Media democratizes fact-checking

According to Twitter, the first matchup between presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump was the “most tweeted debate ever.” Clicking on the debates hashtag Monday night, one could find, amid policy critiques, everything from Law & Order: SVU memes to compilations of Trump sniffing. As I switched between tabs on my laptop, going back and forth between the Huffington Post livestream and my Twitter feed, it was impossible to feel like I was watching the debate alone. The ability to instantly broadcast our reactions, however, is not an effect that only Twitter had on the debate. Liveblogging, tweeting and posting Facebook statuses give everyone the ability to fact-check in real time. While think pieces abound about how we’re living in a post-fact society and pundits lament that voters simply don’t care about facts anymore, the debate, at least, told a different story — one in which fact-checking won the day.

Monday night, one could find fact-checking on almost every mainstream publication’s website. The New York Times, NPR, CBS and CNN all have posted fact checks of the debate. Bloomberg TV posted fact checks on-screen while airing the debate. PolitiFact tweeted out fact checks in real time. Hillary Clinton even plugged a new feature on her official campaign website during the debate — “Literally Trump” — was constantly updated with Trump quotes that contradicted what he said during the debate. In fact, after Clinton mentioned the site, almost 2 million people visited it within an hour. However, some of the most significant fact-checking didn’t come from news outlets or hired fact-checkers at all. Rather, social media provided an outlet for users to be fact checkers themselves.

According to Twitter, the most retweeted tweet during Monday night’s debate wasn’t explicitly about the debate at all. It was a tweet from Trump in November of 2012: “The concept of global warming was created by and for the Chinese in order to make U.S. manufacturing non-competitive.” The tweet first started going viral when a Twitter user inaccurately claimed that the Trump campaign had deleted it. However, the notorious tweet, which has now been retweeted more than 95,000 times, is itself an example of the popularity of what could be considered grassroots fact-checking.

Rather than going to The New York Times to see what the candidates are lying about or which of their positions they are misconstruing, under grassroots fact-checking, users simply share tweets that contradict what the candidate is saying. This was especially problematic for Trump during the debate. When asked about climate change, Clinton said that while she thinks it’s real, her opponent believes that it is “a hoax perpetrated by the Chinese.” Trump interrupted, repeating “I did not” several times. While it is a point of contention whether the tweet was intended to be a genuine statement of belief, Trump’s denial of ever saying this was enough to begin the retweets. However, even if one were to dismiss this single tweet as evidence of Trump’s denial of climate change, a website called Trump Twitter Archive has compiled 100 other tweets that imply that he thinks that global warming is “fake.”

Of course, there may be evidence that people don’t care about facts anymore. And, perhaps, no Trump supporters have been dissuaded from voting for him despite these discrepancies in opinion. However, the sheer volume of fact-checking that occurred from ordinary social media users suggests that a significant portion of voters are still paying attention and are still willing to call candidates out when they are simply not telling the truth.

Lena Melillo  is a senior majoring in philosophy, politics and law  and gender studies.  Her column, “’Pop Politics,” runs every  Thursday.