Factchecking the Fact checkers: USA Today’s Issues with Factchecking

Factchecking is a vital part of any meaningful discourse – any academic paper will be riddled with citations so you can check if the author is making true claims, my articles, such as this one, are riddled with links so that you can verify that I am not simply making up facts to fit my purpose, and when someone is speaking or tweeting you may need someone to go in and verify what is being said. Part of freedom of thought is that we can have varied opinions on different matters, but it should be bound by a set of facts or, at least, similar sets of facts differing in personal experiences. This consistency in what is real and what is not makes it so that we can have productive discourses on what actions to take because we can simply look at the logic of another person and see whether or not it follows – and sometimes breaking it apart involves bringing in other facts that were originally excluded. This common foundation upon a factual reality allows for logic to be unimpeded.

Consider the following situation: John, 36, enters the bedroom of Sally, 5, one night. Is this nefarious? Well, it makes a difference what other facts surround it: if John is a Sally’s father and lives in the household it is unlikely anything nefarious happened; however, if John is a neighbor of no relation there is a good chance there is something nefarious going on. So, ignoring other possibilities, let us say that one of these two sets of facts are true – it matters. If someone wants to convince you that John is certainly a child molester because of this, you are going to demand a lot more of the reasoning if John is the father rather than a neighbor. Let us say that Mary, who is Sally’s mother, says John is the father and lives with them; he was just trying to put her back to bed because she woke up with a nightmare. What if the accuser could just say: “No. John is an unrelated neighbor and Mary is only saying that because she knows John will kill her if she doesn’t say so?” What if they could just deny that Mary ever clarified that? That is why basic facts allow us to find the truth of the matter rather than just devolving into baseless and conflicting opinions – either John is or is not the father and either lives in or does not live in the house.

Factchecking allows for more complex truths to be discovered by ensuring that we are working with the same set of facts and that those who abuse the discourse by lying about facts or leaving out important context (such as that John is the father of Sally) are called out on it. However, this also means that it is vital that the factcheckers themselves are held to high standards because if you cannot check the factcheckers then the whole system falls apart anyway because people don’t know who is or who is not reputable.

In the case of USA Today, it appears that they are not being good faith fact checkers. Rather, they have been misusing the label of factchecking in order to engage in propaganda.

Biden’s Effects on Mass Incarceration

Glenn Greenwald, who subsequently seems to have fallen through a rabbit hole, did still manage to write a good article demonstrating one instance of USA Today‘s poor factchecking in December 2020. In it he criticized Instagram for a factcheck notice attached to a post because USA Today found a claim that Biden’s legislative history led to mass incarceration as false while multiple other media outlets and factcheckers, notably all others, found just the opposite. USA Today found it false and so it didn’t matter what the consensus was – Facebook and Instagram were telling people the claim was false.

The Effects of Masking

I noticed another, from a Facebook warning, regarding the effects of wearing masks during COVID just recently. In it, USA Today determines that a claim circulating on social media that flu cases were reduced from 38 million to 2,300 cases and so masks are effective has missing context which gives the impression that it is false. While scientists are unsure exactly how effective each measure has been in reducing spread – and some of this effect has to be shared with telework, social distancing, and improved sanitation – USA Today‘s objection was with the exact number of flu cases. They don’t complain that the number was simply made up, but rather that it is – notably like in all other years – an estimate based on monthly reports. The actual number of cases may be 2,279 or they may be 2,342, so they decide that this claim is missing context.

Of course, the exact number of cases is not material to the claim being made – comparing estimates from year to year saw a reduction by a factor of around 16,500 so a few cases here or there are immaterial unless there is a serious discreptancy. The human mind cannot easily tell the difference between 16,521.74 and 16,225.45, so it is not about to mislead anyone.

However, their conclusion goes a bit further than that, citing a difference in methods used by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) in how it measures the estimates of cases.

Based on our research, we rate the claim there have been only 2,300 cases of flu this season MISSING CONTEXT, because without additional information it could be misleading. While it’s true public health interventions used to mitigate COVID-19, such as face masks, social distancing and hygiene, have helped to also significantly reduce flu activity, the figure of 2,300 flu cases is an estimate, not an exact number, based on surveillance data publicly provided by the CDC. And the agency cautioned against using surveillance data to represent the burden of the flu nationwide because it does not fully capture every illness that occurs. It also warned against comparing any estimates to past flu season data since those numbers are based on statistical modeling. (emphasis added)

The problem here is that the CDC does not appear to make any such cautionary claims – and they do not provide a link to back up their claim that the CDC made any such statement.

The CDC does have a FAQ on the flu burden – it has been using the same method for calculating the number of cases for many years. It makes no claim on that page nor on the pages referenced in how it they make estimates that surveillance data should not be used nor that you shouldn’t compare estimates. It does mention that the surveillance data is used to build estimates and it does provide the 38,000,000 estimate for the 2019-2020 flu season here. It does, however, mention changing the method of measuring the number of deaths caused by the flu beginning with the 2010-2011 season, a decade ago.

However, the CDC does mention on a page about the 2019-2020 flu season that flu hospitalizations have fallen so much that they are too low to provide estimates for the 2020-2021 season. Of course, this is highly suggestive that precautions taken have had a significant effect on the spread of the flu – but that does not mean the claim made was accurate.

Rather, what USA Today fails to explain in its factcheck is that the 38 million estimate (which is still preliminary for another year yet) comes from utilizing a statistical model whereas it cannot use that model for 2020-2021 and those numbers would not have been processed through the statistical model yet, but are raw data that are used to extrapolate an estimate. USA Today misleadingly refers to that number as an estimate when it is not an estimate. It also becomes apparent if you look at FluView Interactive that the CDC warned against using differences in the magnitude of percentages of visits between regions and seasons to compare the burden – due to differences in the likelihood of reporting for different groups – not to never compare estimates.

FluView Interactive disclaimer

This information is not available on FluView interactive, however, and seems to be more something that comes from, simply, FluView. However, the 2300 number does not show up there, but rather 1,899 (0.2%) positive testing cases through week 40 – 1,081,671 specimens were tested to find those cases. In the previous year, there were 246,842 positive tests (19.4%) out of 1,270,617 specimens tested. While it is not involved with the claim made, it is of note that the positive test rate fell dramatically despite doing nearly as many tests and so no, the flu is not being mischaracterized as COVID either.

None of this gave me the answer as to where the 2300 number came from. So, with USA Today at least mentioning who made the claim, I could find the original tweet.

So I asked him where the 2300 came from and got a some very public answers.

While I cannot speak to whether or not Tennesseine did the analysis correctly, he claimed to have gotten this number by doing the math that the CDC has not done yet – and may not do ever due to just how abysmally the numbers dropped – as I noted, they stated that there weren’t enough hospitalizations to pull meaningful data. Someone looking to debunk his claim would have to actually do the analysis themselves or have someone else do it for them – and I am not qualified to do that analysis myself.

Tennesseine also stressed that his point was in the overwhelming change – and one which caused the CDC to decline doing statistical analysis because the numbers fell by so much and which USA Today quoted experts on their field observations in the drastic difference. He recognized that it wasn’t only masks at play, but other precautions we took in conjunction with that, such as social distancing, sanitation, and telework.

It would be reasonable for USA Today to state that there was not enough information to extrapolate a fair estimate of the number of cases based on the CDC’s statement to that effect – but they certainly had no basis to declare the information false or missing context. Rather, it is clear that the factchecker lacked any meaningful understanding of the issues at hand and misunderstood then misrepresented what the CDC had said about its numbers. It was an act of incompetence by an outlet that had no business factchecking the matter with the staff they had.

Palestinian Homes

A second factcheck to cross my attention via Facebook involves a picture of a home in Jerusalem with two Jewish occupants speaking to two Palestinians who lived in that home prior to 1948 and had it taken from them during the war in that year. USA Today once again rated that Missing Context.

I cannot say whether or not Sarah Abdallah is the originator of this image or not, she does have a history of disinformation. However, the version I saw shared on Facebook was a screenshot of her tweet. Snopes, an outlet that I have very few qualms with and find most of their ratings fair based on the information presented, factchecked this and rated it Mostly True. They found the original footage that included this image, which was in an Arabic language Al Jazeera news report, and verified the story other than the fact that the settlers came from Brooklyn; their origin is not given in the report.

USA Today also found the same information and had the resources to have the Arabic to English translation checked. However, they didn’t simply object to the suggestion that the current occupants were from Brooklyn, but they insisted that a lot more context was needed to understand the situation.

We rate the claim that a photo shows an elderly Palestinian couple in front of their old home, talking with a couple from Brooklyn as MISSING CONTEXT, because without additional information it could be misleading. Since the image was shared following recent violence between Hamas and Israel, many social media users assumed the image showed a recent eviction of the Palestinian couple. While it is correct that the couple once lived there, the seizure of their home and village happened in 1948, not recently. Reporting from Al Jazeera confirmed the other couple in the photograph are the current residents of the home, but there is no evidence they are from Brooklyn.

What USA Today has done here is intellectually dishonest: they constructed a straw man to fact check. Nowhere does the image make any claim to how recent the couple was removed. When they were removed, it was an act of ethnic cleansing, a form of genocide, done in the name of Zionism, a form of Jewish nationalism. Zionism insists that the Jewish people must have a Jewish state and it is based off of racist 19th century European nationalism that suggests that non-nationals in a nation state destroy that nation state. Zionism posits that Jews must be isolated from all others so as to maintain their identity as Jews. Early conceptions included the enslavement of Arabs in Palestine or their expulsion from the land. Included were claims that Jewish people could not be assimilated into European culture and some Jews even denounced Zionism as Anti-Semitic.

The expression of Zionism through ethnic cleansing has been a constant theme from before Israel became an entity through to the current day. Palestinians were expelled in 1948 and then throughout the misnamed Six Day War – it began on June 5, 1967 and it still is ongoing today as, while its neighbors have all signed peace treaties, Palestine has not. In fact, that is why we had all that focus in the 1990s and early 2000s to have a peace treaty between the two – they were at war. That is why when Israel builds settlements in Palestine or attacks civilians, bulldozes homes in collective punishment, and so on it is considered a war crime – these are being done not as domestic incidents, but in the context of a war. It is a war crime to use tear gas on enemy combatants or civilians – but it is not a war crime to use them on your own civilians – which is why police in America regularly utilize it with impunity.

Whether or not these Palestinians lost their homes in the current conflict that began in 1967 is immaterial to whether or not this image is accurate or not. It does not claim that this displacement just happened. Moreover, such displacement is still happening to other Palestinians as documented by Amnesty International. The USA Today factcheck misses tons of context in trying to establish a lack of context for the image.

Looking for Other Examples

After seeing these, I decided to look for other factchecks they have done to see if there is an obvious pattern. The one that drew my attention, because it seemed amusing and obviously false, is a claim that you can make purchases with your Social Security card.

I didn’t expect any errors here as it is fairly straight forward and ridiculous that anyone would buy into it. However, I still found a glaring error in a description of how the cards work.

The first three digits, the area number, indicates the state in which an individual applied for a card. The group number, the middle two digits, has no geographic or data significance and is used to organize the filing system. The last four digits represent a randomized numerical series from 0001 to 9999 within each group.

Their source is clear from their list at the bottom. It is a pamphlet from 1982 describing how Social Security cards worked almost 40 years ago. A much more recent document from 2009 tells of times when the first three numbers were not tied to specific states and speaks of SSA’s intent to completely randomize social security numbers – which was implemented in 2011. A call to Social Security’s 1-800 number could have prevented that mistake. Oh, and the other document that they cite has a clear header reading: “This is an archival or historical document and may not reflect current policies or procedures.”

They are fully correct in their assessment about how Social Security cards may be used – they just did very sloppy research in finding information about the Social Security number itself.

Factchecking One More

So, I looked for one that seemed as if it could be more controversial and possibly show USA Today manipulating the interpretation. So I scrolled down until I came across one discussing what Joe Biden’s comments on a recent zoom call about America being doomed because of African Americans. It seemed like something that would give a lot of leeway to USA Today – but I was wrong. It discusses an Instagram post which is a poorly shot video of a NewsMax segment. If you are unfamiliar with NewsMax, they are one of the outlets that got into trouble slandering and libeling Dominion Voting Systems in an attempt to fabricate a sense that the results of the last election were forged. According to MediaBias, the site is owned by a close friend of Donald Trump and has failed multiple fact checks. It also reports it as being a conservative outlet, though that is based on poor understanding of political ideology.

So, the newscaster took a Biden quote out of context and strongly implied that Joe Biden was saying that America was doomed because of racial minorities – as we watch part of the clip with 8 black faces surrounding Joe Biden as in the Brady Bunch. The technique is well documented on FOX News: you don’t exactly make the false statement, but you lead viewers to feel as if the statement was made and to conclude that it is true just the same.

So, this one is clearly a situation where a False rating should apply, right? Here NewsMax is essentially saying that Joe Biden claimed that America is doomed because of black people and other racial minorities and when you see the entire quote you see that he was saying that America is doomed if we don’t confront white supremacy because white people are going to be a minority and a government built on white supremacy is unsustainable. It isn’t exactly a plea out of idealism – it is pure pragmatism – but clearly the claim is false.

USA Today rated it Missing Context.

We rate the claim that Biden said America is doomed because of African Americans MISSING CONTEXT, because this reference omits clarifying information before and after and, therefore, is misleading. Biden was saying that America is doomed “if we cannot make significant progress on racial equity,” and that Black people would be affected by that. Biden went on to say he wants to find ways to unify what will be “the single most diverse democracy in American history.”

Remember that fact check that Glenn Greenwald took issue with? Every other outlet rated the statement true and yet USA Today rated it False?

Our research finds that while the crime bill did increase the prison population in states, it did not bring about a mass incarceration relative to earlier years. Rather, it coincided with a slowdown in the annual grown of the state and federal prison population. Nor did it bring about mass incarceration of Black people, compared to before the bill was passed. We rate this claim as FALSE.

That seems to only apply to how they rate criticism of Biden coming from the left. When it is a clear cut example coming from the right they merely are rating it as Missing Context. This suggests a strong editorial bias to the right.

So Why Does USA Today Do a Poor Job at Factchecking?

Coming to a firm conclusion would require much more analysis of many more factchecks to check them for accuracy and bias to establish a clear pattern. What I have reviewed here suggests a strong bias to slightly right of the conservative Democratic establishment, but there is not enough for a firm conclusion.

There is another possibility though, worth mentioning. It is possible that USA Today is gaming the system, knowing that if they are the only one to flag content being shared, particularly viral content, then there is a warning that will pop up and lead people to their site, increasing traffic and ad revenue. This is a sensible possibility for a for profit entity operating under capitalism to take, even if it is at the expense of truth and shaking the public’s faith in factcheckers in general. In fact, given the choice of picking one or the other, they would more likely claim it is the latter because it doesn’t bring their integrity in their news division into doubt.

Who should you believe? Probably not USA Today, but many will be led to completely unaccountable sources making unverifiable claims in order to push an agenda as have already. That is a key issue with poor factchecking. Irrationalism has already run amok in the United States. We began by discussing the importance of facts, and we saw the horror of Donald Trump’s administration beginning with a claim of having “alternative facts.” Irrationalism seeks to deny the existence of an objective truth or otherwise ignore it, instead leading people to decide what to believe on what feels right and emotional appeal. Stephen Colbert began his Colbert Report with his word for it: truthiness.

Irrationalism is not only aided by those actively seeking to destroy rationalism, but also by those who abuse their position of authority in such a way that it sheds doubt on the existence of an objective truth. USA Today is showing itself to be such an actor with its factchecking division.

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