Fact-checking has been a vital part of journalism since the profession’s inception. A rigorous and tedious practice, it serves as a barrier that prevents hearsay and unfounded allegations from being given a pulpit that would project rumours far and wide.
Not only does it protect the people, but also the political integrity of our society, as it participates in ensuring that what is said in the public space can be used to make informed decisions. In practice, the responsibility of fact-checking should in no way fall solely on the press’s shoulders: critical thinking is an essential part of any healthy society, and neglecting this duty to validate information before internalizing it can be disastrous.
However, with the advent of mass online media, critical thought has been put on the back burner. In the past years, a chronic disregard for fact-checking has allowed nonsensical conspiracy theories under the spotlight and caused long-lasting damage to the fabric of society.
For instance, the 2008 unfounded claims that President Barack Obama was born outside the country and therefore ineligible for office are still alive and well to this day. Similar claims about his alleged Muslim faith fed the latent Islamophobia present in many areas of the U.S.. What would normally be dismissed as ramblings were given a platform and bolstered the efforts of opposition groups as big as the Republican party itself to undermine their opponents.
The slow erosion of reason and proper argumentation in the political and public spheres led to the possibility of a victorious Trump campaign and the rise of the belief that a character as unethical and indecent as Trump should be given a chance. Flooding the American people with information with very few ways to verify it made a real estate mogul billionaire into “a man of the people.” “Genuine” direct speech conveyed via social media with odd punctuation and typos was elevated as having more value than the written word of seasoned journalists. Anti-intellectualism was given its day in the sun, and split America in two.
A partial solution to all of this (and a way to ensure that it never happens again) is to become journalists. Not in the professional sense, of course, but in the way we consume and process information. It is vital for the continuation of society that the journalistic values of skepticism and systematic search for sources be reintegrated in the indispensable civic knowledge imparted to the next generations. If there is a way to “make America great again,” it has to pass by making sure that the members of society are well-informed, well-aware and critical of everything, even if it means questioning their core beliefs. It will not fix all the ills of the modern world, but with some luck, it may contribute to taking the phrase “I can’t prove it, but I can say it.” out of politicians’ playbooks and giving it back to late night, Stephen Colbert-esque political satire, where it belongs.