Bill ADAIR (Duke University). (c) Kevin Cooper Photoline NUJ

‘Are We Living in a Post-Truth Democracy?’
A #DemocracyDay talk by Bill ADAIR at the Imagine Belfast Festival
by Eilish BOSCHERT for Northern Ireland Foundation
24 March 2017

Hosted by FactCheck NI as part of Imagine Belfast Festival of Ideas and Politics, Bill Adair presented his lecture ‘Are We Living in a Post-Truth Democracy?’ at the Conor Lecture Theatre at Ulster University on Friday, March 24th.

Opening the event by discussing the necessity of fact-checking organisations, especially in the current technological society, Enda Young introduced Adair — founder of Pulitzer Prize-winning website Politifact, which made fact checking mainstream.

Fact checking increases the reliability of information that reaches mass audiences, contributing to a deliberative democracy — focusing on the role of citizens and their needs.

Inspired by the claims of U.S. politicians that were seldom verified, Adair began Polifact ten years ago as part of the Tampa Bay Times (formerly the St. Petersburg Times). Politifact’s six, simple ratings — True, Mostly True, Half-True, Mostly False, False, and Pants-on-Fire — make the content of the site accessible and understandable for any audience.

“The information age,” Adair stated, “is also the age of disinformation.” With the rise in technology, the world has received access to information like never before; however, the internet has become a great way to spread inaccuracies and isolate ourselves from opposing information as well.

Unfortunately, falsehoods spread. As Adair pointed out, Donald Trump’s false-claim tweets are quoted on television twice as often as other tweets, and are retweeted more frequently. This is not a uniquely American phenomenon — untruths can be found anywhere in political discourse; the difference can be found in the ways in which messages are circulated.

In the past, mainstream news organisations served as a reliable filter for falsehoods. Despite their limited perspectives, the information transmitted to household audiences by the media was factually accurate. Now, the internet provides people with the same “cockamamy” ideas with a platform and a voice. This creates the illusion that these groups have validity and support. There are fewer filters that separate misinformation from fact, enabling partisan media with a megaphone.

The structured nature of the Politifact also keeps scores or ‘report cards’ of the politicians on which they report, allowing them to track their campaign promises on a state and local level. Adair was quick to acknowledge that Politifact is first and foremost journalism, not social science; however, journalism often follows the “food fight” between political parties and allows actual policy to fall by the wayside. Politifact follows-up with politician’s claims and promises, creating substantive journalism about policy.

Politifact has encouraged fact seekers across the globe, inspiring dozens of sites that collaborate to report responsibly. 2016’s presidential election provoked record traffic on politifact.com, yet partisan divide plagues the fact-checking community, preventing them from reaching a large percentage of the electorate.

The general distrust of mainstream media by conservatives has tarnished the name of good, objective news organisations. And the rise of social media facilitates confirmation bias on all sides of the political spectrum, creating easy access to information that is desired, but not necessarily accurate.

In this season of information overload, Adair maintains hope. He does not believe that we are living in a post-truth era — “We’re actually living in the era of the fact checker!” There has been a great momentum toward fact checking in recent years, which he hopes will create a turning point where fact checkers can spread the truth to wider audiences.

In order to overcome confirmation bias, Adair recommended objective news sites as the foundation of your ‘information diet’. Next is news that has perspective, but not bias. This is followed by opinion pieces that you agree with. Finally, it is important to read columnists with whom you do not agree. His most important word of advice? “Don’t rely on social media to get your news.”

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