We treat fact as facts and fact checkers as arbiters of truth. However, facts are more complex than they seem and the current presidential campaign warrants a look at the rhetoric of fact checkers.
A curious tweet came across my feed during the Republican National Convention. With disdain and snark someone had lamented, “Epistemology is hard.” Their sarcasm was aimed at the factual inaccuracies they saw mounting in Paul Ryan’s primetime speech accepting the GOP’s VP nomination. The left’s outcry for fact checking was immediate. Sadly, fact checking is not a fast process. As fact checks rolled in the next day there were indeed a number of claims with which Ryan took liberty. During the first night of the Democratic National Convention, before speeches were even complete, Republicans were taking to twitter screaming “But where are the fact checkers?”
Fact checkers seem to be playing a curious role in this election. Romney Pollster Neil Newhouse said, “We’re not going to let our campaign be dictated by fact-checkers.” While campaigns are quick to bring up fact checkers to attack their opponents claims, rarely do they modify their own dubious claims debunked by fact checkers. Some have taken to calling the 2012 election a post-fact campaign because of the lawlessness with which facts are abandoned. Such defenses are lazy and often made by those who rather report what happened or support a candidate instead of investigating what was said.
More than all of this, however, is the nagging issue of the epistemology of fact checkers. While simple sayings like facts are facts may sound convincing, the many non-partisan fact checking reports, not to mention the various news organizations engaging in their own fact checking endeavors, makes it clear that facts are actually tough things to check. Take a few examples:
1) How do we calculate jobs gained or lost under President Obama? Do we start the day he was inaugurated? Do we begin when his policies take effect? How would we measure that? Do we factor in GOP obstruction to Obama’s economic policies? Yes, if we think they would have worked. No, if we think they would have made unemployment worse. All of a sudden fact checking Obama’s 4.5 million-job record is a difficult thing.
2) Medicare is another wonderful example. Representatives of both campaigns (Obama & Ryan) have taken or proposed changes to Medicare. These changes forever alter Medicare. That sentence sounds scary, but theoretically any change no matter how small would forever alter Medicare because it was different than it was before. The scuffle over cuts to Medicare, and attempts to check these claims, is based on this very issue. What counts as a cut? Who do cuts impact? What are the effects of a cut? Is a cut bad if it increases the solvency of the program? Maybe not, but I can make it sound bad? Can I make it sound good?
3) Mitt Romney’s phantom middle class tax increase is a good final example. Romney has not proposed a middle class tax increase. Now listening to the DNC you would not know that. However, Romney also does not have an actual formally articulated tax policy. Democrats have been operating by inference that if Romney is increasing defense spending and cutting taxes for the wealthy the only way to cut the debt, even after cutting loopholes and spending, is to raise middle class taxes. They base this on a non-partisan study that argued this is the only way the math can work out. Here we see the complexity of facts. Fact: Romney has not proposed a middle class tax increase. Fact: Romney says he will reduce the debt. Fact: Romney cannot reduce the debt under his tax scheme without increasing middle class taxes (based on analysis of his tax outline). Obviously not all of these facts can be true at the same time. Democrats are creating facts by inference, filling in a gap in Romney’s policy for him. That is an inference not a fact. Yet, for some, even for fact checkers, this passes as a fact.
This brings me to what fact checkers (non-partisan and partisan alike) do. They inaugurate a regime of epistemology. When fact checkers determine what is true, what is half-true, and what is false they enter the discourse as truth tellers in a way that lends discourse an official status of truth regardless of its actual veracity. Regimes of epistemology have power because they serve as gatekeepers of knowledge, they help determine what counts as knowledge in our society, and even those who say they fact checkers will not dictate their campaign end up responding to fact checkers. Fact checkers are weighing important values in the conversation and verifying claims, that is an important role, but facts are complicated and fact checker’s determinations can be as faulty as a campaign’s original claim.
Ultimately, fact checkers matter because truth matters in a democracy. However, a lingering question is what counts as truth and knowledge in a democracy? We are already dealing with a very narrow window of discourse. The information that candidates say dominates the information that gets fact checked (obviously). They serve as gatekeepers for knowledge in this election. Fact checkers challenge them on that field, necessarily, and are thus complicit in the regimes of knowledge produced by campaigns. Is that cynical? You bet. However, we should take a moment to recognize that in an election marked by factual shortcuts and post-factual statements that the facts being contested and checked are already rigged. They are products of multi-media campaigns designed to produce very specific kinds of knowledge. That is the epistemology of fact checkers, a regime under which we are satisfied with the checking of the knowledge we are given instead of what we find on our own. That is not meant to call us dupes or to argue we are bad at democracy. I find little solace in sad militancy. However, we should be aware that every candidate, pundit, and fact checker has flaws and a regime of knowledge. Testing the limits of that epistemology is vital for our democracy.