investigating the nature of fact in the digital age

About the research

My thesis proposal

Just the Facts, Ma’am: the rise of political fact-checking websites as a response to changing notions of authority, credibility and trust in the mainstream media

This project aims to examine the rise of political fact-checking websites – that is, sites created with the stated aim of checking the veracity of and employment of facts and figures used in the statements of politicians, especially during US election campaigns. The purpose of this investigation is to consider and assess fact-checking websites as a response of mainstream and independent media to counter the changing notions of authority, credibility and trust that are evolving in the new online media landscape.

Little scholarship on the subject of fact-checking websites exists; certainly nothing examining their relationship to changing notions of authority and credibility in the online space has been attempted on a significant scale. This presents obvious challenges but also great opportunities. My hope is that this project will establish a baseline for future research into the impact of fact-checking websites while adding new depth and insight into the existing field of credibility studies that focus on the impact of communication technology on “old” media forms.

My research will sit in the discipline of Communication and Media Studies, while describing a theoretical context that will draw on several disciplines and philosophical approaches.

The key question shaping this project will be: “How do fact-checking websites exemplify news media’s attempts to preserve their reputation for authority and credibility in a changing media landscape?”

In addressing this question the project will aim to develop a methodology for studying fact-checking websites. This will involve considerations that touch on:

* epistemological issues concerning the nature of “truth” (how it is constructed) and how opinions and beliefs are formed (drawing, to various degrees, on behavioural, cognitive and biosemiotic theory, following Metzger and Flanagin) and the status of “fact” in the digital/networked environments of the 21st century

* consideration of influences such as framing effects, halo effects and confirmation bias

* the impact of communication technology on traditional media (focusing on the newspaper industry)

* the impact of communication technology – specifically, the democratisation of content creation and distribution – on public political discourse (that is, the many-to-many “conversation” of new media, which has supplanted the older “hub-and-spokes” model of information dissemination)

Background to the context in which political fact-checking websites have evolved will comprise several parts:

* the history of fact-checking in the US: its origins in 1920s magazine publishing and resurgence in newspapers in the 1990s, and its application and expansion in the past decade due to affordances offered by the new technologies of the digital revolution

* the impact of the digital revolution on the practice of mainstream media (newspapers) and the opportunity for the media audience to not only take part in the practice of new journalism (creation of content) but to participate in shaping its direction (by demanding specific information through the new avenues of communication with online media)

* the rise of PR, communications advisers, media training and “spin” in the political discourse and the ineffectiveness of traditional journalism (newspapers) to counter what is seen by many in the audience as cynical politicking

* the pressures on the business model of newspapers and consequent impact on their reputation and credibility (e.g., as subeditors, proofreaders and other lines of defence against inaccuracy are removed as cost-cutting measures)

* consideration of fact-checking websites as an agent in “monitory democracy”

Fact-checking websites do not exist as formal, organisational entities in Australia*. The closest approximation are blogs that challenge the claims made by politicians, and which joust with “rival” bloggers and/or media commentators. These bloggers tend to be individuals operating for personal (partisan) reasons rather than as adjuncts to or offshoots from traditional media organisations. They usually operate in a piecemeal, haphazard way and have small audiences (relative to the numbers of consumers of other political media). As such, their efforts are unstructured and lack the ability to mount sustained pressure on politicians.

The obvious starting point for a study of fact-checking websites, therefore, is the US, where they proliferate.

My thesis would concentrate its attention on the three best-known, best-regarded fact-checking websites in the US: factcheck.org, a project based at Pennsylvania University, established in 2003; The Fact Checker, set up by The Washington Post in 2007; and politifact.com, run by The St Petersburg Times. (I would consider reducing this to the original, archetypal fact-checking website, factcheck.org, depending on the amount of material uncovered during research.)

To further narrow the focus of this thesis I would construct a case study of these websites’ operations in the lead-up to the 2012 presidential election. Using websites’ (extensive) online archives I would examine how they operated in real time during political debates to check facts; the nature/number of “facts” they disputed and/or corrected; and the debate about whether the process relating to identifying the “facts” so disputed/corrected was itself susceptible to bias or selective interpretation.

To provide context for their activities I would survey their stated fact-checking policies and methodologies (available on each website); consider the expertise of their personnel that qualifies them to be fact-checkers (also available on the websites); examine how they engage with reader queries and how they encourage audience participation; and chart the amount of traffic the websites receive. (Visitor figures for The Washington Post site before last year’s election suggest it receives about one million hits a month, with visitor numbers for individual fact-checked posts each attracting from 25,000 to 400,000 hits.)

Further material would be sought through surveys of the operators of the websites to ensure an evenness of data used in comparing the sites.

It is expected that analysis of the websites will suggest that there is a hunger for and move towards developing systems of credible, authoritative and trustworthy checks on the political process (through the provision of trustworthy fact-checking practices), and that the evolution of crowd-sourced information and engagement in fact-checking will become an increasingly important part of the political discourse (especially as players in “monitory democracy”).

It will be crucial that this paper resists analysis of whether political fact-checking websites are “successful” in their identification of truths and untruths. The purpose of this research will be, rather, to describe the efforts of fact-checking websites as an example of attempts to deal with and engage with new notions of credibility and authority of information in public political discourse.

* During the time this proposal was being considered, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation announced that it was setting up a research/fact-checking unit. This unit will examine and test claims of fact made by politicians, unions and business organisations. I intend to reframe the subject of the above proposal to focus on this new fact-checking unit as the primary case study of this thesis.

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