Snopes, Factcheck & Politifact
To the Teacher:
before has so much information and misinformation been so readily
available. The internet is the source of both and invaluable.
But it can also be a "cesspool," to quote Google's CEO
Eric Schmidt. And students need to learn how to recognize the
of help include three reliable factchecking sources--Snopes, FactCheck,
and PolitiFact. An introduction to each is the subject of a reading
followed by discussion questions, writing assignments and opportunities
for group work.
also "Thinking Critically
About Internet Sources" in the high school section of
Snopes: the Internet"cesspool"
put up a sign to welcome people to the "birthplace of Barack
global warming advocate froze to death in Antarctica.
man put on a woman's dress and snuck into one of the Titanic's
about any of these reports? All have showed up somewhere on the
Internet, which, according to the CEO of Google, Eric Schmidt,
is a "cesspool."
with the freest access to knowledge the world has ever seen comes
a staggering amount of untruth, from imagined threats on health
care to too-easy-to-be-true ways to earn money by (naturally)
forwarding an e-mail message to 10 friends," Brian Stelter
writes in "Debunkers of Fiction Sift the Net," (New
York Times, 4/5/10).
article is about David and Barbara Mikkelson, who "are among
those trying to clean the cesspool" and who run Snopes, "one
of the most popular fact-checking destinations on the web."
is their online encyclopedia of falsehoods and urban legends,
and the cleaners of what S. I. Hayakawa called "reports."
"For the purposes of the interchange of information,"
Hayakawa wrote, "the basic symbolic act is the report of
what we have seen, heard, or felt: 'There is a ditch on each side
of the road.' 'You can get those at Smith's hardware store for
$2.75'" And then, Hayakawa wrote in his book Language
in Action, "there are reports of reports, such as, "the
Battle of Hastings took place in 1066."
Hayakawa wrote, "adhere to the following rules: first, they
are capable of verification; secondly, they exclude, so far as
possible, judgments, inferences, and the use of 'loaded' words."
would call the opening three sentences of this reading reports.
Each is verifiable. None includes a judgment, an inference, or
a "loaded" word. But each is a false report because
each is factually incorrect, as David and Barbara Mikkelson, who
have checked them out, report at www.snopes.com.
Because false reports seem to be factual, they misinform and mislead.
books, typically, contain many reports of reports because verification
of them from living witnesses is impossible. So historians must
depend upon documents and other evidence, which they must examine
closely for reliability.
covers a long list of topics, ranging from autos and business
to history and politics to travel and weddings. Not surprisingly,
one of its top subjects for searches on the site is President
Obama. Typical reports include:
was born in Kenya. (A false report, though his father was born
middle name is Hussein, and he is a Muslim. (The first part
of this report is true, the second part is false: Obama's middle
name is Hussein, but he is not a Muslim.)
birth certificate verifies his birth in Hawaii and has been reproduced
on the web. He declares that he is a Christian. He attended a
Chicago church for years. His children were baptized there. (These
statements are verifiable, exclude judgments, do not contain loaded
words and are accurate reports.)
the Snopes FAQ page:
How do I know the information you've presented is accurate?
We don't expect anyone to accept us as the ultimate authority
on any topic. Unlike the plethora of anonymous individuals who
create and send the unsigned, unsourced e-mail messages that
are forwarded all over the Internet, we show our work. The research
materials we've used in the preparation of any particular page
are listed in the bibliography displayed at the bottom of that
page so that readers who wish to verify the validity of our
information may check those sources for themselves.
keep falling for the same kind of things over and over again,"
David Mikkelson said."'Some readers always seem to think,
for instance, that the government is trying to poison them."
Barbara Mikkelson said that rumors about AIDS have been recycled
into rumors about swine flu vaccines.
Stelter reported in his article, Barbara Mikkelson is not optimistic
about Snopes' debunking efforts:"'When you're looking at
truth versus gossip, truth doesn't stand a chance."
Mikkelsons have checked out each of the following statements:
Green marking pens can improve CD sound quality.
Barack Obama urged his followers to join him in changing "the
greatest nation in the world."
When it entered the U.S., Texas was authorized to divide itself
into five states.
each one a report? If so, what criteria must each statement satisfy?
If each meets these criteria, should it be considered an accurate
report, a false report, a report of a report or some mixture?
The Mikkelsons called the first two false, the third true. If
you want to check the accuracy of this statement, see www.snopes.com.
1. What questions do students have about the reading? How
might they be answered?
2. Snopes.com checks on the accuracy of reports that spread
on the Internet Consider Hayakawa's definition of a report. A
crucial element of a report is that it is capable of verification.
What does "capable of verification" mean? Reports exclude
judgments, inferences and the use of "loaded words."
Give an example of a judgment, an inference, and "loaded
3. The Mikkelson's say they "don't expect anyone to
accept us as the ultimate authority on any subject." How
do they do distinguish themselves from "anonymous individuals
who create and send the unsigned, unsourced e-mail messages that
are forwarded all over the Internet"?
writing and group work
any subject--something you observed at school, a political issue,
an event in your life--and write a strict report about it. The
report should have at least six sentences and should include no
judgments, inferences or loaded words.
students have completed the assignment divide them into small
groups to read their papers. Listeners assess them as reports
and after the reading discuss their assessments. Differences of
opinion might be brought afterwards to the whole class.
Student Reading 2
FactCheck: "proceed with caution"
Did the new health care law give Obama a Nazi-like 'private army'
of 6,000 people?"
No. Contrary to false Internet rumors, the new Ready Reserve Corps
of doctors and other health workers will report to the surgeon
general and be like the 'ready reserves' in other uniformed services.
They will be used during health emergencies."
Is the new health insurance law a "government takeover"
Despite the fact that the federal health insurance plan (a.k.a.
the "public option") is now gone from the bill, Republicans
and conservative groups have continued to claim that the bill
institutes a system like the one in the United Kingdom, or Canada,
or otherwise amounts to a government takeover. It doesn't
Instead, the bill builds on our current system of private insurance,
and in fact, drums up more business for private companies by mandating
that individuals buy coverage and giving many subsidies to do
which produced this information, describes itself as "a nonpartisan,
nonprofit 'consumer advocate' for voters that aims to reduce the
level of deception and confusion in US politics. We monitor the
factual accuracy of what is said by major US political players
in the form of TV ads, debates, speeches, interviews and news
releases. Our goal is to apply the best practices of both journalism
and scholarship, and to increase public knowledge and understanding."
FactCheck.org is a project of the University of Pennsylvania's
Annenberg Public Policy Center. (www.factcheck.org)
FactCheck does not confine itself to political matters. Last year,
for example, FactCheck checked rumors about the dangers of the
H1N1 (or swine flu) vaccine and reported that the rumors were
false. "One e-mailed rumor even called it a government 'depopulation'
plot. Another claimed that sailors on a US Navy vessel caught
the flu from the vaccine, and some died. In fact, nobody died
and none of the sailors had even been vaccinated - the vaccine
was not available at the time." ("Inoculation Misinformation,"
works to stay up-to-date in its reports, and does not take sides.
For example, it neither supports nor opposes the new Arizona immigration
law, but does factcheck what supporters and opponents say about
it. FactCheck also invites reader questions and publishes answers
to some on the site. The website includes a section on classroom
lessons, a dictionary of terms in the news, and even a review
of sites like itself.
examined a chain e-mail about Snopes, which included the judgment
that "the Mikkelsons are very Democratic [Party] and extremely
liberal," and added: "There has been much criticism
lately over the Internet with people pointing out the Mikkelsons'
liberalism revealing itself in their website findings."
author cites no evidence and no sources for either of these
.We asked David [Mikkelson]. He told us that
Barbara is a Canadian citizen, and as such isn't allowed to
vote here or contribute money to US candidates. As for him,
'My sole involvement in politics is on Election Day to go out
and vote. I've never joined a party, worked for a campaign or
donated money to a candidate
our sites have somewhat different emphases - we focus on what's
being said in political ads, speeches, interviews and debates,
while Snopes.com concentrates more on such things as whether
former Monkee band member Michael Nesmith's mother was the inventor
of liquid correction fluid (she was) - Snopes.com does take
on some claims in the political realm. That has given us an
opportunity to evaluate the Mikkelsons' work from time to time.
We have found it solid and well-documented. We even link to
Snopes.com when it's appropriate rather than reinvent the wheel
ourselves, which we consider high praise.
e-mail's last paragraph (criticizing the Mikkelsons) advises
that everyone who goes to Snopes.com for 'the bottom line facts'
should 'proceed with caution.' We think that's terrific advice,
not just in connection with material on Snopes but for practically
anything a reader finds online - including articles on FactCheck.org.
The very reason we list our sources (as does Snopes.com) and
provide links is so that readers can check things out for themselves."
What questions do students have about the reading? How might
they be answered?
2. How does FactCheck support its judgment that the health
insurance law is not a "government takeover" system?
How does FactCheck support its judgment that sailors did not get
the swine flu from a vaccine that was supposed to prevent that
4. What evidence does FactCheck use to support its judgments
about the Mikkelsons and Snopes?
and group work
and "government takeover" are judgmental words that
people often use in political discussions. Whether they support
their judgments with accurate reports can be another matter.
students to select a political subject and begin a paragraph with
a judgment about it. For example:
Obama has (or has not) been an effective president.
Republican Party was right (or wrong) about the health insurance
best (or worst) senator is _____.
this sentence, have students write a series of four or five strict
reports (no judgments, inferences or loaded words) to support
students have completed their papers, divide them into small groups
to read their papers. Listeners assess how well each meets the
assignments criteria. Differences of opinion might be discussed
with the whole class.
"separating fact from fiction"
"I want you to hold our government accountable. I want you
to hold me accountable," President Barack Obama said. "Okay,
we will," PolitiFact answered on its website.
vast majority of the money I got was from small donors all across
the country," President Barack Obama said in an interview
with CNBC's John Harwood.( 4/21/10). The president has made this
claim before to demonstrate that during his presidential campaign
he did not depend upon rich people and big corporations. But
is his statement accurate?
is a project of the St. Petersburg Times to "help
you find the truth in American politics. Reporters and editors
from the Times fact-check statements by members of Congress, the
White House, lobbyists and interest groups and rate them on our
Truth-O-Meter." PolitiFact bills its Truth-O-Meter as "a
scorecard separating fact from fiction." ABC's Sunday morning
public affairs program, "This Week," arranged with PolitiFact
to apply the Truth-O-Meter to public officials who are interviewed
on the program. (http://abcnews.go.com/thisweek)
the general election, PolitiFact reports, "Obama got about
34 percent of his individual donations from small donors, people
who gave $200 or less, according to a report from the (nonpartisan)
Campaign Finance Institute. Another 23 percent of donations came
from people who gave between $201 and $999, and another 42 percent
from people who gave $1,000 or more
got about $1 million from employees of Goldman Sachs; the nonpartisan
Center for Responsive Politics puts the number at $994,795
We rate his [Obama's] statement False."
also tracks more than 500 of Obama's campaign promises, rating
them as everything from "promise kept" and "compromise"
to "promise broken" and "in the works." It
also recognizes in its rating system that "especially in
politics - truth is not black and white." So it grades statements
as "true," "mostly true," "half true,"
"barely true," "false," or "pants on
fire," or "ridiculous."
never considered myself a maverick," said John McCain (4/3/10,
on Newsweek's website). But PolitiFact recites a series
of McCain statements in which he says precisely that. For example:
"We get along fine. Sarah [Palin] is a maverick. I'm a maverick."
(Interview with CNN's Larry King, 10/30/08) So PolitiFact labels
McCain's comment on the website to be "Pants On Fire."
special occasions, like income tax day, April 15, PolitiFact checks
out statements about taxes. For example:
the US"first created the federal income tax, frankly, nobody
below a million dollars a year paid anything." (Georgia
Republican Newt Gingrich) False.
now spend 100 days out of the year working for government before
we even start working for ourselves." (Sarah Palin) Mostly
fact is, in the past year we have had more tax cuts than almost
anytime in our nation's history." (Tennessee Democrat Rep.
Steve Cohen) Half True.
PolitiFact for reports on how they reached their conclusions.
Also see it for its ratings of statements about major news events
like the catastrophic Gulf oil spill.
What questions do students have about the reading? How might
they be answered?
2. What does PolitiFact mean when it states that in politics
"truth is not black and white"? Does PolitiFact demonstrate
that understanding? If so, how? If not, why not?
and group work
inference is a conclusion drawn from reports and judgments considered
to be accurate. They may be political: Senator X spends more time
on raising campaign cash than he/she does on important public
issues. To support such an inference, a person might refer to
a fact learned from the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics
that Senator X raised $500,000 at a recent dinner and has been
absent from Senate meetings three times in the past two weeks.
Are these reports sufficient to support the inference, though?
may be about people in one's life: "My dad is really angry
with my sister," somebody says. To support the inference,
an individual might refer to a scene in which the father yelled
at his daughter the morning after she came home an hour later
than expected. But maybe the father was not angry, but rather
was just venting because he was concerned about her safety.
students to pay closer attention than usual to some of the remarks
they hear from other students or friends that include inferential
statements with little or no reports to support them. Have students
make some notes about what they hear, then write a paper reporting
on their findings.
students have completed their papers, divide them into groups
to read them. After each reading, provide some time for clarifying
questions or brief comments. When all papers have been read, have
each group select what it regards as the best paper, which will
be read to the whole class.
the reading of each paper to the class, ask students from each
group to comment on why they selected it. Ask the rest of the
class to comment on strengths and weaknesses that have not been
lesson was written for TeachableMoment.Org, a project of Morningside
Center for Teaching Social Responsibility. We welcome
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