It’s interesting how many people view fact-checking as a simple problem, where you just identify something that is not factual, then correct it. Problem solved! Misinformation has been defeated, the Internet is only full only of Truth, and now The People finally realize we were right all along!
Fact-checking is a very hard problem. A lot of people want to ignore this fact, because correcting people feels good, especially when they’re your enemies.
It takes a lot of virtuousness, of empathy, of vigor, and of rationality to decline the temptation to correct other people. We are driven insane by the fact that not only are other people wrong on the Internet, but they are wrong about basic facts! This is part of why websites like Twitter are so terrible. People cannot stand others being wrong on the Internet. They will gladly spend hours of their daily life willfully being miserable and angry just to have the chance to correct others, even if those they correct do not even change their beliefs at all, or even change them in the opposite direction.
Although some may think the reason why Mark Zuckerberg has come out against fact-checking politicians is so that he can reap profits and sow division while cackling maniacally, I think instead he has simply put a lot of thought into the problem, and not only realized how difficult it is, but also that it cannot work well long-term. He is much more concerned about the long-term future (decades) of Facebook than he is about some upsetting posts made by an upsetting person.
Difficulties with fact-checking
I. There’s no such thing as an unbiased fact-checker
Fact-checkers, whether humans, scripts, or AI, cannot be unbiased. Reality is always a state of incomplete information, and the ways that humans interpret statements vary from person to person. It’s possible for us to disagree on the veracity of a statement, but if we were to discuss things further with more specificity, actually agree on the state of reality. Many statements can not reasonably be interpreted as a boolean of true or false, and instead have subtle amounts of potential bias and nuance within them. Facts are constantly changing, and no single actor has perfect and unbiased information about all of them.
II. Even if there was, someone has to decide which content should be fact-checked
Even given impossibly-perfect moderation, someone has to cherry-pick the content that is to be moderated and checked in the first place, as the Internet has far too much content to police every thought and post manually. Most individuals in favor of fact-checking tend to focus on a very small subset of individuals or organizations that they think should be fact-checked, but this set itself is cherry-picked according to their preferences and attention. This is another process that inevitably introduces bias, potentially in many directions depending on the people and processes involved. Similar to how two completely opposing news networks may only report true information, but still promote entirely opposing narratives because they cherry-pick what is news and what is not news, fact-checking cannot avoid this selection problem. It’s very unlikely that any large organization can do a reasonable job at this.
III. Even given quality fact-checking, the results may not be what you seek
A lot of people do not trust certain fact-checkers, certain news networks, and especially certain social media companies. Even if you perform good fact-checking, there is little evidence that this will achieve your goal, which is not actually correcting text on the Internet, but correcting peoples’ beliefs in their own minds, which turns out to be pretty difficult. Fact-checking could sometimes have an effect similar to the Streisand effect, potentially even causing harm to one’s cause, although I can’t find recent studies on this specifically. Regardless, it should be well-known by now that many people will not instantly and flawlessly change their minds when presented with new opposing facts, especially when done so by their outgroup.
If an Internet platform undertakes significant fact-checking, it could even drive heavily-affected groups off of the platform and onto their own platform, where they would then be even more free to spread their own information in whichever way they want. Similarly, the amount of trust that is given to many companies could decrease significantly and cause greater problems further down the road that can then not be solved with fact-checking.
Long-term affects of big changes are impossible to predict, but it’s not too hard to think about a lot of unintended consequences not just for social media, but for governments, democracy, and humanity, further down the road. Most people don’t have to try too hard to imagine some pretty dystopian results and major failure modes when trillion dollar corporations and governments become arbiters of truth and information.
IV. alternative narratives are important for society
Fact-checking has been desired and attempted by those in power throughout history, often leading to disastrous results, even without considering the political extremes of events such as WWII, which entire books of tragedy are written on. Many may view the Copernician revolution as ancient history, being 500 years ago, but it was only 170 years ago when Ignaz Semmelweis’ controversial hypothesis that doctors should wash their hands and maintain cleanliness was mocked and ridiculed for decades, until it eventually became common practice and saved millions of lives.
Lest those examples still appear as ancient history, remember that during the beginning of the covid pandemic, stating that covid was spreading from person to person directly contradicted the WHO (not to mention that everyone should wear masks, among others), and correspondingly would have been censored by platforms like Youtube according to their public policy.
History is full of countless examples of individuals that went against the grain of their encompassing culture in order to accomplish amazing things and drive progress. These people often armed themselves with what may have been originally considered to be misinformation by those in power during their zeitgeist. I’m glad that we didn’t have the centralization of communication and power we have now throughout history, because many rights that you take for granted were only gained thanks to the failures of past powers to control the narrative as strictly as they wanted to.
V. The narrative cannot be controlled
Just like everyone else, I too wish that everyone that was wrong on the Internet could be corrected. I wish my favorite narratives, facts, and causes were supported and known by more people. To not attempt to correct and control the narrative is a tough bullet to bite, but it’s something that a lot of thought and consideration must be put into, requiring very long-term thinking and awareness of history.
As long as people are free, they will come up with their own narratives, causes, desires, and even facts and entire worldviews. It’s been said that we live in a post-truth world, but that has always been the case. It’s just more apparent now that you can see people from every other background and culture when you use the Internet. No single person, company, or government can control information flow and peoples’ beliefs to the extent that they wish, and any that grasp for such an unattainable level of control will find that it doesn’t work long-term. Even the countries with the strictest controls on information, reporting, and speech, historically, have never fared well after a long enough time.
Different people have different lives, different values, and even different facts that they live by. It’s possible for you to co-exist with them, but perhaps not best if you’re forced to live in the same room as them. But no matter how hard you try, it may be impossible to get them to live their life the way you want them to. I know it’s difficult, but sometimes the only option is to let others live in their own world, while you live in yours, still helping to make it the best you can. Spending your days being angry and miserable on social media will not accomplish what you want, no matter how right you are.
Although this post might not be particularly insightful and is almost too political for my taste, I hope at the least this may help some realize that fact-checking is more difficult than it appears at first glance, even if they still support it.
I’m looking for more interesting people to chat with on Twitter, especially if you have corrections, improvements, or just like to discuss topics like longevity, startups, security, and finance, and more.