘independence’ and ‘objectivity’ – tend to operationalise a hard fact/value distinction. This tends to validate certain forms of expertise as ‘value-free’, under-playing the political and normative assumptions embedded within social scientific disciplines and theoretical traditions. As an example, neoclassical economics is generally appealed to as the appropriate body of expertise to assess claims made about ‘the economy’, without unpacking the contested assumptions this tradition of thought is founded upon. Consequently, political claims that are bolstered by these assumptions are invested with a falsely secure authority. Relatedly, fact-checking tends to implicitly validate certain forms of evidence over others. For instance, it reproduces a bias for quantitative data over qualitative data, even though the epistemic justifications for this preference may be shaky when applied to many political questions.
- Thirdly, fact-checking provides little basis on which to understand or contest the background assumptions and “problem frames” that all political rhetoric rests on. Consider a recent fact-check of a BBC phone-in, during which Boris Johnson responded to viewers’ questions on the Conservative government’s record and policy stances. It includes an analysis of childcare policy. But, in keeping with the general principles of fact-checking, it limits itself narrowly to unpacking some further details about the government’s scheme to subsidise paid childcare and its coverage. As such, it doesn’t interrogate the background assumptions that frame this way of analysing the problem – e.g., that childcare must be provided as a commodity, and that it could not be addressed through labour market reforms such as job sharing, working time regulations, or Basic Income provision. This is perfectly in keeping with fact-checkers’ interpretation of their mandate, and their extreme hesitancy to conduct any analysis which may be seen as ‘biased’ or ‘value-laden’. But as an aid to a voter trying to understand the full issues that are at stake in social policy on childcare, it is of limited use.
Fact-checking may be a step in the right direction towards a richer democratic discourse. But given these shortcomings, we need to replace – or at least supplement – fact-checking with what we may term ‘value-checking’. This form of epistemic enhancement would explicitly acknowledge normative reasoning as essential to the ability to fully scrutinise, understand, and respond to political discourse.
Value-checking could run alongside political news coverage and social media advertising in a similar way as fact-checking does already. However, it would have a distinctive task, that could focus on correcting the three problems with fact-checking identified above.
- Firstly, value-checking would seek to improve public understanding of the values underpinning political adverts and claims that we are exposed to on a daily basis (as well as simply their factual validity). This could include brief and easy-to-understand summaries of the normative theories that politicians’ rhetoric draws upon and their alternatives.
- Secondly, value-checkers would seek to identify the assumptions that different bodies of expertise are founded on, and the potential political baggage of these. For instance, they could provide links to alternative research founded on different epistemological commitments and starting premises.
- Thirdly, value-checking could unpack the assumptions embedded in certain ways of framing a problem. This would help citizens to grasp how the universe of viable ‘solutions’ to a political issue is constrained by the way in which that problem is framed, and present alternative ways of framing the issue.
Value-checking would still be ‘neutral’, in the sense of performing these functions equally rigorously for politicians from all sides of the political spectrum. However, it would abandon the pretence of value-free knowledge, explicitly seeking to help voters better understand and scrutinise the normative content of political discourse. Thus, value-checking could provide an important supplement to fact-checking as an epistemic support for contemporary democracy.