Fact Checking in the Age of the Receipts

In this election, social media is all the proof you need.

by Sewa Adekoya

On the night of the first 2016 Presidential debate, Twitter was ready.

Now this wasn’t Twitter’s first rodeo — in an election plagued by outrageous scandals and baseless commentary, we’ve found pleasure in comparative analyses and conspiracy theories. But these meme-able moments have kept us somewhat detached from the impressionable weight of actually choosing a candidate to become president. What if this candidate is elected? When will this stop being a joke?

With the dawning gravity of our political situation, Twitter shifted into a more earnest role: fact-checking.

Thirty minutes into that first debate, Hillary Clinton accused Donald Trump of dismissing climate change as a “hoax perpetuated by the Chinese.” Donald Trump vehemently denied these claims, explicitly declaring that he “did not say that.” But Clinton came ready. With a slight smile, she retorted “Yes, Donald, you did. And there’s a Twitter trail to prove it.”

Enter, the receipts:

In the social space, a “receipt” is proof: a statement, a picture, a sound bite, a video — cold, hard evidence that closes the case. The world is no stranger to ‘evidence,’ but online, the term was popularized online in a 2002 Whitney Houston interview. Similar to the Clinton-Trump exchange, Diane Sawyer asked Houston about her alleged $730,000 drug habit — an accusation we can all agree is undeniably exorbitant. But this didn’t phase Houston. Instead, she sat back in her chair and said the infamous words:

“I wanna see the receipts!”

At the time, rumors of Houston’s alleged drug habit were a popular headline; in fact Sawyer sourced the undeniably exorbitant number of $730,000 from a gossip magazine. But to her credit, Houston was right. Without the receipts, the rumors were just that. Until those receipts came — if they existed — the public would have to decide for themselves what to believe.

But let’s fast forward to today: 92% of Americans have a cellphone, and 78% of those are smartphones. If we’re not texting our friends, we’re tweeting online, or mid-Facebook rant. We take pictures and videos of things we see, and share them instantly on Instagram or Snapchat. Usually, these online interactions are well-intentioned: after all, isn’t ‘social media’ just a series of status updates? What’s so wrong with sharing your experiences with others online?

The problem is, this is 2016. And anything you say, write, tweet, or capture can and will be used against you in the social court of the internet, if not in a court of law.

The concept of ‘sharing’ online was never inherently evil. Instead, it encouraged people to take advantage of this new freedom to express ourselves in a space void of antiquated social boundaries. But it’s important to remember that our online personas aren’t completely transparent representations of our ‘real’ selves. As social media has continued to intertwine itself with our quotidian actions, a greater emphasis has been placed on curating our lives. Whether aesthetically, or professionally, we’ve become more selective with the pictures we post, or the things we complain about on Twitter.

Why? Because of the receipts. Because despite the freedom we feel to express ourselves online, there’s still a crowd of people hungry to catch you in a lie. And even if we’re not able to call out a politician, a celebrity, or even your neighbor in real time, we’ll always have the internet. And no matter what your privacy settings are, nothing ever dies on the internet.

Everyone loves a good scandal. But it’s always juicier with the receipts.

Now get out there, and vote!

Sewa Adekoya is a Community Manager at Mistress.