Fact-Checking the Stream

According to a new survey by Pew Research Center, most Americans suspect that made-up news is having an impact. About two-in-three U.S. adults (64%) say fabricated news stories cause a great deal of confusion about the basic facts of current issues and events. This sense is shared widely across incomes, education levels, partisan affiliations and most other demographic characteristics. These results come from a survey of 1,002 U.S. adults conducted from Dec. 1 to 4, 2016. 

Many Americans Believe Fake News Is Sowing Confusion,” Pew Research Center (Dec 2016)

The results of the Pew survey mentioned above speak to the felt sense that we live in a post-truth world, where regardless of background or identity, getting at the truth can be difficult work.  In other surveys conducted by the Pew Research Center, Americans have expressed their frustration that during the 2016 presidential election, most voters could not agree even on basic facts. While the broadcast news industry certainly contributes to this problem, one might think that in the digital age — where information is abundant and searchable — it would be relatively easy to clear the air. In reality, however, there are several factors that make this more difficult than it seems.

Your Task

HW: WordPress Posts [50 points]

Throughout this unit you will use Mike Caulfield’s book Web Literacy for Student Fact-Checkers to practice essential fact-checking skills such as going upstream for images and reading online sources laterally rather than just closely. Throughout the unit you will write 4 short (~500 word) posts on WordPress where you experiment with these practices and make your process visible through a research narrative, starting with where and how you are encountering them. These may come from your social media feed, sponsored content you encounter online, talking points or sound bytes your uncle or neighbor repeats, or articles you notice from inside a filter bubble. Your posts will be graded holistically, based on how developed and frequent they are.

Final: Truth-o-meter [50 points]

“As a fact-checker, your job is not to resolve debates based on new evidence, but to accurately summarize the state of research and the consensus of experts in a given area, taking into account majority and significant minority views.”

— Mike Caulfield, Web Literacy for Student Fact-Checkers

At the end of this unit you’ll use literacies like going upstream and reading laterally to produce a more detailed (~1,000-word) fact-check analysis on a claim or image that is more complex than it appears when most people encounter it, whether it circulates via Facebook, Reddit, or Fox News.  The goal of the post is to provide a short answer (how truthful is the claim?) and a longer, more complicated answer. Throughout your post, you should embed images, video, and perhaps most importantly, links and snippets that connect readers with the original source material.

For example, in August 2017 NPR checked Donald Trump and the GOP’s claim that the US has the highest corporate tax rate in the world. The short answer, as they make clear in their post, is that it’s true. However, through a more detailed analysis that takes up the different definitions of “corporate tax rate” (statutory vs. effective), its context when viewed through phenomena like the GDP, and the ways corporations pay depending on tax codes (C-corporations vs. S-corporations), we find out that there are complications.

Some of these complications can get quite bogged down with specifics. For example, in response to Jeff Session’s claim that that adding military-grade weapons to local police helped reduce crime and the number of assaults on officers, Fact-Check.org goes upstream to the studies mentioned by Sessions and even calls one of the authors of the studies cited on the phone. This fact-check is twice as long as the one above from NPR.

As you choose a claim to fact-check, you’ll want to consider the complexity by doing some initial research ahead of time. Hopefully your homework in this unit will help save you some time.