Ask the the class:
- How many of you watched the most recent presidential debate?
- How many either viewed a fact-checked broadcast or read a fact-checker report afterward?
- How many independently researched one of the issues debated?
- If you did fact-checking or research, what did you learn? Were the candidates telling the truth?
The tricky work of checking the facts
"... Wherever the people are well informed they can be trusted with their own government; that whenever things get so far wrong as to attract their notice, they may be relied on to set them to rights." - Thomas Jefferson
The fact-checking site Politifact has kept a running tally of Donald Trump's and Hillary Clinton's "truthiness" so far in the 2016 presidential campaign. Of the statements analyzed, Clinton's have been wholly true only 23% of the time and Trump's statements 4% of the time.
Anticipating a need to check facts at the first presidential debate on September 26, 2016, dozens of news sites employed fact-checkers during and after the debate. These included the New York Times, Washington Post, National Public Radio, the Guardian, ABC News, CNN, Bloomberg.com, Wall Street Journal, CBS News, NY Daily News, BBC, AP, CNBC, and Politico, as well as Politifact and Factcheck.org. Visit any of these websites and you'll see why so many organizations joined the fact-check bandwagon.
The ease with which politicians are sloppy (or worse) with the facts is troublesome for a democracy. Members of a democracy participate in the political process in a lot of ways. We petition, demonstrate, join and form organizations, donate money, work for candidates, write letters, and lobby our representatives to make our voices heard. And we vote. When our elected officials routinely lie or distort the truth, our civic responsibility is made more difficult. When a candidate claims that capital punishment reduces the murder rate and makes us safer or that our country is the only developed nation without national health insurance, how can we know if these statements are true?
A just society depends on its people being both informed and thinking critically. Accepting politicians' words at face value, judging candidates on their looks or vibes, or relying on a few favorite websites for all our information ultimately undermines our democracy.
Perhaps more than other presidential campaigns, the 2016 race illustrates what can happen when we the people don't take our responsibilities seriously.
Case study: Checking Trump’s claims on crime
Let's take one issue that came up in the debate and throughout the campaign: crime. Donald Trump use the phrase "law and order" seven times during the debate and has repeatedly returned to the theme of an America that is no longer safe.
Donald Trump says:
- "Our new administration ... will ... liberate our citizens from the crime and terrorism and lawlessness that threatens their communities."
- "Inner-city crime is reaching record levels."
- "I have a message for all of you: The crime and violence that today afflict our nation will soon come to an end. Beginning on January 20th, 2017, safety will be restored.
So, is it true that violent crime is going up?
From 2014 to 2015 violent crime in the U.S. went up 3.9% and murder was up 10.8%.
But what does that increase mean? Here is where you have to apply some critical thinking. Here are some additional questions which might make the statistic more meaningful.
- Is violent crime up over the course of one year, five years, ten years...thirty years? Is it a blip?
- Is violent crime up everywhere?
- Are some crimes being reported more often (e.g. rape), and others not?
- Where do the statistics originate?
- Are there one-time events that might contribute to higher numbers?
- In what context are the numbers cited? Are the numbers being cited to promote fear? To emphasize the need for structural solutions?
- Has there been any change in policing or elsewhere in the justice system that might account for the increase?
- What are the political implications of the crime increase, if it is happening?
If you were to Google "violent crime increase" or "Trump crime" or "crime rate 2015" you would find that news sources vary in their presentation of the "facts." For example, the New York Post's story reported that Donald Trump was right about the crime rate. This generally right-wing newspaper cited the "Ferguson Effect" as a reason for rising crime rate. (The "Ferguson Effect" refers to the 2014 police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, MO; it posits that police are reluctant to make arrests for fear of being called racist).
But the Washington Post, more centrist politically, handled Trump’s claim differently. It cited the long-term downward trend of violent crime, noting that even with the spike in 2015, violent crimes are half what they were 20 years ago.
Not all statements examined by fact-checking sites are clearly true or not true. The sites try to indicate these gray areas with in-between categories like "mostly true." But these categorizations - and the very facts sites like Politifact choose to check - also contain biases.
Checking our own facts: Googling tips
To more deeply understand whether a particular statement is true or not true requires us to do our own fact-checking (a.k.a. research), especially on topics that interest us or are important to the world. If you are among the nearly 80% of people in the world who use Google, there are probably some ways to focus your research more precisely.
As with any Google search, you should consider what type of information you are looking for and construct your search accordingly.
- If you want only recent information, click on Search Tools and then select "any time" (and change it to past week or month, etc.)
- If you are looking for a specific document (e.g. Uniform Crime Report), or the source of a specific quote, enclose the title or quote in quotation marks.
- If you want only government sources, use site:gov as part of your search (e.g. crime rate site:gov).
- If you are looking for statistics, try using filetype:xls (Excel spreadsheet) as part of the search (crime rate site:gov filetype:xls).
You can also conduct a more focused search by clicking on the gear icon in the upper right corner of the Google search page and selecting "advanced search." This enables more precision in your search.
Those of us who are concerned about the problems that face us - from climate change to racial inequality - can make ourselves part of the solution by becoming informed. That means reading different viewpoints, doing some research and applying some critical thinking so that we recognize the spin, distortions, half-truths, and outright lies that inhabit the world of politics and the media. Then we’re ready to dive into the public discussion and find ways to act.
- Discuss the following quotation by Julian Assange, the founder of WikiLeaks. What is Assange saying? Do you agree? "You can either be informed and your own rulers, or you can be ignorant and have someone else, who is not ignorant, rule over you."
- Ruben Blades (a singer, actor and activist) said: "I think we risk becoming the best informed society that has ever died of ignorance." What does Blades mean? Is this a contradiction or not?
- Do you think we all have a responsibility to participate in making our society’s decisions (if we can) - or is democratic participation simply a right that we claim but aren’t obliged to use?
Optional activity and assignment:
Create a personal plan of action
Brainstorm some 2016 campaign issues. Write the words "2016 campaign issues" on the board and circle it. Then elicit from students some of the issues they know have surfaced in the campaign. Encourage specific issues (eg police killings) as well as general ones (U.S. justice system). Record students’ responses around the circle, and connect them to it with lines, creating a web.
Help students develop a reasonable list. Issues might include: Immigration, "the wall," economic inequality, taxes, racial inequality, police violence, war in Syria, terrorism, civil liberties, relations with Russia, U.S. policy in the Middle East, nuclear weapons policy, prison policy, the justice system, climate change, fracking and pipelines, sexism, healthcare, Obamacare, guns and gun control...
Small Group Activity
Break students into small groups. Give participants in each group 3 minutes to pick an issue that has come up in the 2016 presidential campaign that they care a lot about - whether it was included in the class brainstorm or not. Write that issue down on a piece of paper.
Ask students in each group to each speak in turn about the issue they’ve chosen and why it is important to them.
Next, ask students in their groups to write down three things they would need to do or questions they would need to explore to become an expert on that issue.
Ask students to consider:
- What facts can you state about this issue?
- Have you explored multiple points of view about this issue?
- What is your own view?
- Do you have facts to substantiate your opinions?
Ask students to write down the topic and three things they can do to become an informed speaker or writer about that issue.
Again, give students a few minutes to share, in their groups, what they have written.
Reconvene the whole class and ask for volunteers to share what issues they chose and why.
Give students a homework assignment. Ask them to conduct research about the issue they are concerned about, and then write a report on it. The report should include at least one paragraph on each of the following:
- What is the issue, and why do you care about it?
- What have Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton, Libertarian Party candidate Gary Johnson, and Green Party candidate Jill Stein said about this issue? Are there others whose views you find compelling?
- What are three facts you’ve learned about this issue in the course of your research?
- What is your own view about this issue?
- List at least three ways you could make your views known on this issue or take action on it.
During the next class period, ask students to share their responses (and collect their papers).
Ask students to share what next steps they will take to learn more about this issue or do something about it. If students share certain interests, encourage them to work together on them.