Fact checking a live debate taught me we shouldn’t let political falsehoods stand

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Brian Eggo
Brian Eggohttp://glasgowskeptics.com/
Brian Eggo has been running Glasgow Skeptics for over five years, hosting over a hundred events in that time. He has also spoken for a number of Skeptics groups and helped run SiTP organiser workshops at QED conference. His day job is training development and delivery for a tech company.

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A dingy function room in the basement of an obscure Glasgow pub is not the type of place you’d expect to be the birthplace of an innovative political experiment. But, that’s exactly what happened a few years back when Glasgow Skeptics hosted a pre-election hustings, inviting candidates from all the major parties in Scotland, and UKIP. Not only did it fly in the face of those who say that Skeptics groups shouldn’t “do politics”, but we also made a valiant attempt to take those candidates to task if their proclamations didn’t pass muster.

Fact finding fission

At the start of the event we sprang a little surprise on our panelists: we had a team of live fact checkers, armed with laptops, flipcharts and marker pens over at the side of the stage. They would diligently document any verifiable claims made during the debate and check them for accuracy. More importantly though, we would periodically hand the roving mic over to them to review those claims. Our tenacious moderator would then challenge those whose pants were on fire to make an attempt at extinguishing the flames, much to the delight of the audience.

There are of course inherent problems with live fact checking; bias is always a problem, and with most of the team at Glasgow Skeptics being card-carrying SJW libtard leftie snowflakes, they had to do their best to be impartial and take an objective look at any tangible claims being made. The claims themselves were frequently difficult to verify depending on phrasing, complexity, ambiguity and other such factors. It’s also possible to say something that’s technically true but potentially misleading (take a look at absolute vs relative risk stories in the news for example).

It was far from perfect, but it was certainly an improvement on what you might normally see during such events. There’s no denying that it put our proto-politicians on the back foot. Their post-sentence sideways glances were telling, and they noticeably struggled when challenged. Surprisingly, the only one who didn’t struggle with facts that evening was the UKIP candidate, although that was explained by his failure to show up.

A platter of fact

So, why isn’t this the standard (the fact-checking part, not the missing UKIP candidates, although I’m open to suggestions)? If there’s one thing that’s finally dawning on the majority of the population, it’s that the truth really matters. It only takes a cursory glance at the news in early 2021 to see the consequences, with an insurrection in the US, the continued mishandling of the Covid crisis, and the impact of Brexit finally hitting home.

It could be argued that the more power and influence you have, the more responsibility you have to act with integrity and honesty. Unfortunately, it frequently tends to be politically inconvenient to do so. It’s little surprise therefore that politicians and government ministers are amongst the least trusted professions, requiring significant chiseling from the foot of the employment barrel along with the likes of advertising executives, estate agents, and perhaps most disappointingly, journalists. We’re going to need those journalists to shape up if we’re ever going to raise the bar of political discourse.

There’s a nagging feeling that if the media had been more tenacious over the past few years we might not be in the position we’re in now. There have been occasional glimmers of light, Jonathan Swan’s interview with Donald Trump for example, but the fact that here in the UK we’re having to rely on the likes of Piers Morgan of all people to haul politicians over the coal is a sign of how far we’ve slipped.

Shoddy of evidence

There are a number of problems with debates in general: a charismatic and engaging speaker can frequently outgun their opponent even if they happen to be on the wrong side of the argument; there are underhand tactics like the gish-gallop; and even someone as popular in Skeptical circles as Christopher Hitchens has been criticised over his reliance on quips and witty put-downs as a crowd-pleasing means of subduing his opponents.

a folded newspaper reading the word "truth"

More importantly though, it’s relatively easy to lie, fabricate, exaggerate, and deliberately misconstrue in a way that’s difficult or impossible to verify and challenge in real time. Add to that the damage that can be done with a lack of structure and/or poor moderation, as we saw when the first debate between Donald Trump and Joe Biden descended to primary school playground argument levels.

The hole truth

There’s also the question of whether televised political debates actually have any significant influence on the public. There’s already a selection bias, insofar as those likely to tune in will almost certainly be politically engaged, and may already have chosen their side before the program starts. Undecided voters are in the minority, and there are many other factors outside of the debates which will shape opinion. There are of course exceptions to this, like in 2010 when Nick Clegg leapt into the public spotlight after a leadership debate, although retrospectively most people who aren’t Nick Clegg would agree that was regrettable.

Future pretense

There are always more elections to come, more decisions for our elected leaders to make (and to explain). Here in Scotland we’re on the precipice of revisiting the question of independence. If the public are to be able to make well-informed decisions then there needs to be a commitment across the board to adopt a zero tolerance policy to deception. Live fact checking should be a bare minimum wherever possible, and a ‘Do not pass Go’ approach when there are clear breaches. More should also be done to expand the somewhat narrow demographic of viewers of political debates and interviews. Perhaps we could learn from, and replicate, some tried and tested popular television formats to boost ratings, and apply further pressure to squeeze some candid into the candidates.

Imagine “The Great British Debate Off” where a Paul-itical Hollywood visibly winces at half-baked policies. Ponder “I’m a Politician, Get Me Out of Here” where the public vote to put Parliamental participants through the grinder to win a chance of escaping the wilderness of the back benches. Tune in to “Who wants to make a Millionaire” as Chris Tarrant uses increasingly difficult multiple-choice questions to discover which politicians have ignored procurement guidelines to give lucrative contracts to their cronies. Or perhaps follow the weekly eliminations of “eXtractor”, where Simon Cowell and co put politicians through the wringer in front of a baying crowd to weed out the undesirables.

More ideas welcome, as anything would be better than what we’ve currently got.

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