For some time now, most of the « mainstream » media have been fulfilling a purifying function: distinguishing the false from the true. The self-proclaimed fact-checkers pinpoint incorrect information and their improper authors. An inquisition which, when observed with a magnifying glass, presents many shortcomings… and many dangers.
In this article, we discuss 7 problems raised by fact-checking when it is practiced in a simplistic, biased or manipulative way.
- Frugal fact-checking: inconsistency in citing sources
- Emotional fact-checking: announce reason and brandish emotion
- One-sided fact-checking: the end of the dialectic
- Defamatory fact-checking: the death of the bonesetter
- Self-contradictory fact-checking: the truth, when it suits us
- The fact-checking without appeal: the file is closed!
- Dramatic fact-checking: welcome to the Karpman triangle!
The fact-checking or « verification journalism » movement is not new. It started in the United States where it has its roots almost 100 years ago(1), but in the last few years it has become more widespread in the Belgian and French press. It took on a very invested dimension during the health crisis.
Some examples in France:
- https://factuel.afp.com/ (AFP)
- https://www.lemonde.fr/les-decodeurs/ (Le Monde)
- https://www.francetvinfo.fr/vrai-ou-fake/ (French audiovisual)
- https://www.liberation.fr/auteur/service-desintox/ (Liberation)
- https://www.20minutes.fr/societe/desintox/ (20 minutes)
Some examples in Belgium:
- https://www.rtbf.be/info/dossier/faky-fact-checking (La RTBF)
- https://www.lesoir.be/336427/sections/le-vrai-ou-le-faux (Le Soir)
- https://www.lalibre.be/dossier/belgique/la-source-le-fact-checking-de-la-libre-606569977b50a6051773270e (La Libre)
Some see this phenomenon as a response to a need to shed light on the large amount of false information or rumors, which circulate especially on social media. Others see it as an opportunity to restore the image of journalism at a time when the credibility rating of the traditional press is falling in the public opinion(2).
However, a paradox is emerging. » Fact-checking is being criticized by some citizens for its claim to tell the truth, a criticism that is increasingly common against the media in general, » says Cédric Mathiot, a journalist in charge of the Désintox section at Libération(3).
On the other hand, it seems that fact-checking is having an effect. A 2019 study by U.S. researchers indicates that fact-checking significantly influences political opinions, although readers will be more or less permeable to it depending on their beliefs and knowledge(4).
Of course, fact-checking is sometimes beneficial
Before diving into the excesses of fact-checking, as it is sometimes used today, I wish to honor the principles of verification of information and cross-checking of sources, which are the pillars of quality journalism, guarantor of a democracy where citizens can make informed choices.
For example, social networks are flooded with quotes supposedly attributed to charismatic personalities such as Steve Jobs or Gandhi, but which they never actually said. Albert Einstein would turn over in his grave twenty times if he knew how his intelligence is regularly used to increase the impact of the messages that we want to convey(5).
At other times, it is politicians who are attributed with statements they never made. All political camps are potentially concerned, without sparing President Emmanuel Macron himself(7).
In some cases, rumors may originate from the media, which have been too quick to spread unsubstantiated information, the verification of which is beneficial to everyone(8). The race for information and ratings sometimes leads to missteps.
So yes, of course, verifying the veracity of information is an important foundation without which any reasoning or decision would lose its consistency.
In this sense, fact-checking is particularly suitable for simple, concrete and 100% verifiable information.
- Do some airlines ban vaccinated people?(9)
- Are 45,000 churches threatened with demolition?(10)
- Is it true that 10,000 new police officers have been recruited in France?(11)
Where things get complicated is when journalists claim to separate the false from the true on more complex issues, subject to nuance, criticism of source data or the prism of opinion.
It is quite striking that many fact-checking articles published in the mass media lack consistency in terms of citing sources.
Take this article published by RTL(12). The only links it contains are to other posts in the chain. Not a single scientific source is provided. At most, there is a reference to the WHO, which is said to advise against the prescription of ivermectin, without specifying that this position is provisional, « until more data are available »(13).
Some fact-checkers will do the same job with a little more consistency, for example through this article signed by the decoders of Le Monde and dated April 13, 2021(14). Has the question of the efficacy of ivermectin been reliably answered?
This is not what the author of a well-sourced article published on April 15, 2021 on Mediapart(15) thinks, which deploys a robust critique of the so-called fact-checking of Le Monde’s decoders. The article discusses multiple clinical trials, meta-analyses, systematic reviews, epidemiological studies, benefit-risk analyses, legal bases, and appends a bibliography of 33 peer-to-peer articles.
Meanwhile, as of July 2021, more studies and meta-analyses on ivermectin continue to come out. In any case, far more scientific references than the two or three studies mentioned by Le Monde when it claims to summarize the question « On what do they base their defense of ivermectin? To speak of frugal fact-checking does not seem to me to be an exaggeration.
Note the very emotional rhetoric of the Le Monde article, which uses words clearly likely to discredit the approach of the scientists studying therapeutic alternatives to the vaccine: « miracle treatment », « therapeutic mirage »… this is how the solution is presented from the outset. As soon as the title is given, we switch to the emotional, in a rather paradoxical way for a fact-checking.
Moreover, the initial question is often insufficient to grasp the complexity of reality. In this case, the question is not just « Is ivermectin effective? », which leads to a simplistic « yes » or « no » answer. But under what conditions, in what proportions, with what other drugs and in what timing is ivermectin effective? It is in these terms that scientists such as Didier Raoult or Peter Mc Cullough approach the reflection.
This brings us back to the source of the problem: can we afford to fact-check, in one clear-cut article, complex issues that are the subject of a myriad of studies, parameters and points of view?
Paradoxically, it is sometimes in the alternative media, often treated as « conspiracy theorists », that you will find the good practices of scientific journalism and the citation of sources. Platforms such as ReinfoCovid regularly conclude their articles with bibliographic references, as in this article on methods for calculating vaccine efficacy, to cite just one example(17).
Criticism of the feverishness of fact-checking is not reserved for the alternative media or for people involved in associations; it is the scientists themselves who sometimes come forward to denounce the fragile reasoning of certain journalists.
For example, in June 2021, American scientists addressed a critique to the fact-checking media in the form of an article about the first results of the analysis of deaths reported in the US pharmacovigilance system, named VAERS(18).
You can find the French translation of this article on the ReinfoCovid website(19). In particular, the researchers point to significant omissions, such as the fact that the fact-checkers fail to specify that post-vaccine deaths in the pharmacovigilance databases have not been de-correlated or declared not attributable to the vaccine. Therefore they may be!
The article concludes, « In any case, we believe that fact-checkers should be treated with the same degree of skepticism and distrust that they recommend we employ when we read the sources they so strongly refute. »
The lightness with which certain information is swept aside by the classic media is quite questionable. Take this article from Le Nouvel Obs. It announces a major news: a scientific meta-analysis, based on 18 randomized trials, which concludes that ivermectin is effective in reducing mortality from COVID-19 and in accelerating the recovery of affected individuals.
Observe the skepticism with which the American Journal of Therapeutics study is greeted by the Obs. An a priori skepticism, completely unsupported by facts.
After calling ivermectin a » miracle treatment » (a term that is not claimed in the scientific literature under discussion), the paper multiplies the expressions of skepticism and doubt. An amalgam is made, then, with the most controversial personalities and themes: Didier Raoult, Donald Trump, Bolsonaro, hydroxychloroquine. While these elements are strictly irrelevant to the subject of the study.
The link to the study itself is… wrong! I did a search to retrieve it(20). The references on which the study is based are not provided at all. And neither its content nor its methodology are analyzed.
The suspicion with which the study is received is not further substantiated. There is no mention of a counter-analysis or of experts who have spoken out against the conclusions of this recent report from the United States.
After casting doubt on the hope that this research represents, the journalist concludes by mentioning » the worst side effects » that ivermectin can generate, just to add fear to doubt.
There is no question of fact-checking. One line to announce the study and fifty lines to discredit it. No details on the researchers’ profile, methodology, sample and conclusions.
Other studies have been published in the meantime, in the United States(21) and in France at the Pasteur Institute(22). But these studies are systematically belittled(23) by the « mainstream » media, which focus on vaccine advocacy.
The traditional media is singing in unison. And fact-checking is a one-way street. Systematically, the reframing brings back the official position: pro-vaccine, pro-mask, pro-confinement. The only time problems are brought up is to point out the exceptional nature of the problem(24). Equally systematically, alternatives to the vaccine are downplayed, as we have seen previously.
Rather than allowing the reader to forge his or her own truth on the basis of a contradictory debate, which does in fact exist, the fact-checkers take sides. The « true or false » signs the death of dialectic and Socratic questioning. We are no longer in a science that searches, but in a science that knows, or claims to know unquestionably. There are good scientists, and there are bad scientists, those who are blacklisted because they do not adhere to the consensus.
This is how Nobel Prize winners or experienced researchers can find themselves, from one day to the next, on the shelf of mad scientists, brains in decline or scientists guided by their ego, as soon as they no longer fit into the official line of thought.
The list of scientists who have gone mad in 2020 and 2021 (editor’s note: this is irony) is only growing. I had made a poster with a first selection:
Below, a Nobel Prize in Medicine is crossed out with a red bic by AFP journalists(25).
The emotional effect of this type of process, which consists of crossing out a person (literally, in this case) rather than crossing out a specific statement, obviously leaves its mark on that person’s reputation. The most critical among us will wonder if this is not precisely the objective pursued by the « watchdogs »(26) of the dominant thought: to discredit those who have been praised, as soon as their discourse deviates from the consensus.
Note the weak consistency of the argument: » The virologists and epidemiologists questioned by AFP unanimously reject this thesis « . The experts in question are not specifically named. It is specified that these are the experts that AFP decided to interview. Fortunately, because if they had questioned other experts on the same subject, such as Didier Raoult or Kaarle Parikka(27), there is a good chance that the said unanimity would be scratched.
Below, well aligned with AFP, the RTBF(28) frames our Nobel Prize with more gentleness: a « Faky » logo, all rounded, accompanies a photo nicely chosen not to emphasize Professor Luc Montagnier.
To be sure we have understood correctly, RTBF will add a sub-heading on « Professor Montagnier’s mistakes » as well as another entitled « A Nobel Prize, not a source of absolute truth »… it being understood that you will find the absolute truth in the « Faky Fact Checking » section of your national television.
Also symptomatic: the link to the YouTube video, which is no longer available. Logically, in times of censorship, it becomes difficult to refer to divergent actors, if only to discredit them.
We are no longer in the age of debate. The journalist does not position himself as the leader of a diversity of opinion. He takes a stand. And by the same token, it implies that there is one correct position, and that all others must be discarded.
I don’t necessarily have a strong opinion on the topics we have discussed (the efficacy of ivermectin, the number of deaths attributed to the vaccine, the origin of the variants), but I do have the great frustration of not being able to attend a real democratic, open and respectful debate between scientists who have different points of view, information and sensitivities.
Would we have discovered anything interesting in science if we had never accepted a different point of view? Could relativity, quantum physics and electricity have emerged if fact-checkers were waiting for Albert Einstein, Max Planck and Thomas Edison at the turn of any non-consensus hypothesis?
More and more often, fact-checking is turning away from its original vocation. Rather than being about the verification of a fact, it is mobilized around the reputation of a person.
Let’s take this example from the « Vrai ou fake » section on the France Info website:
Title of the article: « True or false: Didier Raoult, the career of a decried scientist(29)
What exactly are we checking? It’s all a blur.
The title makes no clear proposition that can be verified. Can we verify certain elements of Didier Raoult’s scientific career? Do we check the fact that it is decried? The France Info article has the appearance of a fact-checking, which does not state its thesis, the truth to be verified.
In the end, the reader can imply that what is verified is the legitimacy of the person himself: Is Didier Raoult… real or fake? Or what should we remember about Didier Raoult’s career?
The article is then held in 214 words… 214 words that are supposed to summarize what it is legitimate to think about Professor Didier Raoult. The 2‑minute video is like a montage featuring a self-centered character filled with overconfidence. This is a very « emotional » setup for an article dedicated to fact-checking. It would be very easy, from the dozens of videos of Didier Raoult, to make a montage which, on the contrary, would demonstrate all the nuance and all the wisdom of which this same character is capable(30).
An intertitle then summarizes, in 7 words, the career of the scientist: « From idol of the French to rejected scientist ». Neither of these assertions (« idol of the French » and « rejected scientist ») is supported by facts.
A more detailed analysis would quickly verify that these two assertions are totally abusive simplifications. On the one hand, a part of the French people do not consider Didier Raoult as an idol at all, and even those who follow him or give him credit, are not obliged to sink into idolatry. On the other hand, several eminent scientists continue to support Didier Raoult’s statements, which are therefore not rejected en bloc by the scientific community. We are not in a black and white reality, but in a much more nuanced scientific debate, despite those who like to rest on a clear-cut truth.
From the point of view of storytelling, we are witnessing what I call « the narrative of decay ». or of the « scientist gone mad », which we will find applied to other scientists, such as Christian Perronne, Alexandra Henrion or Luc Montagnier, each time that they present, at the base, a so credible and consistent path that it is necessary to discredit them on another level.
Let us observe, in this article which brandishes the banner of « true or false », a great inconsistency in the citation of sources: only one link is proposed… to an article devoted to the investigation of which Didier Raoult is the subject at the University of Aix-Marseille. So, the fact-checker chose to rely on… an ongoing investigation.
No link is proposed to :
- Didier Raoult’s curriculum vitae(31)
- The very detailed book that Didier Raoult published precisely to defend himself from the media manipulations he claims to be the object of(32)
- The official video channel of the IHU Marseille (which has nearly half a million subscribers and hours of scientific reflection)(33)
- French and foreign scientists who continue to give their full support to Didier Raoult
- The reasons why Didier Raoult’s team continues to defend the idea of studying the effects of hydroxychloroquine administered under well-specified timing and drug combination conditions(34)
- The many other subjects on which Didier Raoult shares his work or his thoughts
Very sparse in objective facts, this article is, on the other hand, flooded with emotional vocabulary: « decried », « miracle » (x2), « idol » (x2), « rejected » (x2), « fans », « such assurance », « very controversial ». We navigate in the emotional.
In summary, this « true or false » :
- starts without identifying a specific fact to check;
- is based on few facts;
- contains zero references to the principal concerned;
- is flooded with emotional semantics;
- conveys a negative image of the person, without counterbalance.
In the background, the approach is very insidious: fact-checking is used to damage a person’s reputation. The too docile or unavailable reader will easily conclude that… Didier Raoult is not (or no longer) a person to be trusted. Welcome to the era of « people-checking ».
It is all the more insidious because the same person can sometimes be right and sometimes wrong, or simply see things from another angle. This shift from fact-checking to checking the legitimacy of a person as a whole is, in my opinion, a real lapse in journalistic integrity.
From the moment when we slide from WHAT to WHO, from the moment when fact-checkers confuse the role of verifying « what is true » with the mission of designating « who is telling the truth », from the moment when this role is invested in an emotional way and no longer in a factual way, it is not an exaggeration to speak of an editorial inquisition.
In other places on the France Info site, the discrediting takes place in a more diffuse way. Like on the home page of the « True or Fake » section, where we land on a photo, representing an anti-vaccine protester, who is holding up a makeshift sign with spelling mistakes.
It goes without saying that the choice of this photo is not neutral and tends to sabotage the credibility of the demonstrations against the vaccination obligation. A photo of a lawyer speaking in front of a crowd of thousands would be just as realistic and would convey a different image of the opponents of vaccination.
In this example, the discredit is not on a specific person, but on a group of people or on a point of view. We find the same ambivalence I mentioned above: fact-checking brandishes the legitimacy of a factual verification, but drifts here into very emotional communication choices.
In some cases, the fact-checking media contradict what they themselves have previously published.
Let’s take the example of the newspaper Le Monde which, on June 29, 2021, pinned as » unfounded » the fact that the anti-COVID vaccines promote strokes(35). An assertion that contradicts their own article published on March 26, 2021 in which they wrote that the National Agency for Drug Safety confirmed a risk of thrombosis, including cerebral thrombosis, associated with the vaccine(36).
The association reinfocovid.fr pinpoints this example and reminds us that several other sources attest to the risk of thrombosis, even if it remains infrequent(37).
Above, the decoders highlight the link between the vaccine and stroke as » unfounded. » Further down, it is stated that no stroke has been recorded by the ANSM in connection with the vaccine. However, three months earlier, this risk had already been identified… by the same sources!
In a March 2021 letter to healthcare professionals, says ReinfoCovid, the ANSM reports an association between cerebral venous sinus thrombosis and the AstraZeneca vaccine(38). The Vidal also reports post-vaccine cerebral thrombosis in its May 18, 2021 article » Thrombotic effects of Astrazeneca and Janssen vaccines: what management? « (39).
The contradiction is so great that Reinfocovid wonders if journalists are aware that cerebral thrombosis is in fact a stroke, generally abbreviated as « CVA ».
While everyone agrees that the risk of thrombosis is very low, it is not non-existent. This is the great danger of binary approaches in « true or false »: they lead to erase the nuances and take liberties with reality. If we take the decoding of Le Monde word by word, it is irretrievably false with regard to the same sources.
The reality depicted by ReinfoCovid may seem more accurate to some: on March 12, 2021, France, like 12 other countries, suspended vaccination with the AstraZeneca vaccine following the registration by the European Medicines Agency of 30 cases of thrombosis (as of March 10, 2021) in the framework of pharmacovigilance following the administration of this vaccine. A possible link between thrombosis and the said vaccine was recognized on March 16 by the ANSM. Nevertheless, vaccination will resume in France on March 19 with the blessing of the HAS (Haute Autorité de Santé); the vaccine is now reserved for people over 55 years old.
Anti-vaccinators are regularly labelled as « reassuranceists » or « covidosceptics », on the pretext that they minimize the danger of COVID-19. But, at the other end, governments and the media have a communication that systematically minimizes the danger of vaccines. My purpose is not to take a position, but to clarify the fact that the communication of both sides is not neutral. The difference is that fact-checkers claim to be the holders of objectivity.
Fact-checking without appeal
In general, fact-checking aims to settle a question and then close the case. We are in a dynamic of « This is not true, we don’t talk about it anymore » or « This person is delusional, stop listening to him ».
This is how the RTL article already mentioned(40) takes the liberty of deciding that the studies on ivermectin are not conclusive and that the WHO advises against its prescription, even though, in the month before the article was published, research has continued intensively and new studies have emerged.
Not content with insisting that there is no evidence (probably an Anglicism from a clumsy translation of the English) of the efficacy of ivermectin, the journalist concludes with a sledgehammer that there is not even « any benefit to be expected ».
And since fact-checking is often accompanied by a dose of mockery and disdain, it is pointed out that the treatment was only effective « on 18 golden hamsters ». Obviously, the reporter is not aware of the many more recent studies on ivermectin. And he buries the debate as one would bury a person still alive six feet under the ground, having forgotten to check if his heart is beating, or worse, not wanting to hear it, this heart of the divergent.
In this last part of the article, I use the term « dramatic » in reference to a model widely used in psychology: the Karpman triangle. Because I am convinced that what is fundamentally problematic in fact-checking, beyond the epistemological aspect, is the psychological posture.
Stephen Karpman is a psychiatrist and transactional analysis practitioner who has developed a model that can explain « psychological games » that result in a « dramatic » relationship(41).
He distinguishes three « roles » that we sometimes tend to take on and that will generate unbalanced and painful relationships. These three roles alternate and play in all directions: the savior, the victim and the persecutor.
Decoding: the fact-checker perceives that the poor citizen (VICTIM) is confronted with disinformation. He assumes his role as the rectifier of the truth (SAVIOR) and, in order to do so, is ready to become the great denouncer (PERSECUTOR) of the author of this disinformation. The person concerned may, in turn, feel attacked or misunderstood (VICTIM). She might want to react (PERSECUTIVE) by fact-checking the fact-checker. The situation may become polarized and the citizen may feel uncomfortable (VICTIMS) between these sources of information that say everything and its opposite. To stabilize himself, he may be tempted to take sides, for one or the other (PERSECUTOR). Etc.
You feel that this type of relationship creates tension and disharmony.
In transactional analysis, another model is often presented, that of Eric Berne, which induces 4 relational positions, according to the relationship to oneself and the relationship to the other(42):
- You OK, me OK (this is the recommended position, assertive and open)
- You OK, me not OK (this is a submissive position)
- You not OK, me OK (this is the position of the persecutor)
- You not OK, me not OK (this is a cynical position where nothing is good)
By definition, the fact-checker is in the « me OK, you not OK » zone. In other words: I am invested with the mission to tell the Truth in a world where some have everything wrong. This implies, psychologically, that I place myself above others.
No need to take a picture: this posture leads us straight to dramatic relationships.
Just as one enters Karpman’s triangle « by wanting to do the right thing », fact-checking starts from a good feeling, the taste for truth, but very quickly comes up against slippage.
Among the problems encountered:
- Frugal fact-checking, which does not itself rely on very consistent sources or reasoning.
- Biased fact-checking, which only sheds light on the facts that fit into the accepted lens and only questions the experts on one side.
- Emotional fact-checking, which gets carried away in inquisition until it forgets its factual vocation.
- Defamatory fact-checking, which no longer checks the veracity of information, but attacks the legitimacy of a person.
- Binary and definitive fact-checking, choosing black or white in a world of 50 shades of grey.
- Badly outdated fact-checking, when you don’t know, finally, what you are checking.
How high is the Eiffel Tower? How many calories does a kilo of white rice contain? Did President Macron really say this during his presidential address? The answer to these questions will be unequivocal and it will be possible to fact-check them effectively.
Is ivermectin effective? How many deaths are attributable to COVID-19 and how many are attributable to vaccines? What is the origin of the virus? What creates new variants? Here we enter a field of nuances and movement, where the truth of some will not be the truth of others, even among scientists.
And when several truths face each other, we have the choice between letting them coexist in an open dialectic (Me OK, You OK), which will perhaps allow us to enrich and adjust ourselves, or we wish to impose a dominant voice (Me OK, You not OK). In this case, we are responsible for creating the polarization between those who are right and those who are wrong (but will continue to think, out of your sight, that they are right).
Fact-checking has sometimes been presented as an instrument of democracy, based on the fact that the citizen has the right to be informed in a reliable way. In fact, it sometimes becomes a tool for imposing the official, dominant or consensual point of view, at the expense of a minority that thinks differently. It is clear then that, no matter how good their experience or argument, the minority is discredited and ostracized. In such a scenario, fact-checking becomes, no more and no less, an instrument of totalitarianism.
- Référence au film documentaire « Les nouveaux chiens de garde », réalisé par Gilles Balbastre et Yannick Kergoat.
- Mon propos n’est pas de défendre Didier Raoult, mais d’éclairer la subjectivité du journaliste