The Newest Factchecker: Reddit

Insight into a community as it tries to create something for the civic good.

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Factchecking has become a cottage industry, a common -- and expected -- accompaniment to political events as they play out in real time. News organizations now have factchecking arms as a matter of course; nonprofits, under the auspices of universities, do similar work in the name of the uphill battle that is keeping politicians honest.

Now, though, there's a new factchecker in town. And its name is Reddit.

Earlier this week, redditor timothyjchambers proposed a new experiment, one that would offer "real-time (or as close to it as we can) crowd-sourced fact-checking of the debate." The subreddit, like its more professional counterparts, would be devoted to the often difficult work that is assessing politicians' claims in, essentially, real time. Because "if you're watching the debate," another redditor put it, "you might as well get the facts, not just the spin."

The factcheck experiment, in one sense, couldn't have chosen a better subject, since so much of last night's presidential debate involved he said/he said bickering about basic facts. ("This is your tax plan," the president told his opponent. "No, it's not," came the rejoinder.)

For the most part -- unsurprisingly, given the ad hoc approach to the experiment -- the results of the reddited factcheck were mixed. The bickering among commenters often resembled the bickering taking place onstage. For example, this:

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Many of the comments, as well, were simply copied from earlier reports from sites like Factcheck.org. (In fact, several users asked explicitly for summaries of the crowdsourced factchecking their fellow redditors produced -- which is to say, they asked for the kind of summary-focused narratives that are the bread and butter of sites like PolitiFact and Factcheck.org.)

What's fascinating, though, is the idea of redditored factchecking itself, and the discussions that took place both before and after the debate. How do you achieve that crucial thing for crowdsourcing -- scale -- on a reddited version of PolitiFact? How do you ensure that party operatives don't infiltrate and pollute the communal attempt at truth-squading with biased untruths? How do you put Reddit's voting system to use for something that is trying to be political and apolitical at the same time? (Editor's note: Perhaps this is a problem with the whole recent fact-checking enterprise?)

As HiImTed put it: "I'll try and help. I'll be watching. I've been paying attention to everything reasonably well, so if I hear something that raises an eyebrow, I think I can quote it and refute it in an acceptably short amount of time." And Gates9 echoed that sentiment: "Looking forward to your analysis guys and gals. Reddit has become a mainstay to assist me in weeding through the bullshit. Thanks for that."

The reddit factcheck was, in every way, an experiment. And we'll see whether the effort continues as the presidential campaign marches on. There are, for better or for worse, many more debates to be had. For now, though, the PoliticalFactChecking subreddit has offered a nice insight into a community as it's trying to create something for the civic good. The whole conversation is well worth a read.

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Megan Garber is a staff writer at The Atlantic.

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