Fact-Checking Failures & The Issue of Bias With USA TODAY

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Fact-checking. What should be a subject free of controversy in its straightforward application has slowly and continuously turned into yet another tool for the shaping of opinion. I should begin by saying that I fully agree with the notion of doing one’s research on a topic or piece of information before accepting conclusions; especially in today’s age of rapid information sharing. What I disagree with is claiming to be fact-checking said information but, in fact, only sharing a differing opinion.

Recently, the Being Libertarian Facebook page received a flag for false information for sharing this post. Normally when this happens, our social media team looks over the fact-check and makes sure to avoid sharing false information with our audience by removing any incorrect content. We do this because the libertarian argument doesn’t require fake news or false facts to prove its points, and the less false information is out there the better for us all. This case is far different.

In a recent fact-checking article published here by USA TODAY, we were given a rating of “Partly False” for our post regarding the list of senators that voted against an amendment to the Patriot Act. That amendment to Section 215 of the Act would have restricted the government’s ability to forcibly collect your information and internet browsing history.

The article makes the accusation that our claim was misleading, yet the way this was decided by the author is questionable at best.

The Patriot Act came about in 2001 and gave a whole slew of additional access to private information and surveillance powers granted to intelligence agencies in the US. Part of this false rating is the notion that since these powers have been the status quo for nearly 20 years that, somehow, makes it acceptable. The Act has been viewed as (and, frankly, is) an affront to individual privacy which has led to much legal controversy. The data collection has only been accepted legally due to a nearly 50-year-old ruling that removed 4th amendment protections from records held by third parties.

To word it another way, the Senators we listed voted against making changes to an existing law that would have better secured your digital information from government access. Regardless of the age of the law, these Senators actively voted in a way that undermined your privacy and freedom. When fact-checking, it’s of the utmost importance to withhold your personal views and opinions and, instead, focus solely on the information at hand. In this case, the opinion that we should be accepting of this affront simply because of the age of the law does not change that a vote was held, and the individuals we listed voted against you.

Another issue in this fact-checking examination was our claim that the information can be collected without a warrant. Let’s review this further, as it could be a serious bit of confusion and definitely worth correcting.

Under the currently upheld rulings regarding the Patriot Act, for the government to collect our browsing history they need to do the following:

  • Give a “reasonable” cause for the need for the information.
  • Prove that it is for national security, counterterrorism, or counterintelligence.
  • Be given approval from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court.

By the author’s own admission, “reasonable” cause falls short of the general requirements needed for “probable” cause that law enforcement needs to show to gain warrants. Furthermore, we’ve seen in recent history not only how flimsy the requirements for something to be a “national security threat” are, but also how often these requests are filled out incorrectly. Again, by the author’s own admission, the FBI randomly checked 29 wiretap requests this year and there were issues with all of them.

I would add as well that private companies that have shared your information with the government aren’t legally allowed to share that they’ve done so, nor what the justifications were for collecting the information. So, in effect, the government can forcibly collect your browsing history with less proof than a normal warrant requires, for loose reasoning, and with little to no review of the actions after the fact unless a watchdog or independent commission were to petition for such a review. I’m no lawyer, but that sounds like they can do it without a warrant. When it comes to fact-checking, it’s important to use the appropriate terms after all. It would be irresponsible to confuse a warrant with some lesser, massively altered form of permission.

Ultimately, fact-checking should serve to identify if something stated as a fact is incorrect and presented plainly as such. Unfortunately, we’ve seen examples of this being used with specific intent as far back as the 2016 election. For those that forget, that was the famous “fact-check” of Trump claiming Clinton “acid-washed” her emails which, despite practically no one assuming actual chemicals were used, was rated false because she used software called Bleachbit instead of actual bleach. It should be noted that was another fact-check by USA TODAY (though, to their credit, they also disproved Trump’s claim that it was expensive when it’s actually free).

In this particular case, we’re going to have to rate this attempt at fact-checking “Mostly Bias.”

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Killian Hobbs

Redheaded lover of Liberty, Economics, Philosophy, and Debate. Proud Canadian and prouder part of Being Libertarian, Think Liberty, and The Rational Standard as News Editor and Managing Editor for Think Liberty. You can also listen to my podcast "Coffee Shop Philosophy" on the Think Liberty Network.