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The Government Domain: Political Fact-Checking Websites

By Peggy Garvin, Published on September 24, 2008

As we all know by now, the Internet is used to spread misinformation on every topic, old and new, more quickly and efficiently than ever possible in the pre-digital days. The Internet can also be used to spread factual, authoritative information. Several elections-oriented “fact-checking” sites attempt to do this in their specialized corner of the Web. They analyze the accuracy of statements made in the candidates’ campaign ads, speeches, and interviews. They also take a look at claims made in unofficial channels, such as popular email forwards. The leaders in this field are FactCheck.org, PolitiFact.com, and The Fact-Checker.com.

The grand-daddy of political fact-checkers is FactCheck.org, sponsored by the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania. FactCheck.org survived its first presidential campaign year way back in 2004. For 2008, the site has added numerous services in addition to its blog-like postings. A weekly Vid-Cast in the upper right corner of the site’s home page presents a snappy video accounting of the facts in programs with titles like “This Little Piggy Went to the Make-Up Counter.” FactCheck.org also has a FactCheck Wire newsfeed with the motto “Faster than the Speed of Spin” and a mobile version at http://www.factcheck.org/mobile/. FactCheck launched a separate FactCheckED website last year to “help students learn to be smart consumers of these messages, not to accept them at face value; to dig for facts using the Internet, not to stop looking once they get to Wikipedia; and to weigh evidence logically, not to draw conclusions based on their own biases.” The site features lesson plans and tips for young fact-checkers.

PolitiFact, a product of the St. Petersburg (FL) Times and CQ, is working its way through its first experience with presidential election coverage. Compared to FactCheck.org, the PolitiFact home page is rather busy. PolitiFact has multiple tabs for different approaches to political statements, with the Articles tab most closely resembling FactCheck.org’s blog-like approach. The Truth-o-Meter tab provides a quick look at the site’s judgments on recent statements. A new Flip-O-Meter tab highlights the candidates’ self-contradictory statements, rendering a No Flip, Half Flip, or Full Flop judgment. The site also organizes coverage by candidate and has a section focused on chain emails.

The Washington Post has taken a different approach, creating a fact-checking site that is one journalists’ column/blog. The Fact-Checker by Michael Dobbs describes its approach with this statement:

Fact check Web sites have been established by the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania, www.factcheck.org, and the St. Petersburg Times. We will draw on the expertise of these organizations, and report on their most significant findings. But we differ from them in one important respect: the success of this project depends, to a great extent, on the involvement of you, the reader.
We rely on our readers to send us suggestions on topics to fact check and tips on erroneous claims by political candidates, interest groups, and the media. Once we have posted an item on a subject, we invite your comments and contributions. If you have facts or documents that shed more light on the subject under discussion, or if you think we have made a mistake, let us know.

The Post’s Fact-Checker renders judgment in the form of Pinocchios. One Pinocchio represents “some shading of the facts.” Four Pinocchios, the worst judgment, is reserved for “whoppers.”

A day-by-day look at the three lead fact-check sites shows some similar themes, but there is enough diversity to make it worth your while to check all three. On September 8 and 9, PolitiFact and the Post covered Alaska Governor Sarah Palin’s questionable “Bridge to Nowhere” claims while FactCheck.org covered a variety of false rumors about Palin (later to become the topic of another fact-check unfavorable to the McCain campaign). On September 10, the Post addressed McCain ads with misleading statements about Obama and education; on September 11, FactCheck.org discussed misleading claims in an Obama-Biden ad about McCain’s record in education spending. Palin was again the topic du jour on September 12: FactCheck.org corrected her claims about Alaska’s energy supply; PolitiFact examined statements in her ABC interview; and the Post covered misleading or unsubstantiated McCain campaign information about Palin’s earmark requests and dirt-digging efforts by the Obama campaign.

On September 15, FactCheck.org examined the many falsehoods in Jerome Corsi’s “The Obama Nation”; PolitiFact took on Palin’s exaggerations about her role in the pipeline project; and the Post exposed the Obama campaign’s out-dated claim on lobbyists in the McCain campaign. On September 18, Palin alone got a rest. FactCheck.org looked at Biden’s distortions of McCain statements and at a McCain ad misrepresenting Obama’s tax plan. PolitiFact and the Post both examined Obama’s exaggerated claims about his economic stimulus role.

Snopes.com — a sprawling, general fact-checking site - also covers political rumors. Like the rest of the site, the Snopes politics section covers plenty of ground, including governmental topics such as postage stamps and Social Security. But it has more focused subsections for John McCain, Sarah Palin, Barack Obama and Joe Biden. In addition to the three specialized political fact-checking sites, you will also want to check Snopes. Being a more “popular” site, Snopes tends to cover rumors (faked videos, altered photos, and the like) that the others don’t touch. Snopes also has a category called Inboxer Rebellion addressing myths popularly spread by forwarded emails. There are enough dubious tales out there to merit a portal site, Purportal, which searches Snopes.com and several other internet hoax and urban legend sites.

Expect to hear more about the fact-checking sites both during the campaign and after the election. Political fact-checking looks like a growth business.