Fact-Checkers: Navigating Truth in the Digital Age

Written and Fact-Checked by 1440 Editorial Staff
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Staying up-to-date on current events has changed drastically in the past century. In the early twentieth century, many people received their news from the morning paper or radio shows.

In 2023, the Pew Research Center found that 53% of Americans consume news on social media. This shift has impacted the amount of information people encounter every day, as well as increased the chances of misinformation spreading. Recent studies have demonstrated that false information spreads faster than truth on social networks like Twitter.

The internet has created a swiftly changing world of digital information. Even with all of the changes the last 100 years have brought, one journalistic role is still vital: the fact-checker. 

Fact-checkers are tasked with maintaining truth and accuracy in the media. These professionals use research and critical thinking skills to ensure that media is supported by factual evidence.

The Role of Fact-Checking in Modern Media

Fact-checking is necessary for the maintenance of journalistic integrity. According to Balletopedia, the goal of fact-checking is “​​to provide accurate, unbiased analysis of statements made in public in order to correct public misperceptions and increase knowledge of important issues.” 

Fact-checking has evolved significantly from traditional media to digital platforms, with the first use of the word “fact-checker” being traced back to the 1930s in a TIME Magazine job advertisement. In the early 20th century, fact-checking was a field filled almost exclusively by women who were responsible for checking the drafts of articles for factual accuracy.

In modern media, more and more news is not printed but posted online. This shift has changed the role of fact-checking. While the women of the 1940s toiled over articles before publication, today’s fact-checkers are often more focused on information that has already been released for public consumption. Some work with news outlets directly, but many work for fact-checking organizations, or work independently, to stop the rampant spread of misinformation. 

Leading Fact-Checking Organizations

Fact-checking organizations work to expose misinformation from news outlets, leaders, and online content creators. There are many of them, including: 

  • Snopes: A go-to site for many readers, strives to “light the way to evidence-based and contextualized analysis.” Snopes fact-checks everything from politics to entertainment and always shares source links with readers to encourage deeper research and critical thinking at the individual level. 
  • Politifact: This organization focuses its fact-checking on the claims of elected leaders. The website works to remain non-partisan and is consistently transparent about funding sources and affiliations. Each fact that’s checked by Politifact is rated on the “Truth-O-Meter” as True, Mostly True, Half True, Mostly False, False, and Pants on Fire. 

These organizations and others are dedicated to sharing the truth with curious readers and inspiring independent research and critical thinking. 

The Methodology Behind Fact-Checking

The methodology behind fact-checking may differ slightly between organizations, but the process is similar and usually involves: 

  • Choosing what to check: Fact-checkers look for statements that claim to be based on facts, not opinions. 
  • Questioning the sources: Fact-checking requires in-depth research online or in-person, sometimes with recorded interviews with sources. 
  • Understanding the degree of truth: The place between truth and lies is often blurry. Fact-checkers present readers with the original claims and the evidence to provide a full picture. 

All major fact-checking organizations disclose their exact fact-checking process. This level of transparency invites the public to engage in their own fact-checking and critical thinking in response to digital content.

The Impact of Fact-Checking on Public Discourse

Studies have found that fact-checking impacts the public in two ways: 

  • Reducing misperceptions: Fact-checkers help to reduce misperceptions that the public has about current events, elected leaders, and celebrities. 
  • Reducing trust in media: Fact-checking shines a light on the false claims that fill modern media, leading to a reduced level of trust among viewers. 

Fact-checking impacts how many individuals interact with media and with other people. This practice also showcases the need for a collective effort to reduce the prevalence of fake news and misinformation. 

While fact-checking is necessary in the digital age, its exact impact is unclear. Some research indicates that fact-checking may have a limited ability to change someone’s held biases. For instance, if a fact-checking source claims that a piece of information is untrue, a person still may be inclined to believe the false information due to their own beliefs. In addition, fact-checking sources can also contradict one another.

Challenges Facing Fact-Checkers

Fake news often spreads more quickly and cheaply than real news, a trend that presents difficult challenges for fact-checkers. One of these challenges involves the relationship between fake news, beliefs, and actions. 

Misinformation is problematic because it can influence the way that people make decisions in their day-to-day lives. Thus, a fact-checker’s accuracy could indirectly impact a person’s choices, such as the way they vote or what healthcare they choose to receive. 

Fact-checkers are not only dealing with the public’s disinterest in the truth but also with violent reactions from those whose beliefs are being called into question. Misinformation is also created and spread quickly, which can make it difficult for fact-checkers to keep up.

The Misinformation Ecosystem

According to the World Economic Forum’s Global Risks Report 2024, misinformation is considered to be the world’s top risk. This risk comes primarily from the impact that misinformation has on trust. For example, studies have found that candidates exaggerate and lie in elections due to the assumption that other candidates are also spreading misinformation.  

In addition, researchers at the University of Southern California have found that 15% of social media users who share news are responsible for up to 40% of fake news. This habit is perpetuated by the structure of social media and the positive reinforcement that users experience when sharing exciting and compelling information, even if that information is false.

Non-factual statements from news outlets, questionable claims from political leaders, and the unending supply of opinions and “facts” from content creators on social media have led to an environment that lacks trust and truth.  Some social media platforms, such as Facebook, have invested in fact-checking initiatives, but further intervention at all levels of society is needed.

The Importance of Individual Media Literacy

One of the best ways to create a more trusting and truthful society is to focus on education. Individual media literacy is an important skill for people of all ages. 

Media literacy involves thinking critically about media messages and assessing the credibility of information sources.  Learning your own media literacy and fact-checking skills is the key to truly experiencing the benefits of the internet.

The Future of Fact-Checking

Technology continues to change the role of fact-checking with the recent influx of artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML) tools. Researchers are currently working to understand how these tools can assist in the fight against misinformation. 

Currently, social media fact-checking teams use machine learning to identify posts that need to be fact-checked. AI can also be used to automate fact-checking. Several AI tools are used to identify false claims in writing, digitally edited videos, and altered images. 

The future of fact-checking in the face of massive amounts of misinformation involves the dedication of human fact-checkers and the use of these digital tools to automate and increase the impact of human efforts.

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