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Real-Time Fact Checking for Political Debates

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Note:  This posting was published before the second 2012 Presidential debate at Hoftsra University

After the Vice-Presidential debate, many of Team Obama’s surrogates were referring to both Paul Ryan and Mitt Romney as liars.  Obviously, most Republicans were upset by this.  What I found amusing about the entire dust-up was that at no time did anyone from Team Obama support their aspersions with a reference to a fact-checking website.  It would have been easy enough.  Directing people to a fact-checking website would have been even more helpful because the site would inform the reader that the candidate in question told a number of lies.  Upon visiting one of the fact-checking websites, Team Obama’s aversion to using such a site to support those nasty allegations becomes obvious:  there are a number of untrue statements from Obama and Biden which are also exposed.

The two most widely-used fact-checking websites are PolitiFact.com and FactCheck.org.

The PolitiFact page concerning the Denver Obama – Romney debate can be found here.  The FactCheck analysis of that first Obama – Romney debate can be found here.

As for the Vice-Presidential debate, the PolitiFact page is here and the FactCheck Veep debate page is here.

After learning the truth about what was said during the debates, I immediately imagined a political debate in which three meters – similar to PolitiFact’s Truth-O-Meter – appear at the bottom of the screen.  The meters would provide readings from three independent fact-checking services.  When a candidate would finish making a factual assertion, the meters would indicate the degree of veracity for that statement.  Upon further consideration, it quickly became obvious that a delay of as much as twenty minutes might be necessary between the time of the statement and the broadcast.  If seven-second delays are used to censor obscene words, why not use a twenty-minute delay to expose lies?  If a twenty-second delay was used to avoid broadcast of a grizzly mishap during Felix Baumgartner’s supersonic skydive, why not use a twenty-minute delay to open a window to the truth?  If the networks can provide audience response meters to the candidates’ statements, they should be able to provide fact-checking readouts in real time.  It might be necessary to delay the broadcast version of the debate as much as twenty minutes later than “live”, and it could get bogged down by delays between questions so that the meter reading from one candidate’s previous statement would not remain on the screen while the opposing candidate would begin speaking in response to the next question. Nevertheless, it would be more interesting and the candidates would have no reason to resort to calling each other liars.

If such a debate format were actually suggested, it would be amusing to watch the responses to the proposal.  I would be willing to bet that all candidates and political parties would oppose it.  Lies are politicians’ tools.  Exposing candidates’ lies during a political debate would be compared to requiring a magician to expose the secrets behind each trick during the course of a performance.

It is up to the voters to insist that political campaigns are not magic.  Some politicians may have a supernatural ability for making enormous amounts of money appear in their campaign accounts, but the truth of what these candidates say should not be shrouded in mystery.  Beyond that, viewers should not be required to take notes and then look up each fact on a website to determine whether a politician is lying.  The use of three different, independent fact-checking services would provide a more objective measure of truth-telling.

Here’s hoping that the 2016 election campaign will involve the use of real-time fact checking during the debates.  We might find ourselves watching candidates who have more integrity than the characters we have been watching during the current campaign cycle.