By Arthur O’Sullivan
In his pamphlet Common Sense, Thomas Paine once wrote, “do not credulously repeat those things stated, when in reference to falsehoods and conjectures gone unchecked, by those with an air of knowledgeable authority.” To rephrase that in Zoomer vernacular, “don’t believe everything you hear on the internet, even if the guy seems like he knows what he’s talking about.” Such a phrase would seem like common sense—a cliché, even. We nevertheless continue to find ourselves in this rut of credulity for everything we know little about, but hold strong opinions on anyway. This phenomenon is famously known as the Dunning-Kruger Effect, and remains especially pervasive within the online political sphere about many complex subjects, including COVID, foreign policy, economics, populism, fake quotes from famous figures, and postmodernism among others. When confronted with the immense corpus of literature on mere fractions of these subjects, laymen such as myself are frequently intimidated. It becomes easy, then, to outsource one’s thoughts on these subjects: most often by plagiarizing the opinions of “experts,” usually authoritative-sounding pundits, be they John Oliver, Kyle Kulinski, or Ben Shapiro. Having been given simplistic, thought-stopping soundbites from these pundits, the laity can gaily win arguments in their head, and rest assured in the euphoria of enlightenment by their own intelligence.
As should be clear, I am among the worst of sinners in this area. I am unmatched in my ability to win an argument in my head. I am good enough that I can even “win” arguments with others, before switching my opinion to their side three months later. It is easy, therefore, to despair at the futility of it all, but there is one ace up the sleeve of legitimate discourse: the power of “debunking.”
In right-wing circles, this word has naturally become controversial. Partisan “fact-checker” sites such as Snopes, PolitiFact, and mainstream media outlets have used and abused the word to smear political opponents and provide cover for their allies, such as when Politifact equivocated on the word “arrest” to ‘debunk’ Ted Cruz’s true claim that errant Texas lawmakers could legally be arrested, stating that there is “uncertainty about how this term is to be interpreted.” Similarly, Snopes equivocated on the word “terrorism” to attack the claim that Susan Rosenberg, a left-wing revolutionary associated with bombings of the U.S. Capitol among others and current vice chair of the board of directors for Thousand Currents (a fiscal sponsor of Black Lives Matter) was a terrorist.
Even before the era of Trump, these “impartial” fact-checkers have had an empirically-proven left-wing bias: as early as 2011, Mark Hemingway pointed out the severe methodological flaws that caused such major bias against Republicans in PolitiFact’s reporting. Still, these outlets are upheld as authoritative and are used by news and social media in order to squash claims and arguments inimical to the left. Such abuses of the word “debunk” have precipitated the creation of the ‘deboonker’ meme: a variant of the ‘coomer’ meme (fig. 1), which depicts the stereotype of a man addicted to and deranged by porn and masturbation. The deboonker (fig. 2) is an intellectual “skeptic,” who crusades against misinformation by credulously citing dubious “fact-checkers” that support his view. From this, it is natural that “debunking” should become a dirty word to many on the right.
Still, despite the excesses of those who claim to champion it, there remains value in the “fact-checking” enterprise to everyone, with the obvious exception of those who predicate their positions on lies. If any attempt to correct genuinely false or unsubstantiated right-wing claims should be met with a “deboonker” wojak, then the American right, which has so long claimed to represent the values of Christ, would come to represent those of Pilate.
For example, a common narrative on the populist right is that the reason for our current semiconductor shortage is because the U.S., through its “libertarian” economic policy, outsourced production to countries which subsidized semiconductor manufacture, and now that the pandemic has hit the supply line, car prices have skyrocketed.
Succinct, simple, and attractive to economic protectionists, there are few who would bother to question this narrative upon hearing it. Unfortunately, it hinges on premises borne on assumptions, not facts.
As it happens, the U.S. did not outsource semiconductor manufacturing like with many other industries, but in fact subsidized it, establishing protectionist policies with Japan on the topic. The U.S. currently stands as the world’s leading semiconductor manufacturer, making up over half of the global market share.
One could even argue that our lack of free-market policy in this area has caused the semiconductor shortage.
One can examine the above paragraphs as potential examples for good and bad fact-checking. The former paragraph concerns factual statements alone; they rely on objective and verifiable measures, allowing them to be easily “fact-checked” and presented to “debunk” a false claim or assumption. The latter paragraph is not a fact, but an argument built on facts. This statement is therefore outside the scope of fact-checkers, and any attempt to cry “pants-on-fire” against it is deserving of the ‘deboonker’ meme.
The difference may seem like splitting-hairs, but in order to prevent the “fact-checking” abuses we see currently, the scope must be limited to relevant facts alone, with the reader being trusted to come to his own conclusion based on the facts and arguments presented.