It’s Time to Start Fact Checking the Fever Swamps


The topic of the day is “fake news.” This takes two forms. The first is something that’s mocked up to look like a real news site and contains flat-out fabrications. The creators make money by trying to make their stuff go viral on Facebook and then collecting ad revenue. The second type of fake news is more familiar: hysterical conspiracy theories that make the rounds among the grass roots. There’s nothing new about this except for the vehicles it uses. In the past, stuff like this circulated via newsletter, and then email chains. Today it circulates via Facebook and other social media platforms.

In any case, these are both allegedly huge problems. I’m not totally convinced of this yet, since I haven’t seen any data about how widely spread this stuff is and whether it actually changes any minds. I’d put even money that it mainly gets circulated among people who are already highly receptive to fever swamp nonsense and who already hate whichever person it’s aimed at.

Still, let’s assume it’s a problem. Riddle me this: Why is it that fact-checking sites spend countless hours researching the accuracy of statements by politicians, but spend no time researching the latest crank news on Facebook? I recommend they start. To do this, they need to either (a) get deeply involved in the left and right-wing fever swamps so they know when something new is making the rounds, or (b) set up an automated system that alerts them when something political starts to get widely shared. The latter sounds like it might be tricky, but if Silicon Valley is supposedly populated by the smartest people on the planet, surely one of them can create a site updated daily that contains, say, the top 50 wacko viral political stories along with how they’re trending.

It’s time to join the 21st century. In the past, checking out the statements of politicians was important. It still is, I suppose, though few people seem to care much about it. In any case, viral stories on the net are probably a lot more important. It’s time to expose them to the light of day on a consistent basis and explain where they come from and whether there’s any truth to them.