Bill Adair

A Post-Factual Democracy?

Air Date: September 17, 2016

Bill Adair, creator of Politifact and Knight Professor of Journalism at Duke University, talks about whether truth is still informing public discourse.


HEFFNER: I’m Alexander Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. What is proven in jeopardy during this 2016 campaign is the truth, or at least whatever objective truth is still in the eye of the beholder. As we reside increasingly in a post-factual and contextual democracy, to help us understand if and how we are desensitized to fact and to faction is PolitiFact creator and contributing editor Bill Adair, now Knight Professor of Journalism at Duke University, where he is Director of the Dewitt Wallace Center for Media and Democracy. Adair is also the cofounder of the International Fact-Checking Network, the world’s largest association of fact-checkers. The ubiquitous lies saturating our politics today are such a pervasive plague on our discourse that checking misleading or false statements apparently isn’t enough. Adair has since created Share the Facts to combat the vast majority of false utterances among our public officials. Because it would appear that they and their motives are not always harboring the truth, nothing but the truth, so help them, God, and help us. Uh, Bill, it’s a pleasure to have you here. It’s been clear this cycle that our politics are tactless, lacking tact. Are they also factless?

ADAIR: Well it’s funny, we, we actually hear this every election, so this idea of the post-fact society isn’t a new phrase. Um, uh, my colleague Alexios Mantzarlis at Poynter, at the International Fact-Checking Network, he has um, looked back and found that phrase from 2004, from 2008, 2012, um, as well as back in the 80s academics were using that phrase, so the concept that candidates are um, ignoring the facts is not a new one. I think what’s, what’s new this time is fact-checking. We know more than ever when the politicians are saying something false because there’s been huge growth in fact-checking. And that is a wonderful thing. Um, and I think also we have a candidate in Donald Trump who has an extraordinary record for falsehoods, I mean far greater than anything we’ve seen before at PolitiFact and so I think we have a tendency to sort of focus on that, but remember this phenomenon, um, of politicians ignoring facts is, is really not a new one.

HEFFNER: Right. Is it new though that with the proliferation of fact-checkers, and again, this is a chicken and egg scenario but with the proliferation or at least in the contemporary climate it seems like the, the, the candidates offering the lies are emboldened. Like the lies are emboldening them in some way.

ADAIR: I hope not. Um, and I think we see signs that there is respect for um, for fact-checking, um, uh, you know, you hear candidates who will say Chris Christie, um, uh, Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio all have said um, variations of …I’m gonna be careful here because I’m gonna be PolitiFacted… Um, and what that tells you is that the, they are being more cautious because they’re aware they’re being held accountable. And I think that’s the great benefit of fact-checking. And um, now, you know, um, uh, the American Press Institute did a study a few years ago done by my colleague Mark Stencel that um, talked about the weaponization of fact-checking. Even while all this good fact-checking is going on, it said you still have politicians who will take a fact-check and weaponize it against their opponent.

And so you’ll see it in the ad, you know, um, uh, a claim that PolitiFact found false or “pants on fire” … you know, and so um, so the dynamic’s changing, um, but I, I look at this positively, that we know what they’re saying, we know when they’re using falsehoods, we know when they’re exaggerating because of this great growth in fact-checking.

HEFFNER: How do you think those who are demanding the truth should be employing PolitiFact in furtherance of the truth and a truthful political discourse?

ADAIR: Well um, I hope that we’re seeing, we know we’re seeing a lot more people, um, using, uh, their iPads, their phones while they’re watching something on television or while they’re watching something on the web, and I hope we’re gonna see more than that. We’d like them to employ PolitiFact and the other fact-checkers by looking things up. Now but therein lies the problem. Um, right now fact-checking is there for the people who choose to look it up. Um, and you gotta do a little homework, and so I think our goal, and this is the one of the reasons we created Share the Facts, is to try to get the fact-checks out to a broader audience, to get people, um, who might not, might not otherwise see a fact-check to see oh that, you know, that statement, um, that’s false and that I think that’s the challenge. That’s actually more of a technological challenge than it is a journalistic one. Um, we need to find ways to get real-time instant fact-checking.

HEFFNER: As I was alluding to in the intro, is that also to preempt the lies? To get the facts out first?

ADAIR: So that’s a really interesting question. You have um, actually two schools of thought on that among the world’s fact-checkers. We talked about this at our annual meeting this summer, uh, and that is, is the role of the fact-checker to get politicians to stop lying or is the role of the fact-checker to provide information to democracy? I’m in the latter camp. I think our role is to inform democracy. Um, I, I want to give a voter, a citizen the information that he or she needs to make smart decisions in a democracy. I’m, I’m, my goal is not to get a politician necessarily to stop lying. If they choose to, that’s fine, but I recognize reasonable people can disagree about things and so I’m, that’s why on PolitiFact we never put a button in that you know, push a button, send an email to uh, President so-and-so and you know, tell him to stop lying, you know, we never did that because we re—we recognize we are information providers, um, and we’re not trying to get people, not trying to change the politicians’ behavior, this,

HEFFNER: But don’t the behaviors need to change, Bill?

ADAIR: Well um, um, my role as a journalist is to inform and I’m, I’m not an activist. And so, and I had this, um, had this debate with David Carr, the late media critic at the New York Times who after the 2012 election said well, fact-checking was a failure because politicians are still lying. And, and I said no, I said you know, fact-checking is providing really important information and people are, are taking that in larger and larger numbers and that’s what we’re about. You, you can’t hold the fact-checkers responsible for lying politicians any more than you can hold the investigative reporters responsible for corruption. So like do we say that investigative reporting is a failure because um, pol—politicians are still corrupt, you know? No, I mean you know, investigative reporters look into things, call out the corruption. Um, but we know that that corruption will probably always be there.

HEFFNER: But shouldn’t the fact-checkers be held responsible for the deception of the American public, for example the large swaths of Americans who believe that President Obama is Muslim?

ADAIR: Um, no, I don’t think you hold the poli—I don’t think you hold the fact-checkers responsible for this. We’re the ones who were, were um, revealing the, what was true, um, which was that he’s, you know, he’s not and so um, I don’t think you hold the fact-checkers responsible. I think that our goal is to inform people and um, now I, I recognize some fact-checkers disagree with me on that and you know like in Britain there’s a great fact-checker, Full Fact, and they see their role as to seek corrections from politicians and uh, and they will get corrections from everyone from a Member of Parliament to uh, to one of the tabloids and you know, so I, I recognize there are different schools of thought on this.

HEFFNER: Mm-hmm. I, I understand and you strike me as a purist in this arena of fact-checking and you are a preeminent one here in, in the States. My point and you were referring to, off-camera to conversations with other institutions, um, other than Duke as well as Google, I think of in the capacity of partnership and organizations that you can link up with whose mission at least as they view their mission more explicitly for a correction, in other words you could group together a delegation of “pants on fire” congressmen, governors and they…

ADAIR: It would be, it would be a large convention. [LAUGHS]

HEFFNER: Right. But, but believing in the future of our democracy and that truth ought to inform that you, you wouldn’t want those people to represent us. Now how do you see your partnerships evolving to represent that more activist streak if you will, um, whether it’s with Google or or other organizations?

ADAIR: Sure. So um, so we’ve done a, several different things on this front at Duke. So my, the other hat I wear is as the Knight professor at Duke and the director of the Dewitt Wallace Center in the Sanford School of Public Policy. And, and um, in my Duke work, I have done some things to try to broaden the audience for fact-checking and try to automate fact-checking, so I’m working on a big research project with computer scientists at Duke and um, the University of Texas at Arlington, computer scientists from Google, um, and the, the goal of that is to look for ways that we can automate the process of fact-checking in ways that uh, help citizens to look up things about their politicians, we’ve got a great new tool coming from the Duke team, um, to helping journalists find statements to fact-check in a tool called Claim Buster that the team at the University of Texas came up with. So um, so I think one part of the answer is harnessing technology and um, to expand the scope of the work that human journalists can do and, but then also to broaden the audience for fact-checking, and this is the key thing, this is to try to, we can’t, um, have fact-checking in a place where uh, people have to go and research it like they’re going to the library or you know, doing homework. As much as we can, we need to get it out there. So we’ve created this tool, uh, called Share the Facts that um, where the fact-checkers embed this widget at the bottom of their fact-checks and the, um, people can then share it on Facebook, on Twitter, it can be embedded in blogs and articles, uh, and, and that has great potential I think at broadening this audience, and just the name, we put a lot of thought into the name. Share the Facts, this is about getting the truth out there so that people can see it.

HEFFNER: That seems to me the pivotal point in terms of expanding your audience to a constituency of voters in the body politic, um, so that they don’t believe that in order to understand a fact-check you have to have a certain expertise, Ph.D., and that is what the anti-fact-check movement stems from, a kind of anti-intellectualism, doesn’t it?

ADAIR: Well there’s definitely, I, you know, hadn’t heard it phrased as the anti-fact-check movement but I, I,

HEFFNER: There is one. [LAUGHS]

ADAIR: I see your, yeah I see your point. I think um, what um, it’s, it’s kind of um, um, uh, situational love. Um, Donald Trump ignores fact-checking except when we called out Hillary Clinton for a falsehood and he tweets, you know, such and such is false, you know, lying Hillary, whatever, PolitiFact said you know, she was wrong. Um, and so it’s situational love. It’s like um, uh, they, they hate us, uh, except when they love us. And, and I think that’s the nature of this very difficult journalism. You know, you think about fact-checking, rarely in journalism do you um, go the final mile that fact-checkers go to reach a conclusion. So much of journalism is about hey, here’s one side, here’s the other side or here is a commentary about one side or the other. In fact-checking, non-partisan fact-checkers do the research and then come to a conclusion and so it’s not opinion journalism, I call it reported conclusion journalism. And, and that’s different. It’s also hard because it makes people mad. You know, inevitably one fact-check is gonna make one side or the other side unhappy and so it is, it’s not a profession for the faint of heart.

HEFFNER: Well to the, and to the credit of people who are honestly uh, in that anti-fact-check movement, or maybe I shouldn’t say to their credit, they don’t deserve too much credit. In the defense of someone who understands that reality and fact are protean, I mean there, there is an evolution of a policy and you know, the livelihoods of people, um, certainly are impacted by legislation, there are amendments that are drawn to legislation. And there are you know the, changes on the ground that en—that affect the way we’re informing so you know, to what extent do you grapple with this kind of reality?

ADAIR: Well this is like um, people who say um, uh, you’ll see a posting on Facebook sometimes, anybody know the name of a good conservative fact-checker? Or you know, and, and it, the, the truth is there’s no such thing of either a conservative fact-checker or a liberal fact-checker. Um, so we wrestle with this a lot and, and it’s important to recognize that the process of coming to a conclusion at PolitiFact and at the other fact-checkers is a, um, is a process with a lot of integrity. Um, and when we started it, so it’s been nine years since we started PolitiFact, um, essentially I came up with an idea of a truth-o-meter and then we just sort of ballparked well this sounds like a half true, um, based on this evidence and that evidence but there was no methodology, um, that we had written down. And now we have that because we have done more than 12 thousand fact-checks, an incredible number, and uh, and now we have a process that says you know, we, um, we ask these questions about the statement and there are always three editors who reach the conclusion. So um, it’s, it’s a process with, that is very thorough and has a lot of integrity.

HEFFNER: Right. No I, when you use the term, I like that very much, reported conclusions, um, because it speaks to that notion and the exact quote emanating from Lincoln was when new views become true views I’ll adopt them, right? And so that, those reported conclusions can vary as some scientific experiments do too. Putting that, putting that aside for a second, talk to us about the new frontier and revolutionary technologies that are gonna inform the future of this movement. Because the idea or the potential for a content management system that is falsehood-proof, that is ensuring that whatever is published, whether it’s the blog section on the Tampa Bay Times or whatever paper you’re reading, the San Diego Union-Tribune or a news feature, there is a one stop shop for fact-checking, um, it’s not gonna be accepted or submitted until it goes through both human error detection and automated human detection. What would that automated detection look like?

ADAIR: Well I think it could vary in different ways. So you have to recognize in um, we’re sort of talking about um, at least two or three different steps where, where automation can help. So the first step is the fact-checkers try to find what are the statements that they’re gonna check. Well this is one where the team at the University of Texas has come up with Claim Buster. It can review a massive amount of text and, and find sentences that are factual claims with incredible accuracy. So um, that helps the human fact-checkers, they don’t have to spend so much time reading transcripts. This Claim Buster bubbles up the, bubbles up the statements and then they decide what they’re gonna check. Um, so that’s part of it. Then there’s the analysis piece, and this is one where our team at Duke has come up with something called iCheck that’ll be unveiled a little later this summer, and this helps when you hear common claims like your senator votes with Barack Obama 95 percent of the time. It provides context for that in a really helpful way ‘cause what’s often missing in these statements is context. And then the final piece is maybe the most important piece, and that is to match the factual claims as they are said, whether it’s in social media, whether it’s on television, um, with fact-checks, so that’s where you have to have a giant database of all the fact-checks and you have to have either voice or text recognition that matches the statements and you have to have a high-speed processing that says hey, um, uh, President Obama just said this, um, the Washington Post fact-checker checked that, put it up three Pinocchios or PolitiFact checked that, “pants on fire” …And so um, that is the area where there needs to be the most growth, and that has to do with television, technologies in smart TVs aren’t quite there yet to allow this. Um, they’re getting much closer. It also has to do with natural language processing. Um, sometimes people make factual claims in a backwards way, they’ll say, “Is it true that um, that uh, more diagnostic tests, um, saves money? No.” You know, or whatever. And so you, so you have these backwards things and you have to match that against your, your fact-checking database. That’s the area where I would love to be involved in more research in the future. I think it has huge potential. Imagine we’re talking and up beside me pops a truth-o-meter that says half-true, you know, what Bill just said forgets this context, you know. That would be really cool.

HEFFNER: And I think you, you and your colleagues in this industry um, have no deficit of falsehoods to correct so granted, what about the origin of the falsehoods. I, I, I suggested from the outset that um, the problem has perhaps exploded and that the media megaphone, um, that has been clickbait and profit-centered has enabled it. We really ought to be thinking about how to apply that concept not just to the content management system of the Tampa Bay Times for instance but to the citizenry, tweets, Facebook posts, uh, and of course to the politicians themselves, how, how do you preempt the lie to begin with?

ADAIR: So um, I think um, you’re right and, and to talk about you know, the, the truth-o-meter popping up on television is only a small part of the, of the potential. Um, you know, imagine how great it would be before somebody posts a link on Facebook, if there was a button that said “check this link” and it would run it against the fact-checking databases and say hey, um, there’s a lot of question about that link and it might give the person posting it pause, to say eh, maybe that’s not quite right. And um, I think that’s really important. And um, you know, these things as you were noting grow um, they grow in the small echo chambers of partisan communities. And one of the things we did in 2008 at PolitiFact was we traced a lot of the falsehoods and, and tried to figure out where did they start and where did they grow? And they’re, they’re like organisms. They would start with somebody uttering something perhaps on a radio program or on a partisan blog and then they would sort of get fertilized with uh, some more legitimate media and you know, suddenly it’s being said on cable television. So we need to push back against all that.

HEFFNER: I think there used to be a time when politicians who lied were alien to the noble aspiration of public service. But they don’t seem to be today.

ADAIR: Well I think what’s different today is the parties have their talking points and so uh, they have a tendency to um, and you know, you’ve seen this, you see these, occasionally they’ll leak out or you know, sometimes you can get a congressman, uh, to give you one and be like you know, this is the party’s talking points on this. And so sometimes those talking points aren’t true, and so you can have everybody saying these things that are false. And the, I think the party discipline behind talking points tends to spread those more than in the past. And um, I also think um, you know, it’s more, um, it’s up to the voters to hold the politicians accountable, um, but, but I think it would be totally reasonable to have at a town hall where voters say hey you got called out on fact-checks recently, what do you say about that? And, and hold them accountable.

Unfortunately I think that might just be another partisan community where it would be hey, those fact-checkers called you out, um, they’re, they’re really partisan, aren’t they? You know, and so um, we’re in these silos, these filter bubbles and that gives me a lot of concern and so um, but all the more reason for us to emphasize the truth because I think the truth can help us break down those, those filter bubbles.

HEFFNER: And finally and we really just have a, a minute or so, maybe you can reflect on this and I want to talk to you about this off-camera too, Michael Lynch was here, the philosopher who wrote a book about knowing in the digital age and the difference between knowing and understanding. Does that also register for you in that you know, the extent to which you can understand something is limited depending upon how careful you are and how committed you are to not just perusing the first few lines of a Wikipedia entry, which is an important point I think he makes in this book.

ADAIR: Um, hugely important. It’s so easy, you know, how many times have you posted something on Twitter, um, promoting something that you didn’t actually read?


ADAIR: You know, so I think that’s a big pro—

HEFFNER: And then the journalists’ responsibility there,

ADAIR: Retweets don’t equal endorsements, yeah.

HEFFNER: Right and the, and the interactive engagement editors who say you need this tweet to read “like that” in order to generate the kind of traffic we want.

ADAIR: Yeah. So, and that’s why I love this program, the idea of a thoughtful discourse of pausing, of thinking, of not reacting in a kneejerk way, um, about you know, in, in a partisan world. And let’s pause, let’s have a conversation, and so, but let’s make sure that facts are a big part of that.

HEFFNER: Bill, thanks for doing that with me today.

ADAIR: Thanks for having me.

HEFFNER: And thanks to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time for a thoughtful excursion into the world of ideas. Until then, keep an open mind. Please visit The Open Mind website at to view this program online or to access over 1,500 other interviews, and do check us out on Twitter and Facebook @OpenMindTV for updates on future programming.