CHECKING FACTS WITH SNOPES, FACTCHECK & POLITIFACT

By Alan Shapiro

 

To the Teacher:
 
Never before has so much information and misinformation been so readily available. The internet is the source of both and invaluable. But it can also be a "cesspool," to quote Google's CEO Eric Schmidt. And students need to learn how to recognize the difference.
 
Sources of help include three reliable factchecking sources—Snopes, FactCheck, and PolitiFact. An introduction to each is the subject of a reading followed by discussion questions, writing assignments and opportunities for group work.
 
See also "Thinking Critically About Internet Sources" in the high school section. 
 

Student Reading 1

Snopes: the Internet"cesspool"

  • Kenya put up a sign to welcome people to the "birthplace of Barack Obama."
  • A global warming advocate froze to death in Antarctica.
  • A man put on a woman's dress and snuck into one of the Titanic's lifeboats.
Heard about any of these reports? All have showed up somewhere on the Internet, which, according to the CEO of Google, Eric Schmidt, is a "cesspool."
 
"Along with the freest access to knowledge the world has ever seen comes a staggering amount of untruth, from imagined threats on health care to too-easy-to-be-true ways to earn money by (naturally) forwarding an e-mail message to 10 friends," Brian Stelter writes in "Debunkers of Fiction Sift the Net," (New York Times, 4/5/10).
 
Stelter's article is about David and Barbara Mikkelson, who "are among those trying to clean the cesspool" and who run Snopes, "one of the most popular fact-checking destinations on the web."
 
Snopes.com is their online encyclopedia of falsehoods and urban legends, and the cleaners of what S. I. Hayakawa called "reports." "For the purposes of the interchange of information," Hayakawa wrote, "the basic symbolic act is the report of what we have seen, heard, or felt: 'There is a ditch on each side of the road.' 'You can get those at Smith's hardware store for $2.75'" And then, Hayakawa wrote in his book Language in Action, "there are reports of reports, such as, "the Battle of Hastings took place in 1066."
 
Reports, Hayakawa wrote, "adhere to the following rules: first, they are capable of verification; secondly, they exclude, so far as possible, judgments, inferences, and the use of 'loaded' words."
 
Hayakawa would call the opening three sentences of this reading reports. Each is verifiable. None includes a judgment, an inference, or a "loaded" word. But each is a false report because each is factually incorrect, as David and Barbara Mikkelson, who have checked them out, report at www.snopes.com. Because false reports seem to be factual, they misinform and mislead.
 
History books, typically, contain many reports of reports because verification of them from living witnesses is impossible. So historians must depend upon documents and other evidence, which they must examine closely for reliability.
 
Snopes covers a long list of topics, ranging from autos and business to history and politics to travel and weddings. Not surprisingly, one of its top subjects for searches on the site is President Obama. Typical reports include:
  • Obama was born in Kenya. (A false report, though his father was born in Kenya.)
  • Obama's middle name is Hussein, and he is a Muslim. (The first part of this report is true, the second part is false: Obama's middle name is Hussein, but he is not a Muslim.)
Obama's birth certificate verifies his birth in Hawaii and has been reproduced on the web. He declares that he is a Christian. He attended a Chicago church for years. His children were baptized there. (These statements are verifiable, exclude judgments, do not contain loaded words and are accurate reports.)
 
From the Snopes FAQ page:
 
Q: How do I know the information you've presented is accurate?
 
A: We don't expect anyone to accept us as the ultimate authority on any topic. Unlike the plethora of anonymous individuals who create and send the unsigned, unsourced e-mail messages that are forwarded all over the Internet, we show our work. The research materials we've used in the preparation of any particular page are listed in the bibliography displayed at the bottom of that page so that readers who wish to verify the validity of our information may check those sources for themselves.
 
"'People keep falling for the same kind of things over and over again," David Mikkelson said."'Some readers always seem to think, for instance, that the government is trying to poison them." Barbara Mikkelson said that rumors about AIDS have been recycled into rumors about swine flu vaccines.
 
But, Stelter reported in his article, Barbara Mikkelson is not optimistic about Snopes' debunking efforts:"'When you're looking at truth versus gossip, truth doesn't stand a chance."
 
The Mikkelsons have checked out each of the following statements:
 
a. Green marking pens can improve CD sound quality.
 
b. Barack Obama urged his followers to join him in changing "the greatest nation in the world."
 
c. When it entered the U.S., Texas was authorized to divide itself into five states.
 
Is each one a report? If so, what criteria must each statement satisfy? If each meets these criteria, should it be considered an accurate report, a false report, a report of a report or some mixture? The Mikkelsons called the first two false, the third true. If you want to check the accuracy of this statement, see www.snopes.com. 
 
For discussion
 
1. What questions do students have about the reading? How might they be answered?
 
2. Snopes.com checks on the accuracy of reports that spread on the Internet Consider Hayakawa's definition of a report. A crucial element of a report is that it is capable of verification. What does "capable of verification" mean? Reports exclude judgments, inferences and the use of "loaded words." Give an example of a judgment, an inference, and "loaded words."
 
3. The Mikkelson's say they "don't expect anyone to accept us as the ultimate authority on any subject." How do they do distinguish themselves from "anonymous individuals who create and send the unsigned, unsourced e-mail messages that are forwarded all over the Internet"?
 
For writing and group work
 
Choose any subject—something you observed at school, a political issue, an event in your life—and write a strict report about it. The report should have at least six sentences and should include no judgments, inferences or loaded words.
 
When students have completed the assignment divide them into small groups to read their papers. Listeners assess them as reports and after the reading discuss their assessments. Differences of opinion might be brought afterwards to the whole class.

 

Student Reading 2

FactCheck: "proceed with caution"

Obama's 'Private Army'
 
"Q: Did the new health care law give Obama a Nazi-like 'private army' of 6,000 people?"
 
"A: No. Contrary to false Internet rumors, the new Ready Reserve Corps of doctors and other health workers will report to the surgeon general and be like the 'ready reserves' in other uniformed services. They will be used during health emergencies."
 
"Q. Is the new health insurance law a "government takeover" system?
 
"A. Despite the fact that the federal health insurance plan (a.k.a. the "public option") is now gone from the bill, Republicans and conservative groups have continued to claim that the bill institutes a system like the one in the United Kingdom, or Canada, or otherwise amounts to a government takeover. It doesn't…. Instead, the bill builds on our current system of private insurance, and in fact, drums up more business for private companies by mandating that individuals buy coverage and giving many subsidies to do so."
 
FactCheck.org, which produced this information, describes itself as "a nonpartisan, nonprofit 'consumer advocate' for voters that aims to reduce the level of deception and confusion in US politics. We monitor the factual accuracy of what is said by major US political players in the form of TV ads, debates, speeches, interviews and news releases. Our goal is to apply the best practices of both journalism and scholarship, and to increase public knowledge and understanding." FactCheck.org is a project of the University of Pennsylvania's Annenberg Public Policy Center. (www.factcheck.org)
 
But FactCheck does not confine itself to political matters. Last year, for example, FactCheck checked rumors about the dangers of the H1N1 (or swine flu) vaccine and reported that the rumors were false. "One e-mailed rumor even called it a government 'depopulation' plot. Another claimed that sailors on a US Navy vessel caught the flu from the vaccine, and some died. In fact, nobody died and none of the sailors had even been vaccinated - the vaccine was not available at the time." ("Inoculation Misinformation," 10/19/09)
 
FactCheck works to stay up-to-date in its reports, and does not take sides. For example, it neither supports nor opposes the new Arizona immigration law, but does factcheck what supporters and opponents say about it. FactCheck also invites reader questions and publishes answers to some on the site. The website includes a section on classroom lessons, a dictionary of terms in the news, and even a review of sites like itself.
 
FactCheck examined a chain e-mail about Snopes, which included the judgment that "the Mikkelsons are very Democratic [Party] and extremely liberal," and added: "There has been much criticism lately over the Internet with people pointing out the Mikkelsons' liberalism revealing itself in their website findings."
 
FactCheck commented:
 
"The author cites no evidence and no sources for either of these propositions….We asked David [Mikkelson]. He told us that Barbara is a Canadian citizen, and as such isn't allowed to vote here or contribute money to US candidates. As for him, 'My sole involvement in politics is on Election Day to go out and vote. I've never joined a party, worked for a campaign or donated money to a candidate….'"
 
"Although our sites have somewhat different emphases - we focus on what's being said in political ads, speeches, interviews and debates, while Snopes.com concentrates more on such things as whether former Monkee band member Michael Nesmith's mother was the inventor of liquid correction fluid (she was) - Snopes.com does take on some claims in the political realm. That has given us an opportunity to evaluate the Mikkelsons' work from time to time. We have found it solid and well-documented. We even link to Snopes.com when it's appropriate rather than reinvent the wheel ourselves, which we consider high praise.
 
"The e-mail's last paragraph (criticizing the Mikkelsons) advises that everyone who goes to Snopes.com for 'the bottom line facts' should 'proceed with caution.' We think that's terrific advice, not just in connection with material on Snopes but for practically anything a reader finds online - including articles on FactCheck.org. The very reason we list our sources (as does Snopes.com) and provide links is so that readers can check things out for themselves."
 
For discussion
 
1. What questions do students have about the reading? How might they be answered?
 
2. How does FactCheck support its judgment that the health insurance law is not a "government takeover" system?
 
3. How does FactCheck support its judgment that sailors did not get the swine flu from a vaccine that was supposed to prevent that illness?
 
4. What evidence does FactCheck use to support its judgments about the Mikkelsons and Snopes?
 
For writing and group work
 
"Nazi-like" and "government takeover" are judgmental words that people often use in political discussions. Whether they support their judgments with accurate reports can be another matter.
 
Ask students to select a political subject and begin a paragraph with a judgment about it. For example:
  • President Obama has (or has not) been an effective president.
  • The Republican Party was right (or wrong) about the health insurance reform bill.
  • The best (or worst) senator is _____.
Following this sentence, have students write a series of four or five strict reports (no judgments, inferences or loaded words) to support the judgment.
 
When students have completed their papers, divide them into small groups to read their papers. Listeners assess how well each meets the assignments criteria. Differences of opinion might be discussed with the whole class.
 

Student Reading 3

PolitiFact: "separating fact from fiction"

"I want you to hold our government accountable. I want you to hold me accountable," President Barack Obama said. "Okay, we will," PolitiFact answered on its website. 
 
"The vast majority of the money I got was from small donors all across the country," President Barack Obama said in an interview with CNBC's John Harwood.( 4/21/10). The president has made this claim before to demonstrate that during his presidential campaign he did not depend upon rich people and big corporations. But is his statement accurate?
 
PolitiFact is a project of the St. Petersburg Times to "help you find the truth in American politics. Reporters and editors from the Times fact-check statements by members of Congress, the White House, lobbyists and interest groups and rate them on our Truth-O-Meter." PolitiFact bills its Truth-O-Meter as "a scorecard separating fact from fiction." ABC's Sunday morning public affairs program, "This Week," arranged with PolitiFact to apply the Truth-O-Meter to public officials who are interviewed on the program. (http://abcnews.go.com/thisweek)
 
In the general election, PolitiFact reports, "Obama got about 34 percent of his individual donations from small donors, people who gave $200 or less, according to a report from the (nonpartisan) Campaign Finance Institute. Another 23 percent of donations came from people who gave between $201 and $999, and another 42 percent from people who gave $1,000 or more….
 
"Obama got about $1 million from employees of Goldman Sachs; the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics puts the number at $994,795…. We rate his [Obama's] statement False."
 
PolitiFact also tracks more than 500 of Obama's campaign promises, rating them as everything from "promise kept" and "compromise" to "promise broken" and "in the works." It also recognizes in its rating system that "especially in politics - truth is not black and white." So it grades statements as "true," "mostly true," "half true," "barely true," "false," or "pants on fire," or "ridiculous."
 
"I never considered myself a maverick," said John McCain (4/3/10, on Newsweek's website). But PolitiFact recites a series of McCain statements in which he says precisely that. For example: "We get along fine. Sarah [Palin] is a maverick. I'm a maverick." (Interview with CNN's Larry King, 10/30/08) So PolitiFact labels McCain's comment on the website to be "Pants On Fire."
 
On special occasions, like income tax day, April 15, PolitiFact checks out statements about taxes. For example:
 
  • When the US"first created the federal income tax, frankly, nobody below a million dollars a year paid anything." (Georgia Republican Newt Gingrich) False.
     
  • "Americans now spend 100 days out of the year working for government before we even start working for ourselves." (Sarah Palin) Mostly True.
     
  • "The fact is, in the past year we have had more tax cuts than almost anytime in our nation's history." (Tennessee Democrat Rep. Steve Cohen) Half True.
See PolitiFact for reports on how they reached their conclusions. Also see it for its ratings of statements about major news events like the catastrophic Gulf oil spill.
 
For discussion
 
1. What questions do students have about the reading? How might they be answered?
 
2. What does PolitiFact mean when it states that in politics "truth is not black and white"? Does PolitiFact demonstrate that understanding? If so, how? If not, why not?
 
For writing and group work
 
An inference is a conclusion drawn from reports and judgments considered to be accurate. They may be political: Senator X spends more time on raising campaign cash than he/she does on important public issues. To support such an inference, a person might refer to a fact learned from the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics that Senator X raised $500,000 at a recent dinner and has been absent from Senate meetings three times in the past two weeks. Are these reports sufficient to support the inference, though?
 
Inferences may be about people in one's life: "My dad is really angry with my sister," somebody says. To support the inference, an individual might refer to a scene in which the father yelled at his daughter the morning after she came home an hour later than expected. But maybe the father was not angry, but rather was just venting because he was concerned about her safety.
 
Assignment
 
Ask students to pay closer attention than usual to some of the remarks they hear from other students or friends that include inferential statements with little or no reports to support them. Have students make some notes about what they hear, then write a paper reporting on their findings.
 
When students have completed their papers, divide them into groups to read them. After each reading, provide some time for clarifying questions or brief comments. When all papers have been read, have each group select what it regards as the best paper, which will be read to the whole class.
 
Following the reading of each paper to the class, ask students from each group to comment on why they selected it. Ask the rest of the class to comment on strengths and weaknesses that have not been mentioned already. 
 

This lesson was written for TeachableMoment.Org, a project of Morningside Center for Teaching Social Responsibility. We welcome your comments. Please email them to: lmcclure@morningsidecenter.org