It is now, more or less, election time in Australia. Haunted by the memory of Tony Abbott’s notorious night-before whopper – ‘no cuts to education, no cuts to health, no change to pensions, no change to the GST, and no cuts to the ABC or SBS’ – truthfulness in politics will be at the top of the collective consciousness until 2 July, the likely date of the election.
Our apparatus for testing the veracity of claims made by politicians has never been more extensive, or sophisticated. In recent years, ‘fact-checks’ have proliferated across mainstream media outlets from the ABC to Channel 7, and standalone fact-checking websites such as PolitiFact – currently offline, but promising to be back in time for the upcoming federal election – have become central to the political debate, even to the extent of being quoted by politicians to discredit rivals.
Peter Fray, instigator of Australia’s version of PolitiFact, originally an operation based in the United States, writes on his personal site that, ‘We were a new web-based method of political accountability; we were digital in iteration but very old school in intent: we wanted to keep the bastards honest.’ Fray, in an article for Medium, recently wrote about a new weapon in his arsenal: machine-learning tool ClaimBuster, which uses an algorithm to search sentences for ‘key words and structures commonly found in factual statements.’ According to Fray, ‘ClaimBuster is a step along the way to fully automated fact-checking, the Holy Grail of computational journalism.’
Public opinion polling routinely evidences that politicians have never been as little trusted as they are today. What’s less certain is whether all this fact-checking is more a symptom or a cause of the reality that we have less confidence in the people who govern, and would govern, us than in estate agents and bankers. It would take a special sort of demagogue to argue against the essence of Thomas Jefferson’s famous assertion that ‘an enlightened citizenry is indispensable for the proper functioning of a republic’ but we might also reasonably wonder what the upshot of Fray’s ideal of political accountability by fact-check is. Are politicians any more truthful, or even careful, as a result? (There is, in fact, some evidence that the more politicians lie, the better they poll). I’m reminded of Noam Chomsky’s quip that speaking truth to power is futile because it already knows the truth. In this spirit, Michael Kinsley recently opined in Vanity Fair on why fact-checking someone like Donald Trump, currently frontrunner to be the Republican candidate for the US presidency, is a waste of time.
Which brings me to the one foreign election that large numbers of Australians show any interest in (it amazes me how many Bernie Sanders supporters I’ve talked to in this country who’ve never heard of Jeremy Corbyn). As in Australia, the truthfulness of statements made by politicians has come under increasing scrutiny in the US since around 2008, the year Kinsley cites as when fact-checking first came to prominence. During the current electoral cycle, PolitiFact has been busy, branding major claims made by the various candidates as true, mostly true, half true, mostly false, false or – in the case of especially egregious fibs – ‘pants on fire’. According to PolitiFact, Donald Trump is responsible for most of these, and Hillary Clinton the least (with Sanders comparably ‘truthful’).
And yet, despite this data, the perception that Clinton is unusually mendacious endures to a significant degree. Even a cursory Google search will turn up article after article, YouTube video after YouTube video, purported to demonstrate Clinton’s almost pathological inability to speak truthfully. Nearly four million people have watched ‘Hillary Clinton lying for 13 minutes straight’ (it’s not nearly as impressive as it sounds). At the other end of the spectrum, who could forget Christopher Hitchens’ account in his polemic No One Left to Lie To of a spat between the Clintons that took place on the morning of their inauguration:
‘Fucking bitch,’ the President-elect screamed at his newly-minted First Lady. ‘Stupid mother-fucker,’ she riposted. We may never know what hideous story of ‘enabling’ and betrayal lay behind this poisoning of their big day, but we can fix it in time as the one moment when both were totally candid in public, and both were utterly right on the facts.
As Australians saw with Julia Gillard (‘Juliar’), a special infamy attaches to female politicians who are perceived to have used dissembling language in the pursuit of greater power. The idea that women are more duplicitous than men is an old one, going back at least as far as the Book of Genesis, and continues to undergird an obvious double standard in politics.
But for those who are troubled by the prospect of another Clinton in the White House, Hillary’s deceptions – such as her bizarre claim that she landed under sniper fire while visiting Bosnia in 1996 – should matter infinitely less than her pattern (mostly never lied about because mostly never challenged by a myopic press) of corporate sycophancy, foreign policy hawkishness and consistent support of regressive social policies. Arguably, the fact that Clinton maintains wide support among progressives and minorities is testament to the fact that the campaign to damage Clinton through the endless repetition of workaday untruths is self-defeating. There is, in short, a bigger story to tell that can’t be captured by our burgeoning obsession with political minutiae.
As we’ve seen, Clinton is no more or less free with the truth than her main rival for the Democratic candidacy, Bernie Sanders. An algorithm won’t tell us which is more likely to uphold progressive ideals once in office – their records on matters of social justice and international engagement, lies and all, speak for themselves. And it is even less likely to speak truth to the people who really do need to hear it: those who, as Chomsky puts it, will ‘dismantle and overthrow and contain power.’ Something to think about as we fact-check the bejesus out of Malcolm Turnbull and Bill Shorten over the next 71 days.