Fact-checking the wrong way, featuring PolitiFact
Let PolitiFact help show you the right way to fact check by avoiding its mistakes.
Fake and skewed news do present a problem for society. Having the best possible information allows us to potentially make the best possible decisions. Bad information hampers good decision-making. And the state of public discourse, including the state of the mainstream media, makes it valuable for the average person to develop fact-checking skills.
We found a December 11, 2016 fact check from PolitiFact that will help us learn better how to interpret claims and make use of expert sources.
The interpretation problem
PolitiFact believed it was fact-checking Republican Reince Priebus’ claim that there was no report available saying Russia tried to interfere with the 2016 presidential election:
Was Priebus saying there was no “specific report” saying Russia tried to “muddy” the election? Here’s how PolitiFact viewed it:
“Let’s clear this up. Do you believe — does the president-elect believe that Russia was trying to muddy up and get involved in the election in 2016?” Meet the Press host Chuck Todd asked on Dec. 11, 2016.
“No. 1, you don’t know it. I don’t know it,” Priebus said. “There’s been no conclusive or specific report to say otherwise.”
That’s wrong. There is a specific report.
It was made public on Oct. 7, 2016, in the form of a joint statement from the Department of Homeland Security and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. At the time, the website WikiLeaks was releasing a steady flow of emails stolen from the Democratic National Committee and top Hillary Clinton adviser John Podesta.
“The U.S. Intelligence Community (USIC) is confident that the Russian Government directed the recent compromises of e-mails from U.S. persons and institutions, including from U.S. political organizations,” the statement said. “These thefts and disclosures are intended to interfere with the U.S. election process.”
Based on the context of Priebus’ appearance on “Meet the Press,” we think PolitiFact botched its interpretation. NBC’s Chuck Todd went back and forth with Priebus for a number of minutes on the nature of the evidence supporting the charge of Russian interference with the 2016 U.S. presidential election. The main topic was recent news reports suggesting Russia interfered with the U.S. election to help Republican candidate Donald Trump. Todd’s question after “Let’s clear this up” had little chance of clearing up that point. Priebus would not act unreasonably by interpreting Todd’s question to refer to interference intended to help the Republican Party.
But the bigger interpretation problem centers on the word “specific.” Given the discussion between Todd and Priebus around the epistemological basis for the Russian hacking angle, including “You don’t know it and I don’t know it” in the immediate context, both the “conclusive” and the “specific” definitions of the word address the nature of the evidence.
“Conclusive” means incontrovertible, not merely featuring a conclusion. “Specific” means including a specific evidence or evidences, and therefore would refer to a report showing evidences, not merely a particular (second definition as opposed to the first) report.
In short, PolitiFact made a poor effort at interpreting Priebus in the most sensible way. Giving conservatives short shrift in the interpretation department occurs routinely at PolitiFact.
Was the report PolitiFact cited incontrovertible? PolitiFact offered no argument to that effect.
Did the report give a clear and detailed description of Russia’s attempt to influence the 2016 election? Again, PolitiFact offered no argument to that effect.
PolitiFact’s “fact-checking” in this case amounted to playing games with the definitions of words.
Read more here.
Another voice on the DNC hacking issue, Judge Andrew Napolitano:
Obama’s Blaming Russia But Judge Napolitano Source Said DNC Hack Was Done By NSA
[ot-video type=”youtube” url=”https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QiyU1t_132c”]