On Fact-Checkerism and the Mythology of Disinformation
Thoughts on what our discourse police are even trying to do and why they are so stupid.
Nobody in our corner of the internet could fail to notice the antics of those yapping bouncing frenetic chihuahuas who call themselves fact-checkers. Mostly they work in obscurity, misunderstanding internet jokes, recycling the vacuities of self-styled experts, debunking weird Twitter posts, and above all churning out prodigious walls of text filled with banalities that nobody reads. Occasionally, though, they manage to entertain us – as recently, when it emerged that BBC “disinformation specialist” and fact-checker-in-chief Marianna Spring had larded her very own CV with disinformation. Almost nothing is more amusing than finding oneself in the crosshairs of the fact-checkers, as has happened to me on at least one occasion.
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My favourite checker of facts is the man-bun-sporting dimwit Pascal Siggelkow, who has been appointed top “fact finder” for the state media news service tagesschau. We last encountered Siggelkow when he mistook a noun for a verb in Seymour Hersh’s reporting, ultimately spending four amazing paragraphs debunking the thesis – unique to his own mind – that explosive seaweed destroyed Nord Stream. Before hunting facts at tagesschau, Siggelkow worked for Südwestrundfunk, another state media broadcaster, where he did daring undercover investigative reporting like snitching on “doctors who downplay Corona and issue unfounded mask exemptions.” This is really reporter-of-the-year material. In truth, we have before us here a whole genre of journalism conducted by an aggressively stupid tribe of Siggelkows, distinguished by their total lack of accomplishments, limited vision and minuscule persuasive capacities. That these small men should be entrusted with the project of policing our words is a strange thing indeed, and it suggests there is more going on in the world of fact-checking than we realise. Here, I propose to examine what is is that fact-checkers really do, and whether there is anything to say about them beyond the obvious fact that they are complete and utter idiots.
To explore fact-checking more concretely, I have ventured into the barren wastelands of the tagesschau “Fact Finder” page, where Siggelkow plies his trade and few before me have ever set foot. I’ve selected, mostly at random, a limited corpus of eleven recent discourse-policing items for closer analysis. I offer links to each of them below, in chronological order, providing their headlines and teasers in translation, together with sample quotations to give you an idea. This is a tiresome read indeed, so please skip ahead unless you are of particularly strong constitution.
1. Why is excess mortality so high?, by Pascal Siggelkow and Alexander Steininger
28 November 2022
In 2022, an unusually high number of people have died so far in relation to previous years. October in particular was an outlier. According to experts, this cannot be explained by Corona alone.
“As a scientist, I want to be open to all possibilities, but I just don’t see the connection [to vaccination],” [said Jonas Schöley, Research Associate in the Department of Population Health at the Max Planck Institute for Demographic Research in Rostock]. Additionally, he said, the scientific evidence evaluating vaccines is much stronger than that available in population research. “We don't have to rely on the error-prone search for causes in population data because of the very good body of studies on the efficacy and risks of vaccination.” If the vaccines led to an increased number of deaths, this would have been proven long ago in medical and epidemiological research.
2. A flood of fake videos and pictures, by Carla Reveland and Pascal Siggelkow
3 July 2023
In connection to the riots in France, numerous pictures and videos are being shared on social media. Many of them are not from the current protests, but are disinformation.
In right-wing extremist and conspiracy-theorist Telegram channels, posts containing the term “France” have seen marked increase since the end of June ... The Austrian right-wing alternative channel AUF1, for example, speaks of “ethno-riots” and a “bloody multicultural illusion.”
“Whenever there are topics that lend themselves to populist or right-wing extremist instrumentalisation, they are used,” [Pia] Lamberty, [Social Psychologist and Executive Director of the Center for Monitoring, Analysis and Strategy] says … This could be current political debates such as the topic of heat pumps, crises such as climate, Corona, economic tensions, or even riots such as in France. “Such attempts at instrumentalisation are not always successful across society as a whole, but for supporters of right-wing extremist ideologies they are often an additional confirmation of their own world views.”
3. Doubts about the significance of the AfD “Einzelfallticker”1, by Carla Reveland and Pascal Siggelkow
3 July 2023
With their “isolated case ticker,” the AfD purports to show the alleged “true extent” of crimes committed by migrants. But a random sample shows that in half of the cases, reports do not indicate the origin of the suspect.
In response to a request from ARD-Factfinder, the AfD writes that it is “interested in transparency regarding the official figures from the police crime statistics in 2022.” Pia Lamberty, social psychologist and managing director of the Center for Monitoring, Analysis and Strategy … sees things differently. Launching a ticker with the intention of pointing out the danger posed by people considered to be non-Germans by the AfD by no means accords with the “role of an objective informer.” “This is the opposite of an open investigation and the opposite of objectivity,” says Lamberty.
4. How credible is the information on the [Ukrainian] counter-offensive?, by Pascal Siggelkow
7 July 2023
Ukraine's counteroffensive to liberate territory occupied by Russia has been underway since June. Because Ukraine is keeping a low information profile, and the media often rely on Russian information. Experts are sceptical about this.
The fact that information on the counter-offensive comes primarily from Russia is due to the fact that Ukraine has mostly imposed a news blackout. The Russian Defence Ministry is trying to exploit this situation, says Julia Smirnova, senior researcher at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue in Germany (ISD). “This is a focus of Russian propaganda, and the numbers that are given are often massively exaggerated.” The Russian defence ministry is therefore not credible, she said.
The Dutch open source intelligence website (OSINT) Oryx wrote on Twitter of a total of six tanks abandoned in Zaporizhia oblast, including one Leopard tank, four Bradleys and one mine-clearing tank. “Left behind” howevewr is not synonymous with “destroyed.” In total, according to Oryx's research, eight of Ukraine’s Leopard tanks have been destroyed or damaged so far since the Russian invasion began.
5. Increased agitation against queer people, by Carla Reveland and Pascal Siggelkow
17 July 2023
Whether it’s about homosexuals, drag queens or trans people: Disinformation about queer people is omnipresent in social networks. Experts believe this can have devastating consequences.
Trans people are particularly targeted by disinformation, says Kerstin Thost, press officer of the Lesbian and Gay Association in Germany (LSVD). “In the past months around the debate on the Self-Determination Act [which would make it possible for Germans to change their official gender and first names], we have seen an increased attack on trans people in particular, not only in Germany but also internationally. There has been an increased mobilisation of hatred, agitation and “demonisation against LGBTQI*.” LGBTIQ* stands for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex and queer people.
6. Who finances the welfare state?, by Pascal Siggelkow
26 July 2023
It’s said time and again on the internet that 15 million people keep Germany running. The references is to “net taxpayers,” who pay more taxes than they receive in benefits. Experts, however, believe that this figure is wrong.
The figure of 15 million “net taxpayers” is justified … in this way: Of the approximately 46 million employed people in Germany, 27 million paid more taxes and contributions than they received in state benefits. Of these, however, 12 million are “directly or indirectly dependent on the state,” since they are paid by taxes … for example, as state employees. Thus … 15 million “net taxpayers” keep the system running.
Stefan Bach, a researcher … the German Institute for Economic Research (DIW), believes this calculation is incomplete … “Basically, state taxes and levies are offset by services without which the modern economy cannot function either.” …
Social contributions such as unemployment insurance or health insurance should also be considered separately … The calculation holds that all pensioners are recipients of benefits [and] ignores the fact that the status of net tax payer and recipient changes … in the course of one’s life. …
7. Local weather phenomena do not refute climate change, by Carla Reveland and Pascal Siggelkow
10 August 2023
The last two weeks of July in Germany were cold and wet. Some use this fact to play down climate change. But experts believe this is wrong.
… Kevin Sieck from the Climate Service Center … believes that temporary local weather does not support arguments about climate change: “Robust statements about climate trends can only be obtained by looking at several decades,” says Sieck. “A rainy July in Germany doesn’t say anything about long-term trends.” It is therefore the long-term developments that are relevant when assessing trends in the climate.
Karsten Schwanke, meteorologist and ARD weather presenter, agrees: “There will always be very changeable summers.” But there is a clear tendency towards warmer summers with larger upward swings. “We see a tendency for heat waves to become longer. And we are currently getting heat waves that we definitely didn't see 50 years ago. We're also getting more droughts, especially in the summer.”
8. How China regards the Russian invasion, by Carla Reveland and Pascal Siggelkow
21 August 2023
In the Russian war of aggression against Ukraine, China is trying to position itself as a mediator. At the same time, the US and NATO are portrayed as warmongers. Is China neutral?
“China stands for peace while the US prevents the peace process”, “The actions of US-led NATO have pushed Russia-Ukraine tensions to their peak” or “Ukrainian ‘neo-Nazis’ have opened fire on Chinese students.” These are all statements made by Chinese state media or government officials in relation to the Russian war of aggression in Ukraine.
Although Beijing claims to be a neutral actor that respects the “sovereignty and territorial integrity of all nations,” China has provided “rhetorical backing” to the Kremlin, according to a study by the US-based German Marshal Fund. “Chinese officials and state media have openly supported and promoted Kremlin-friendly accounts of the war.”
9. Why the record debt is not much to write home about, by Pascal Siggelkow
7 September 2023
Germany's national debt is at a record high, many media reported. From a purely nominal point of view, this is true, but from the point of view of experts, this is not very meaningful.
Martin Beznoska, Senior Economist for Financial and Fiscal Policy at the Institute for the German Economy (IW) points out [that] a more suitable parameter for assessing a country’s debt is … the debt-to-GDP ratio. “The debt-to-GDP ratio is a better indicator because it puts the debt in relation to the potential that the state has in terms of revenue-generating capacity,” Beznoska says.
The debt-to-GDP ratio relates government debt to nominal gross domestic product. For Germany, the debt-to-GDP ratio was 66.3 per cent in 2022. This means that the total debt was 66.3 per cent of the gross domestic product. Compared to the two previous years, the debt-to-GDP ratio in Germany has thus improved: in 2020 it was 68.7 per cent, in 2021 69.3 per cent. Before the outbreak of the Corona pandemic, however, it was still 59.6 percent.
10. Spahn’s dubious figures, by Pascal Siggelkow
1 September 2023
Vice chairman of the CDU/CSU parliamentary faction Spahn has criticised the planned increase in unemployment benefits. He said this would mean that a family of four would receive on average as much as an average-income family. But this is not true.
Planned increases to unemployment benefits next year have caused heated debeated. The CDU/CSU have complained that the changes will raise benefits higher than the wages of many employees. Vice chairman of the CDU/CSU parliamentary facation Jens Spahn said this sent the wrong signal. Even now, a family of four are entitled to an average of 2,311 Euros a month, which he said is as much as an average-income family in Germany. But this is not quite correct.
According to the Federal Statistical Office (Destatis), couples with two children had an average net household income of 5,490 euros in 2018. This is significantly more than the 2,311 Euros Spahn claimed. The gross household income was 7,435 Euros.
11. Fake videos and conspiracy claims, by Pascal Siggelkow
11 September 2023
Many false images and videos are circulating on social media about the devastating earthquake in Morocco that killed more than 2,000 people. Some of them are linked to well-known conspiracy narratives.
A look at the recent past shows that disinformation is often deliberately spread after natural disasters. In the case of the fires in Hawaii in August as well as the devastating earthquake in Turkey and Syria in February, videos were circulated that were supposed to show evidence of absurd causes.
In the case of earthquakes, the USA is often portrayed as the alleged cause – with their High Frequency Active Auroral Research Program (HAARP). HAARP is a research programme of the University of Alaska in the USA that has been in existence for decades. The aim is to research the upper atmosphere – the ionosphere – and also the propagation of radio waves. Radio waves are used for this purpose.
Now, as projects go, debunking the debunkers does not appeal to me very much, but we must get some read on Siggelkow’s accuracy and reliability. Remember that he should be almost totally right almost all of the time. After all, he or his managers choose what to debunk, so the very least we can expect of them is the judicious selection of easy targets. Alas, the only clean victory I can grant our Fact Enthusiast is 11), on the Moroccan earthquake. Few will believe this was caused by the American HAARP research programme, but it’s hard to know how many tagesschau fans needed to hear this in the first place.
Remarkably, in various of these pieces, Siggelkow doesn’t seem to be clearly debunking anything; 1) on excess mortality tries to head off the dark conclusions of vaccine sceptics, but can only manage this very weakly, while 4) on the Ukraine offensive and 8) on China’s pro-Russia stance merely offer helpings of reheated NATO propaganda to counter news and opinions from unapproved foreign sources. Also in this category is 5), which swipes at two pieces of allegedly anti-LGTBQ misinformation, but cannot clearly refute either of them, and beyond that offers little more than unsubstantiated hand-wringing about the violence and threats which gender minorities face.
Otherwise, we see a mix of disingenuous approaches, perhaps illustrated best by 7) on the fact that cool and rainy weather doesn’t refute climate change. While this is certainly true, the mainstream media – including tagesschau – have been confusing climate for weather deliberately in service of their environmentalist polemic for years. If hot summer days can indicate climate change, then cool summer days can contraindicate it, and if the press doesn’t like people making the latter argument, they should stop making the former one. Number 6), on the precarious German welfare state, which allegedly depends on a mere 15 million net taxpayers to cover its liabilities, also belongs here. By selectively excluding entitlements – above all, pensions – you can make this figure more favourable, and if you want to count households instead of individuals things might look better too, but these prevarications and qualifications miss the point. As an objective matter, the German pension system faces collapse in the face of the retirement wave and demographic decline. Much the same applies to 9); it’s true that German debt is at a record high only in nominal terms, but even the debt-to-GDP ratio which Siggelkow’s experts prefer paints an uncomfortable picture of government extravagance since the pandemic.
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Particularly in these last two cases, we see Siggelkow reaching for a tactic that these complex cases don’t allow him to exercise fully. We might call this The Debunking of the Part to Discredit the Whole. This is the main stock-in-trade of fact checkers in general; indeed, it is baked into the very premise of their profession. It consists in leveraging a quite irrelevant but well-grounded objection for the purposes of casting a pall over broader arguments that the checkers would prefer not to assail, because the rest of the facts to be checked don’t run in their favour. Thus 2) denounces fake French riot videos on social media as a means of playing down, however implicitly, the very real violence which broke out in the wake of Nahel Merzouk’s killing, while 3) on the AfD Einzelfallticker ends up (after no little special pleading) actually confirming that migrants commit crime at higher rates than native Germans, while merely questioning migrant involvement in many of the catalogued cases.2 Also in this category is 10): While Jens Spahn obviously understated the average income of the four-person German household, his broader argument – that in certain circumstances entitlements can exceed wages and are rising at a faster rate than income – appears to be totally correct.
You need read only a few of these exercises in ideological masturbation to find the primary explanation for fact-checker mediocrity. People like Siggelkow can afford to be stupid, because they’re not actually paid to think about anything. As a fact-checker, Siggelkow’s job consists mostly of calling up various “experts” and writing down what they tell him. Even this may overstate his agency, as very often I expect that it is the “experts” who call up Siggelkow and provide him with pre-digested material to print, but of course this is hard to prove. In those cases where Siggelkow interviews primarily midlevel academics not obviously connected to any advocacy groups, we might presume the reporting reflects his own initiative. Quite often, however, his sources hail from highly politicised think-tanks and NGOs, and in these instances I think we’re justified in suspecting he’s acting as a mere conduit.
Three of our eleven articles (2, 3 and 11) draw on the alleged expertise of the Center for Monitoring, Analysis and Strategy (CeMAS), a “non-profit extremism monitoring agency founded in 2021.” Their heavy representation in my eleven-article corpus is no accident; CeMAS and other anti-extremism NGOs are a major pillar of Siggelkow’s production. Sometimes they crop up even where you wouldn’t expect them, as in 4) on the Ukrainian counteroffensive, which features a prominent quote on “Russian propaganda” from the Institute for Strategic Dialogue – a “think and do tank” (heavens preserve us) which concerns itself with “digital regulation, disinformation, extremism and digital civic education.”
Siggelkow’s forays into economic matters are rarer, but in our exploratory corpus, the Institut der Deutschen Wirtschaft (IW) plays an outsized role. This is an old progressive liberal operation that advocates redistributive economic policies. IW experts help Siggelkow defend the welfare state in 6) and play down German national debt in 9). Curiously, when it comes time to defend NATO, Siggelkow’s bench of personal informants runs a bit thinner, perhaps reflecting the fact that the Ukraine war has ceased to be a major focus of state media coverage. Thus for 8), Siggelkow performs no expert interview, and rips instead from a piece published by the German Marshall Fund, an Atlanticist think-tank whose name he misspells. In 4) on the Ukrainian counteroffensive, his major source is somebody with a master’s degree in “East Asian Economy and Society” from the small think-tank-cum-consultancy-operation known as the Austrian Institute for European and Security Policy. This is a small den of Atlanticist Europhiles who are still awaiting the day when they will get their own Wikipedia page.
A broader survey of Siggelkow’s output, extending to the beginning of this year, reveals a split focus between the Russian war on the one hand, and identity politics and mass migration on the other. Somewhat surprisingly, climate topics have a mostly supporting role, and he thematises Covid and the vaccines only occasionally. The recent economic pieces are outliers.
The null hypothesis of the fact-checking industry would be something like this: “Threatened by the rise of alternative internet media, the establishment press have cultivated various discourse-policing operations to reclaim objectivity and reliability as their exclusive province.” In Siggelkow’s output, we certainly find much to support this view. It is the reason, for example, that he is so fond of writing about social media “misinformation” and internet “conspiracy theories.” The internet is a dangerous world of lies and disinformation, from which only the friendly tagesschau and their intrepid finders of facts can save you. This is basically his attitude, but as theses go, the null hypothesis is far too broad.
It cannot explain Siggelkow’s great selectivity, for example. There are absolute mountains of absurdity on the internet that he totally ignores, while often venturing into overtly political territory to fact-check the inconvenient arguments of the political opposition, which don’t involve social media at all. At the same time, the governing parties – especially the Greens – attract almost no Siggelkowian scrutiny, despite their long history of absurdly false statements. Fact-checking is clearly an enterprise devoted towards furthering a very specific political programme under the false cover of objectivity. This programme is directed primarily against “right-wing extremism,” particularly in its post-2015 incarnation. Secondary fronts on behalf of NATO, climate change sceptics, and the establishment CDU/CSU opposition emerge as the news cycle lends them relevance. Siggelkow, in other words, is quite plainly a propagandist who finds facts on behalf of the Scholz government, and in this he is funded by mandatory license fees levied from every German household.
That Siggelkow so often strays from his stated mission to correct falsehoods and publishes many pieces not clearly directed against any notional misinformation, merely reveals the tendency of the ideological mission to overwhelm tactical fact-finding entirely. Siggelkow is a conduit via which the preformulated output of regime-adjacent advocacy groups can find their way into the press and talk back to their crticis even in the absence of any specific occasion for them to do so.
Siggelkow also has a broader purpose, independent of his rearguard actions on behalf of the regime. This is the construction of a mythology which binds the political right to internet ‘conspiracy theorising.’ His implicit polemic is not merely that legacy media like tagesschau have a lock on objective and reliable information, but that political views opposed to those which prevail among state media journalists arise from ignorance, disinformation and general internet insanity. The facts are on the side of the progressive liberals who steer the German state, and the only people opposed to them are online idiots who believe that secret US government programmes cause earthquakes.
While Siggelkow’s tricks are both tiresome and transparent, fact checking is anything but easy. His steady stream of but-ackshually-bro bothering depends like all other heavily politicised press reporting on the support of a dense web of NGOs, think tanks and other advocacy groups. Where these are lacking, for example in novel areas like Corona, Siggelkow really struggles. The great algal blooming of pro-Atlanticist “open-source intelligence” posters after the outbreak of war in Ukraine reflects an effort to supply the Siggelkows of the press with recycle-able content. Like everything else in our present, diffuse system of regime power and propaganda, the ideological behemoth moves slowly and struggles to react to new problems.
Ultimately, the significance of the fact-finders is obscure; it’s hard to believe Siggelkow has many readers. The lack of interest his tedious schoolmarmery attracts is probably one reason his ilk are so over-represented in state media operations, where nobody need worry about producing content that is profitable. His writing is dry and unpersuasive; at most, it is a kind of choir-preaching that reassures the tagesschau audience that their views are grounded in facts, logic and science, and anyone who disagrees is a dangerous internet manic, or perhaps even a Russian.
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An “Einzelfall” is an isolated case; the AfD Einzelfall-Ticker alludes to the older project “XY-Einzelfall,” which began documenting migrant crimes in Germany in 2016. The title is an ironic reference to the regime line that migrant infractions are “isolated cases.”
Because authorities often intentionally withhold the details of migrant perpetrators, whether specific cases actually involve migrants or not requires some surmising on the part of the reader. Probably whoever runs the Einzelfallticker should include only cases where migrant offenders are specifically identified or described (there is no shortage of those), but in my own less-than-casual study of the Einzelfallticker, I find that a) they’re generally clear when there’s uncertainty about the origins of the suspect, and b) in most of the unidentified cases, they’re probably right to suspect migrant perpetrators.