Zombie facts and the use of evidence in the 2015 General Election

 
The 2015 General Election will see the growth of fact-checking, according to participants in our recent roundtable. Ground-breaking innovative fact checking initiatives will make journalists, politicians and the public twice about their claims, writes Jonathan Breckon, Head of the Alliance. Their cause is simple in theory: check the evidence behind claims made by politicians. See if they are wrong – or right – or somewhere in the middle. Then tell everybody their finding via blogs, the web and Twitter.
 
 
The next election in May 2015 will see a growth of fact-checking that will be ‘coming out of our ears’, according to an Alliance-hosted event on the use of evidence for the General Election.

Ground-breaking innovative initiatives like Full Fact, Education Media Centre, Evidence Matters and the Channel 4 News FactCheck blogs and the forthcoming The Conversation’s election fact checking will make journalists, politicians and the public twice about their claims. Their cause is simple in theory: check the evidence behind claims made by politicians. See if they are wrong – or right – or somewhere in the middle. Then tell everybody their finding via blogs, the web and Twitter.

Zombie pieces with long shelf-lives

Many of these fact-checking outfits will do some rapid – even live – debunking of claims made by candidates. But some political issues just never go away. They keep coming back at you, like zombies. “So many claims by politicians are repeats of claims that come up again and again”, Patrick Worrall, who runs C4’s fact check blogs, told us at the roundtable.

The claim that we will lose three million jobs if we dropped out of the EU is repeated by senior pro-European politicians. But the evidence is very mixed. And the original researchers behind the 3m stat have subsequently distanced themselves from it. A cloud of uncertainty hangs over the whole question of whether Britain loses or gains economically by its continued membership of the EU.

What’s surprising is that fact-pieces can have a much longer shelf-life that most traditional media articles. Comments on articles can run and run – people comment on fact-checking articles months, even years, after their first posting. C4 News popular ‘zombie’ blogs include ‘Did the NHS scrap washing rules for Muslim staff?’ (Answer: of course not, but isn’t revealing that this has received some of their most comments since it was first live in April 2010?), or ‘Who loses if Scotland goes it alone?‘ (Answer: heavily disputed but unsurprisingly this remains The topic of the moment since Channel 4 first posted it three years ago).

Reaching out to the public

As well as calling politicians to account, we also need to ensure that the public are firmly involved. They need the data to help decide how to vote and help pull together data from around the country quicker than any centralised approach. At the last election volunteers around mySociety created ‘Democracy Club’ which put together the most authoritative list of candidates, a candidate survey, and ElectionLeaflets.org to monitor political leafleting. Will Moy and Sym Roe have taken up its mantle of distributed volunteering and open data about elections for 2015.

How to get the best quality of evidence

One challenge in the boom of fact-checkers is getting the quality right. Any major media outlet may set something up in the weeks before the Election. But quality may be compromised if it’s done from a ‘standing start’, warned Will Moy, Director at Full Fact.

So best to do it without compromising quality? Channel 4 News factcheck blog crowd-source some of their expertise to make sure that others are feeding in. The Conversation UK’s Hard Evidence goes to more traditional academic experts. But to control for biases of experts, The Conversation are also planning on some blind peer review. This is where scientists evaluate the quality of other scientists’ work – but without knowing each others identities.

‘Big Asks’ of government: manifestos on manifestos

There will be plenty of other manifestos by think-tanks and lobbying groups, advocating greater use of data, facts and evidence. Key players in the evidence ecosystem such as the Royal Statistical Society, Campaign for Science and Engineering and Campaign for Social Science, will be making their own manifestos and ‘big asks’ of government, such as a healthy funding base. Perhaps we need a coordinated short statement with signatories across science and social science, a good idea of Dr Sarah Main, Director of Campaign for Science and Engineering.

Ethics and the tightrope of being non-partisan

Charities and relevant media outlets need to be highly conscious that we are not being partisan, and focusing on one political party at the expense – or benefit – of another. C4 Factchecker, has for instance done 50 per cent of its posts on Conservatives, 20 per cent on UKIP – and small minority on Labour and LibDems.

We also have ethical responsibility, some say, to ‘not give oxygen’ to some toxic political issues. For instance, The Conversation UK declined to do some myth-busting evidence on Down’s Syndrome, to counteract the claim by geneticist Richard Dawkins tweet that it would be immoral to carry on with a pregnancy if the mother knew the foetus had Down’s syndrome. Just doing the fact-check gives credence to the argument.

Is using more evidence in next election naïve?

It’s only eight months before the next General Election and many MPs are fighting for their political survival. It would be naïve to think a more evidence-informed approach will feature heavily in their 2015 campaigns. Will Moy at Full Fact has been advocating playing a long game. We should set up good evidence services in 2015, but robustly evaluate them and learn for next time round in 2020. It may seem like a long way away but the zombie evidence topics that run for years need to be confronted. The smart money should be on the digital social innovations growing in UK – and across Europe. And the pioneer fact-checking bodies putting data at our fingertips to help us decide who to vote for, to ruffle some feathers and maybe, just maybe, improve the quality of democracy.

 

Jonathan Breckon, Head of the Alliance for Useful Evidence

@A4UEvidence

To learn more about the Alliance and join us (it’s free and open to all) click here.