In the early 1990s, I was an U.S. Army military intelligence officer for an infantry battalion and the informal motto of our small four-man shop was: “We do the thinking so you don’t have to.” It was a tongue-in-cheek jab at our fellow infantry brothers as our shop’s primary purpose was to know the enemy, terrain, and weather the unit would face. Decades later, this motto can now be applied to a budding new profession – the fact checkers.
Fact Checkers Combat Fake News
While it seems to be such a household term now, the term “fake news” has only been around for a few years. Prior to that, fake news was simply known as propaganda, traditionally practiced by governments. Today, fake news is increasingly finding its way into mainstream and social media news sources. In a market-based economy, news sources that are deemed unreliable, inaccurate or deliberately misleading usually end up suffering in readership and revenue.
To combat the spread of fake news, there has been a recent rise in companies using self-censorship and fact checkers, whose mission it is to check the truth or accuracy of a quote, unsupported “fact,” or presented evidence within a given news source. Some go as far as to let you know the reliability of a news source as a whole. Fact checkers can employ human researchers as well as data-mining algorithms to conduct their analysis. While fact checkers attempt to point out lies, errors, and misleading information, internal censors go one step further and simply bar you from seeing content or news sources they deem unworthy.
Fact-checking organizations openly advertise their ability to do this work for you – you just need to trust their judgment. The Washington Post cites more than 150 fact-checking organizations that have popped up just within the past few years, the most prominent of which are Snopes, Politifact, and FactCheck.org. These organizations evaluate different sources and label them according to their own criteria. Some organizations use internal fact checkers, especially search engines and news aggregate sites such as Google and Facebook, both of which are now attempting to combat fake news and hate speech being shared on their site by third-party sources.
Should Intelligence Analysts Use Fact Checkers?
For intelligence analysts or researchers of any stripe, fact checkers do not necessarily add value to their work; they simply add another layer of complexity in determining the accuracy, bias or deception within various sources. Analysts normally evaluate both the item in question and the source itself. They rely upon their own judgment aided by established criteria such as accuracy, precision, timeliness, and relevance. Using fact checkers and censors adds an additional set of evaluation criteria.
While many of these fact-checking organizations may strive to be as accurate as possible, the entire process of fact checking and evaluating sources is subjective and therefore prone to mistakes and bias. To complicate matters further, some fact checkers are simply political operatives using the guise of fact checking to push their supported propaganda or spin on a particular topic.
For the intelligence analyst whose job regularly requires evaluating and checking the veracity of sources, the rise of fact checkers requires additional screening. As the purpose of fact-checking organizations is different than news creators, the criteria in evaluating them are also different:
|Fact Checker Evaluation Criteria|
· Who is the owner and primary customer of the organization?
· Where do they receive their funding?
· Are they directly or indirectly linked to a government, political party, or advocacy group?
· Is their ownership and funding transparent or hidden?
· What is their stated mission or purpose for their fact checking?
· Do the simply provide ratings for news sources or do they practice active censorship?
· Do they fact-check live or allow for more in-depth research?
· Do they use people, algorithms, or a combination of the two?
· What are the evaluation criteria that the organization uses?
· Are their methods of evaluation published or standardized in any way?
· Are their evaluations based on social justice, political correctness or some other issue?
· Is there a pattern of demographics and psychographics in their fact checkers?
· Are their fact checks heavily imbalanced toward one side over another on a given issue?
· Do they provide a background or sources that can be cross-checked in their evaluations?
· How often have they missed or ignored errors or active deception?
· How often have they had to issue corrections or been called out for errors?
Just as with any other type of source that must be evaluated, intelligence analysts must decide for themselves whether a given fact checker or censor is trustworthy and unbiased. Fact checkers may seem like the much-needed referees of the news media, but even referees are prone to error and bias.
About the Author: Erik Kleinsmith is the Associate Vice President for Business Development in Intelligence, National & Homeland Security, and Cyber for American Military University. He is a former Army Intelligence Officer and the former portfolio manager for Intelligence & Security Training at Lockheed Martin. Erik is one of the subjects of a book entitled The Watchers by Shane Harris, which covered his work on a program called Able Danger tracking Al-Qaeda prior to 9/11. He currently resides in Virginia with his wife of 26 years. He can be reached at IPSauthor@apus.edu. For more articles featuring insight from industry experts, subscribe to In Public Safety’s bi-monthly newsletter.