Raleigh, NC – On February 17, U.S. Sen. Tom Tillis shared a Fox News article on his Facebook page that was later flagged for containing “false information” by the social media’s fact checkers. The article was related to Special Counsel John Durham’s investigation into the origins of the FBI’s Trump-Russia probe. In the article, the Fox News reporter writes that lawyers for the Clinton campaign paid a technology company to “infiltrate” servers in the Trump Tower and White House to create fake information linking Donald Trump to Russia. This was based on a filing from Durham regarding a grand jury indictment. According to the Lead Stories fact-checker, the Fox News article is false because Durham did not explicitly say “infiltrate” in the filing.
I found this fact checking example to highlight everything wrong with modern fact checkers. Over the last several years, fact checkers have operated more like thought police rather than fact finders.
Additionally, they have become motivated by partisanship and not truth. For example, Lead Stories “fact checks” statements deemed to have a right-leaning audience three times more than statements considered to have a left-leaning audience. This disparity in fact checking between the political left and right indicates that Lead Stories has a selection bias problem, which I believe is indicative of fact checkers in general.
Let’s return to the Fox News article to highlight why their conclusion is itself a false claim. First, Lead Stories asked the question: “Did Special Counsel John Durham’s court filings say the Hillary Clinton campaign in 2016 paid to have servers in Trump Tower and in the White House infiltrated in hopes of establishing a link between Russian operatives and Donald J. Trump?” Moreover, they claim only to be concerned with the claim Durham’s filings says the White House and other servers were infiltrated”. What they are doing here is limiting the scope of their opinion to whether the Durham filing explicitly states the word ‘infiltrated’. However, this is a semantics argument—and it is a weak one at that.
Merriam-Webster dictionary defines infiltrate: to enter or become established in gradually or unobtrusively usually for subversive purposes. According to the Durham filing, “evidence at trial will also establish that among the Internet data [Michael Sussman, the Clinton campaign lawyer paid to infiltrate Trump Tower and the White House] and his associates exploited was domain name system (“DNS”) Internet traffic pertaining to…Trump Tower… and…the Executive Office of the President of the United States (EOP)…[Michael Sussman] had come to access and maintain dedicated servers for the EOP as part of a sensitive arrangement whereby it provided DNS resolution services to the EOP. [Michael Sussman] and his associates exploited this arrangement by mining the EOP’s DNS traffic and other data to gather derogatory information about Donald Trump.” So, our general understanding of the word ‘infiltrate’ clearly matches what was filed by Durham. Accordingly, the semantic argument alone is inadequate to make the broad claim that the article contained false information. This is because it would only rise to the level of documental evidence of whether an explicit claim was made and not factual evidence of a false statement. Therefore, the semantic argument is insufficient to argue the Fox News article contained false information.
I suspect Lead Stories knew the semantic argument was insufficient to support their opinion, so they diverged from their directive question to argue that Sussman and his associates “didn’t have success documenting a Trump/Russian Bank connection”, emphasis added. However, this is a misnomer. If they had read the Fox News article objectively, they would have noticed that the Fox News reporter never said the lawyers succeeded at infiltrating Trump Tower and the White House to establish a link between Trump and Russian operatives. The Fox News reporter claimed, “Clinton campaign paid to ‘infiltrate’” and the “lawyers worked to ‘infiltrate’”. These are fair claims based on the earlier excerpt of the Durham filing.
Here, Lead Stories is assuming a claim to make the argument for its negation. In other words, they are making up a claim to say that it is false; and, therefore, claim that the article contains inaccurate information. Not only is it a false claim by Lead Stories, but it is a dereliction of the IFCN Code of Principles, which Lead Stories claims to be beholden to.
In summation, Lead Stories inquired into whether Durham’s court filings said the Hillary Clinton campaign paid to have servers in Trump Tower and in the White House infiltrated to establish a link between Russian operatives and Trump. Additionally, they claimed that they were interested in the explicit claim by Durham that the White House and Trump Tower servers were infiltrated. However, they made a weak semantic claim to support the latter as it would merely be predicated on documental evidence and not factual evidence. And for the former, they invented a claim to argue its negation as being the case, i.e., change from “paid to infiltrate” to “successfully infiltrated.” Therefore, their opinion that the article contained false information is itself a false claim since the Fox News article did not claim anything that was not present in the Durham filing.
Modern fact checkers are indeed a disappointment. These people are not truth seekers. They are glorified opinion writers. They play Wittgensteinian language games to keep the fly inside the fly-bottle. They have no interest in liberating anyone from false beliefs but instead keeping people inside a false progressive narrative.
If fact checkers are not going to do their part to help society, then we should just get rid of them—or have someone fact check the so-called fact checkers.
Joshua Peters is a philosopher and social critic from Raleigh. His academic background is in western philosophy, STEM, and financial analysis. Joshua studied at North Carolina State University (BS) and UNC Charlotte (MS). He is a graduate of the E.A. Morris Fellowship for Emerging Leaders.