The word “fact” can mean “something that actually exists; reality; truth” but it can also mean “something said to be true or supposed to have happened,” and of course those meanings are very, very different but in politics they are often conflated. I don’t like the term “fact check” because it tends to impart too much credibility to the statement being considered. Yes, politicians sometimes make statements that they genuinely believe to be true, and such sincere assertions, such “possible facts,” are indeed worthy of being “checked.” All too often though, politicians make statements crafted for political gain that they know to be false. To subject such deliberate falsities to a so-called “fact check” is to dignify the falsity by suggesting that it might possibly be true or that an informed person might reasonably have considered it as true until learning some new information uncovered during the investigation. But there was never such a possibility: the statement was always a deliberate and obvious lie. There is a phenomenon where the media will play a soundbite where a candidate loudly asserts an obvious falsehood and then a commentator will proceed to “fact check” the assertion and conclude that it is false: the candidate “got the facts wrong,” a minor offense. The “fact check” makes it seem like the commentator is doing his or her job by both reporting on the assertion and subjecting it to scrutiny. Really, the media is allowing itself to be played by the politician whose only goal was to have the falsehood broadcast as often and as widely as possible. Mission accomplished. “Fact checking” the falsehood is superfluous, or even dangerous, because the soundbite will linger in memory much longer and with more vividness than any boring commentary accompanying it (even if that commentary directly contradicts it) and also because the falsehood was never meant to appeal to those with a strong concern for factual accuracy in the first place. Rather, the statement was meant to appeal to those who will applaud any “jab” against their perceived enemies, and every broadcast of the soundbite (whether accompanied by a fact-check or not) is another hit, another point scored. The logical approach to dealing with a person who repeatedly spouts falsehood is not to continuously “fact-check” that person but to ignore the person; unfortunately, the person’s very mendacity makes the person a spectacle that everyone wants to watch, and ignoring a spectacle is not good for ratings. How do we solve this?
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