Partisan Fact-checkers: Motivated But Counterproductive

This past week I got a pitch in my inbox about a group that would be fact-checking half of the Scott Brown / Elizabeth Warren Senate debate. And by half of it I mean the Scott Brown half, because the organization pitching me was a progressive advocacy group. Of course, when I tweeted about how partisans are the wrong group to be fact-checking a friend replied with the hashtag #NoShit, but hey, I never claimed to be insightful. Just correct.

It’d be nice if partisans worked as fact-checkers because, after all, they’re quite motivated. Yes, they’ll only check the opposing side, but get enough partisans from various sides and the whole thing might work. Except it doesn’t. And not even because partisan fact-checkers bend the truth, although that happens too. Even partisan fact-checkers like Media Matters that have built up some reputation for accuracy while being forthcoming about the selective nature of what they fact-check ultimately can’t replace genuine nonpartisan, independent fact-checking.

A New York Times op-ed by Cass Sunstein this past week explained why: because the speaker matters.

People tend to dismiss information that would falsify their convictions. But they may reconsider if the information comes from a source they cannot dismiss. People are most likely to find a source credible if they closely identify with it or begin in essential agreement with it. In such cases, their reaction is not, “how predictable and uninformative that someone like that would think something so evil and foolish,” but instead, “if someone like that disagrees with me, maybe I had better rethink.”

What does this mean for fact-checkers? I’m not sure. But what if and Politifact signed on figures from left and right who would be alerted when their party’s candidate had uttered a false or misleading statement, and urged them to share it with their networks? Could that make a dent?

Who knows. But we do know that partisans stepping into the fact-checking arena are no substitute for the real thing.