The internet has always allowed a range of different stories to be shared online, but in the last ten or more years, fake news has unfortunately been a large part of all of our media. Fake news stories appear as real stories, suggesting events or facts that are simply untrue.  And now, with the rise of fake news, it has become harder and harder to tell real facts from fiction.  Trying to tell what is real and what is fake is time consuming and frustrating, and so different teams of people around the world decided to create fact-checkers, websites dedicated to sorting out the real facts from the lies.  But are fact checkers really checking their facts and should we be relying on them to tell us what is true?

Fact checkers have been around for some time now and a lot of people turn to them these days to find out whether certain rumoured claims are true or not.  Most fact checkers will have an instant answer near the top of the page, so as soon as you ask the question the answer will appear as: TRUE or FALSE. But should we be relying on this quick answer or should we be reading the more detailed explanation of the facts below, and if the facts are checked by regular people, is it possible they could be wrong?

First encounter with a fact checker

I heard about fact checkers a long time ago but have never actually used one until this year.  I usually enjoy researching facts about things I hear (am I weird?) but earier this year I tried a fact-checker for the first time.  Near the start of the year I heard some unsettling news about a specific celebrity who I admired and who I looked up to when I was younger.  This celebrity is one of the very famous ones Hollywood types, so high up in their career that it seems nothing touches them, they never get bad press and everyone seems to love them.  I’d heard a rumour going around social media though, that this celebrity had said something very offensive and racist.  It was a specific sentence they had said but there hadn’t been any news anywhere in the mainstream media that this celebrity had said something so disturbing.

Finding it hard to believe the rumour I decided to investigate anyway, doing a web search and asking a search engine “Did (celebrity name) say…”. The first page of results came back as a bunch of fact-checkers which had obviously already been asked this question before. The top ranking fact-checker seemed to be Snopes so I clicked the link to see if it was true.

The claim I had searced for had a very large red X on the top of the page along with the word ‘False’ underneath it.  Obviously Snopes was telling me that this celebrity had not said this disturbing and racist thing.  However there was a lot of writing beneath the ‘false’ rating and seeing as as I had never used Snopes before (and I’m a sucker for reading small print – no REALLY I do! 🧐🤪) I decided to scroll down and began reading the rather small but lengthy writing that detailed the fact-check.  It began by explaining where and when the claim, that this celebrity had said something racist, was made and how it came about.  After a couple of long paragraphs (which most people would get bored of reading😴) Snopes began quoting the interview which this rumoured racist comment supposidly came from.

The interview was long and was broken down by Snopes’s analysis of the it.  After some tedious and long reading which I was beginning to regret, I eventually reached the bottom of the page, the last part of the interview with a last paragraph of the celebrity’s interview.  I couldn’t believe it!  The words priinted were…The exact racist words that the rumour had suggested they had said.  It wasn’t a rumour, the celebrity really had said those horrible words. 😔😱  So then why hadn’t I heard this in the news or gossip sites, and why had Snopes labelled it as false?

Fact Check confusion

It was clearly obvious that this celebrity HAD said those racist words, they had their reasons for saying them but regardless of what the reason was it was clear what they had meant and it sounded awful.😔  I decided to read the last paragraph by Snopes which explained that the words had supposidly been taken out of context and this celebrity hadn’t meant what they were acused of saying.  Hang on, what?🤔🧐 The words were there, in the quoted paragraph above, it was obvious what they had said and I couldn’t see any way that they could have been taken out of context and meant differently.  I re-read the whole interview again, just to understand where the ‘out of context’ bit came about, but there was no denying, this celebrity had said something disturbing, and Snopes was somehow defending them.

Snopes was clearly wrong. This celebrity had said those words so the fact check should have had a green tick and the words: TRUE written beneath. But Snopes was clearly wrong or had lied and the fact check said: FALSE, which was both factually and morally wrong.

The second fact check

A few weeks later I heard a funny rumour and saw a supposed photo of a politician when they were younger.  There was a new rumour going around that had something to do with who was photographed alongside the politician in their youth.  The question was whether it really was this politician in the picture or someone else.  If it was the politician then it raised some serious ethical questions about their standing.  Let’s just say they were supposidly photographed with some bad people but I won’t say who, just that it would look very bad and make you question their motives in politics.

I’d seen the image and decided to do another search on the internet, typing in the words asking if it was true. Once again a bunch of fact checkers appeared but wary of my encounter with Snopes I decided to try another.  I can’t remember the name of this fact checker but I didn’t stay on their site for long. They immediately began explaining how “Snopes has confirmed…Snopes says…Snopes has explained” so I rolled my eyes realising that this fact checker was basically just quoting Snopes the entire time (how many fact chechers rely on other fact checkers for their facts?🤷‍♀️🤦‍♀️) Once again I decided that it would be better to hear it from the real Snopes and so checked their site instead.  I could have gone to another fact checker but the ones that came up had little in the way of explanations but Snopes apparently had a lot to say….The question was about whether a certain politician was pictured with some other certain people when they were younger and it was answered with a big X and the words: FALSE beneath.  Just like in my previous fact check.

This time the Snopes wasted no time in getting to the point, the text about where the rumour had sprung from was written in a weird way and included phrases like ‘ridiculous rumour’.  The text didn’t sound like someone professional had written it doing a professional fact check, in fact it sounded more like someone fed up and having a rant. 😮  As I read through the whole text the only reason Snopes gave for the fact that this politician couldn’t have possibly have been photographed alongside those other people was…because the young person in the photo didn’t look like the politician’s school photograph.  Snopes added that ‘It doesn’t even look like them’. They added a school photo of said politician to confirm their proof and left it at that.

More fact checker confusion?

Now, as someone who has managed to look thin faced on one photograph and after pursing my lips I’ve managed to look like a chipmunk in another (very unfortunate and very true😳🙄🤣), I know how easy it is to look completely different in two different photographs. (I seriously don’t recognise myself in that ‘chipmunk’ picture – which used to be my old passport photo by the way so I basically don’t look like me at all, good luck to me getting through security!🤦‍♀️🤪).

As I looked at the two photographs, the politician’s school photo and this rumoured other photo (the one with the questionable/bad people in it), although the two young people have different hair: in one photo the hair falls over the forehead and partly into the eyes, while the other has the hair brushed back, it’s honestly’s impossible to say that they are not the same person as the school photo boasts a lot of hair falling on the forehead and the two images do have the same long face and similar hair colour.  Could they really be the same person?🤔🧐 It was impossible to tell.  Maybe.🤷‍♀️

I looked around for some other ‘proof’ Snopes had for their claim that this couldn’t be the same politician, but there wasn’t any!  There was no confirmation from the politician or government.  None from any credible source.  In fact the only actual fact check done, seemed to be someone’s own personal opinion! 😲 I’ve since checked with various fact checkers online and usually there’s a name  somewhere on the page, meaning the name of the individual who did the fact check.  This particular person who had done this particular fact check based made assumptions and their thoughts that the two in the pictures didn’t look the same was just their own personal opinion!  The ‘false’ rating was entirely based on individual opinion and they also seemed to have a bit of an unpleasant rant which seemed very unprofessional.😱

The problem with fact checkers

When I was at college onwards I was always taught how important it was to cite any references I used. If I wanted to state something as true I had to back up my claim with facts and I would have to provide a list of where I got my facts from, a sort of list of proof of my statements, like which books I quoted so someone reading my essay would know that I hadn’t made them up. The problem with Snopes and many other fact chekers I’ve looked at, is that they simply don’t state any proof of where they get their facts from. It’s all good and well having someone checking out whether something is true or false but at the end of the day how are they coming up with these conclusions?

Snopes and many other fact checkers are essentially run by people, just regular people who dedicate some time to finding out what is true.  But the reality and truth is that at the end of the day these fact checkers, though made up of dedicated people, are only individuals and it’s usually only one person doing a fact check on each fact.   If that one person gets their facts wrong or uses an unreliable or unknown source for their fact checking, then they will pass on this wong information to us.😱  I’ve since seen it on a few more facts I’ve checked.

I’ve asked some friends to help me out in check out some other facts with the fact checkers including one rumour that suggested certain politicians and doctors in different countries had worked at a certain institutions or had shares in a certain companies over the years.  If true it would mean that they could be biased in making some pretty big decisions which have affected lives around the world for a long time, but a lot of fact checkers won’t cite who worked at the company during the years that are in question (to prove it wasn’t those people) and they don’t seem to give any or much evidence for their FALSE (or occasionally TRUE) rating.  After checking out some more facts with friends, I now find myself confused as I don’t know how often the facts are true or how often they are simply unsure and make assumptions based on popular opinion.🤷‍♀️😥☹️

Finding the real truth

There was a time when the internet used to be filled with mostly real information. But once the fake news started poruing in, and sites like Wikipedia began, allowing anybody to change the information on them, it started becoming harder and harder to find out and know what is truth and what are lies.  Finding out the truth is still possible. There are reputable sites out there, as well as dedicated individually run websites (even some blogs) that explain the truth and even cite and give their evidence of it.  But relying on sites like Wikipedia for everything is like asking a crowd of random people in the steets and one of them will tell you what they think (whether it’s true or not).  The reliability of sites like Wikipedia has been shown to be flawed.  Anyone can put anything they want on there and even though there are lots of people who do their best to share real information on there, others like to put false things up (this is especially easy to see during any election).

With the rise of false news fact checkers have become a norm and many of us now turn to them to find out if rumours are true or just something to ignore.  But while fact checkers can be useful if they know the real facts, they are, at the end of the day, only as reliable as the one person writing the fact check.  We often don’t know how these facts are checked, what evidence they use as it’s just not cited on their fact checks.  And as long as fact checkers are written by people who aren’t prepared to really research something (which in some instances seems to be the case), we can’t fully trust them any more than we can trust any amateur website.

We need fact checkers like Snopes to prove that these claims are false or true, not just have an individual’s gut feeling or instinct about it based on little or no evidence.  If there’s no real evidence then tell us that and be honest in telling us that the rating is: ‘Unsure’ or ‘educated guess’.  While we can use fact checkers if we want to (and they can sometimes be right) we need to all recognise that we shouldn’t be relying on them for our facts.  We need to double check the smaller print to see how they’ve decided what is true or false.   And it would help if they cited the many sources that they relied on to make their claimes (if there are any).

Understanding the truth

In the meantime we need to recognise that sometimes the fact checkers are NOT checking the facts, that sometimes the fact checkers are WRONG.  And we need to start doing the old-fashioned thing that we all used to do 10+ years ago and that is researching things for ourselves.  Although many groan at this idea, researching can actually be fun and interesting.  And if we don’t research then we shouldn’t dismiss the rumours we hear because sometimes they might turn out to be true.  But if we rely on fact checkers for all of our information…we may never really know what is really fact and what is really fiction.😯😱

Have you used any fact checkers?  What do you think about fact checkers getting things wrong?  Do you trust them or would you like them to prove their facts?  Let me know what you think in the comments below 🙂