The prevalence of fact-checking continues to grow and may have played an important part in the 2012 presidential election. It seems that there is a great potential for such services as FactCheck.org, PolitiFact, and the soon to come Hypothes.is to improve our political discourse and resulting social policy.
Indeed, a recent example concerning the NRA and gun control (Fact Checking the NRA Press Conference) shows the growing importance of this activity. Could this really improve social policy?
I think with a few potential caveats the answer is yes. In fact, if I were a politician running for elected office I would encourage fact checking organizations to vet my factual claims. Those that could not hold up to scrutiny would then be evaluated and modified as necessary. I wonder when more politicians will adopt this procedure. It would seem prudent given that the half-truths and outright lies they tell will soon come to light anyway. It has never been more difficult to get away with fudging the truth than it is now with so many people willing and able to check the facts.
But, there are a few potential problems. If we begin to rely solely on fact-checking organizations such as those listed above will we be giving up our own ability to scrutinize and find out for ourselves. In a society where voters ultimately decide who gets elected it seems that we should not simply hand over fact checking to other organizations. We still need to be the ultimate fact checkers ourselves.
At one point, the news media were considered the fact-checkers and watch dogs. It was their job to ask the hard questions, find out the hidden facts, and report them. But now, with so many news organizations becoming partisan players in politics many people have lost faith in the news media's ability or willingness to be objective reporters. Could the same thing happen with fact checking websites?
Whoever we look to for our facts and verification, it is important to know who is doing the checking and from what perspective. We all operate from some bias or other and fact checkers are no different. So, we owe it to ourselves and the quality of our political discourse to check the checkers. Perhaps it is good that there is already a multitude of fact checking websites so that we can compare their results.
Also, by playing a more and more important role in political discourse fact checkers can be certain that they will soon be the target of lobbying efforts and campaign funds. It will be increasingly difficult for these organizations to remain neutral when they are being actively courted by politicians and political parties.
As I said above, ultimately it will be our willingness to stay informed, educated, and active in the political process that will encourage the checking of facts and the objectivity of this. We need to demand that politicians tell the truth, fact-check them in any case, fact-check the fact-checkers, and keep asking questions until we are satisfied that the answers we are getting are best on the best knowledge and facts available.
In that respect thinking like a philosopher is one of the best practices we can all do to improve social policy:
1. Ask more questions.
2. Demand better answers.
3. Learn more than you think you need to know.