The Unreliable Narrator Perspective and Snopes

Fact-checkers are obviously right because the people saying that they aren’t are so obviously wrong about so many things

We’ve all experienced it. An odd claim will come over the transom at us, perhaps on Facebook, perhaps in the comment section of the article we really didn’t mean to spelunk into or perhaps at the coffee shop with that aged relative you are dutifully socializing with. We whip out our phones or tablets or laptops and check with Snopes, Politifact or Media Bias/Fact Check, one of the handful of sites we trust to be on top of the odd conspiracy theories or Presidential tweets (or both) that have sprung up since we last had time to trawl the newsfeeds.

Politifact Truth-o-Meter

And we’ll rapidly find out that our friend, acquaintance, relative or random stranger has fallen for another piece of nonsense drummed up by someone on 4chan or in Russia, and spread by the usual social and anti-social media suspects. So we say, “You know, Snopes checked this out, and found that it was about as credible as flat-earthers and anti-vaxxers.”

We’ll be happy that we’ve nipped a piece of disinformation in the bud. For a few seconds, or maybe even a minute or two. And then out it will come. “That site is just a biased liberal front. I read about a study one time that found they were all wrong.” Or maybe “I looked at one thing on them, found some inconsistencies, so obviously everything that they say is a lie.”

So you start to wonder. Maybe they’re right? Maybe all of these fact-checking sites we depend are all biased to reality being a liberal thing. But there’s a simple way of telling that these sites are gold standard, something I call the Unreliable Narrator Perspective (or UNP, since it looks more credible if it has an acronym).

In fiction, an unreliable narrator is a character who keeps being shown to be wrong in subtle or not so subtle ways yet has a narrative role in the work. The author has created someone who you are required to learn to disbelieve in order to understand the story. A character who lies early yet divulges information leading to someone else being under suspicion, yet is shown to be the actual perpetrator themself is a classic example.

Russell Crowe’s character in the 2001 film A Beautiful Mind, the biographical film about the mathematician John Nash was an unreliable narrator. Many of the film’s scenes are only revealed at the end to have happened entirely in his mind, not in reality. The mathematician suffered from paranoid schizophrenia, so this isn’t an unreasonable example actually.

How does this apply to fact checkers? Well, who is complaining about Politifact, Snopes and other major, trusted fact-checking organizations?

I think you’ll see the pattern here. The people claiming that Politifact and Snopes are not honest arbiters of truth have at best a tangential relationship to truth themselves. Perhaps it was their supply teacher in second grade. Maybe it ran a business in the same town as them. Maybe it’s a friend of a friend who they have ‘friended’ on Facebook and never deleted despite it’s annoying habit of contradicting them. Maybe it walked their dog that one time.

By the UNP standard, Politifact and Snopes are gold standard. They are only attacked by people who couldn’t pick truth out of a police lineup consisting of truth, Satan, the Easter Bunny and Don Corleone. They couldn’t find truth if it was the only thing in their pocket and they stuck their hand in to find it. They couldn’t understand truth if it were printed in crayons by their favorite grandchild who then read it carefully to them with lots of cute pauses. They couldn’t find truth with Google if Google first deleted everything false in its database.

The people claiming that Politifact and Snopes are unreliable wouldn’t know empirical reality if it hit them with a two-by-four engraved with “Trump is a lying liar who lies” repeatedly. If truth threw itself under the wheels of their moving car, they’d somehow manage to miss it. If truth were a shooting target two feet from the barrel of their oversized guns, they’d manage to shoot themselves in the foot before hitting it.

So they aren’t accurate judges of Snopes and Politifact. It’s surprising that they can tie their shoelaces, never mind operate a computer.