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OPINION | BRENDA LOOPER: Just the facts

by Brenda Looper | January 27, 2021 at 3:57 a.m.
Brenda Looper

It's been too long since I last talked about fact-checking. Dealing with the aftermath of a disputed election and a failed insurrection can be a bit distracting. But yeah, it didn't take long for the disinformation pipeline to put its focus on President Joe Biden if my Facebook feed is any indication. Many of the claims are recycled from the campaign.

One is that Biden botched the H1N1 vaccine in 2009. Biden went too far by saying that he led the response, as his primary role was behind the scenes. Says Politico: "Biden's role, while significant, was not equivalent to leading the response. He was the administration's main liaison to governors and Congress and succeeded in securing funding from skeptical leaders."

Regardless of his level of involvement, the delay in the vaccine was not due to political considerations at all, but simply realities in developing a vaccine for flu based on time-consuming incubation in eggs. The vaccine yield was less than usual, which meant that the promised doses wouldn't come till months later. The covid-19 vaccine is based in different technology involving messenger RNA, which meant it was able to be made and tested in less time, though the number of available doses was overpromised.

I think with covid-19 and other issues, a lot of us are hoping that we can get back to relying more on facts than feelings and conspiracy theories.

That sigh you might have heard about noon last Wednesday was the relief of fact-checkers who are already getting a well-deserved rest from the chaos of the Trump years. The Washington Post Fact Checker put Donald Trump's final tally of false or misleading claims over four years at 30,573, about half of them his last year. On Nov. 2 alone, he made 503 false claims in comparison with 492 in the first 100 days of his presidency. The average over his term was about 21 erroneous claims a day--a blistering pace for anyone dedicated to facts to try to match.

Biden taking office doesn't mean that fact-checkers are taking the next four years off. Just as they did with Barack Obama and with Trump, they are checking statements and tracking promises made by Biden. Of course, they're also fact-checking other notable personalities and social media posts when needed to try to keep disinformation/misinformation at a minimum.

Still, you could almost feel the relief in the lede of Eugene Kiely, Robert Farley and D'Angelo Gore's post on Biden's inaugural speech on FactCheck.org: "Returning to a time when inaugural addresses promised unity and hope, but few facts, the newly sworn-in President Joe Biden delivered a traditional speech at his inauguration that offered little for fact-checkers. When he did offer us some facts to check, the 46th president of the United States largely hit his marks on domestic threats, covid-19 and the Woman Suffrage Parade of 1913 in a 21-minute speech."

When it's mostly quibbles, that's a good thing. Let fact-checkers get some rest before the first joint address to Congress.

On Biden's executive order pulling the Keystone pipeline permit, Agence France-Presse (AFP) found that social media posts inflated job losses to come from the action, ranging from 11,000 to 83,000. The Canada-based company said that 1,000 union jobs would be lost immediately in the U.S. and Canada. The company had estimated in October that pipeline employment was expected to reach 11,000 Americans in 2021. However, as PolitiFact found, the majority of the jobs involved would be temporary, lasting four to eight months.

Not that people who disbelieve fact-checks care.

As they have since coming into their own in the run-up to the 2008 elections, the most trustworthy fact-checkers link to their sources. That means that when you read a fact-check somewhere like AFP, PolitiFact or FactCheck (among others), you'll be able to find the source material at the click of a link, which may be embedded within the fact-check, in a list at the end, or both. You can then read the material for yourself to determine how much faith you should put in the analysis. The reliable checkers also are open about their funding sources. Fact-checkers that link only to themselves and/or opinion pieces and that are cagey about their funding ... well, I'd tread warily.

There's likely to be something messy on the floor just waiting for you to step in it.

I find it necessary at the moment to remind readers that I'm not a political columnist; I sometimes write about the sociology of politics, focusing on how politics has crept into every facet of our lives, and about fact-checking. My opinion on politics doesn't really matter, so if you want me to go hard after some politician, you've come to the wrong place.

What I'm interested in is life itself and how we relate to each other. One of those ways is through words, which is why so many of my columns focus on them.

Which brings me to a request from a friend, who'd like me to talk about the origins of well-known phrases (like "curiosity killed the cat"). Have one you want me to check out? Email me at the address below.

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Assistant Editor Brenda Looper is editor of the Voices page. Read her blog at blooper0223.wordpress.com. Email her at blooper@adgnewsroom.com.

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