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PolitiFact Rates the Truth of Claims Heading into the Election

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Although PolitiFact covers many types of claims, its main focus has always been campaign promises. This year, the fact-checking organization is busier than ever. (Photo: Crixell Matthews/VPM News)

PolitiFact got its start in 2007 at the Tampa Bay Times, but has since grown into the largest fact-checking organization in the nation. In addition to 16 national reporters, the organization has 14 state affiliates that cover their respective locations, which include Virginia, California, Wisconsin and Texas.   

Although PolitiFact handles all sorts of statements, it was originally formed to fact check election campaigns. Angie Holan, PolitiFact’s D.C.-based editor-in-chief, says, “It was born out of the conviction that we needed more fact-checking during elections and political campaigns.”

PolitiFact has a pretty well-known, maybe even notorious, approach to rating the veracity of claims made by campaigns, candidates, and others on a whole range of issues. Holan says her office gets lots of feedback. 

“People like our format and that we rate everything on a scale from true to mostly true, half true, mostly false, false and pants on fire,” she says.

Since PolitiFact began in 2007, Holan says they’ve rated some 18,000 statements on their “Truth-o-meter.” And as an independent, non-partisan organization, there is a particular lens through which PolitiFact views its work. 

“We tend to be attracted to statements that sound wrong. So, we’re not trying to balance the ratings or trying to make everyone look the same. We’re just trying to follow the facts where they take us,” she says. 

Holan says, perhaps unsurprisingly, this has been a particularly busy year, partially because President Donald Trump, who she says isn’t a “traditional” politician, uses different methods to disseminate information. And, she says, has a unique style. 

“He doesn’t seem to have much concern about exaggerating or making attacks on his opponents without evidence,” Holan says. 

And while his challenger, former Vice President Joe Biden, isn’t immune to misstatement - “[Biden] makes inaccurate claims fairly regularly,” Holan says - she notes it’s only Trump who shares conspiracy theories.

It’s an even busier year because PolitiFact doesn’t just investigate candidates and electoral politics. For example, Holan says they’ve been evaluating misinformation about COVID-19 and what she describes as “phony cures.” PolitiFact staff is also trying to provide the latest science on the coronavirus.

They’ve also been focusing some of their research and reporting on the economy and the jobs situation, she says. And health care, especially the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare, which overlaps with their focus on campaigns. Holan says a lot of election messaging asserts positions the candidates have taken on preserving protections for pre-existing conditions. 

To expand their work to social media, PolitiFact has forged a partnership with Facebook, along with other fact-checking organizations, including factcheck.org and USAToday, to identify misinformation on the platform. This collaboration was the result of concerns raised by fact checkers following the 2016 election. 

Even with the fight to stop misinformation at its source underway, though, individuals can protect themselves by simply being thoughtful, Holan says.

“When people come across information online, the best thing they can do is think before they share,” Holan says. “So if they see something that they think is outrageous, makes them angry or afraid, they should just do a quick Google search and make sure it’s true.”

Holan adds: “We’re trying to remind people what the standards are for a supported statement, so that we can have the information we need to govern ourselves in a representative democracy.” 

PolitiFact Virginia editor Warren Fiske interviewed Angie Holan for a radio version of this story. PolitiFact Virginia is based at VPM.