The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Happy 15th birthday, Fact Checker!

For the past 15 years, the Fact Checker has examined the statements of leading politicians. (Video: Adriana Usero/The Washington Post)

The Washington Post Fact Checker is 15 years old today, though strictly speaking that statement might merit a Pinocchio.

With a burst of four fact checks on the morning of Sept. 19, 2007 — of statements by Osama bin Laden, former senator Mike Gravel (D-Alaska), Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.) and former senator Fred D. Thompson (R-Tenn.) — our former colleague Michael Dobbs launched the Fact Checker.

By coincidence, the new feature appeared a few weeks after the St. Petersburg Times (now the Tampa Bay Times) unveiled PolitiFact. The original idea was that the Fact Checker would run through the 2008 election, so Dobbs closed up shop on Nov. 4, 2008, just 14 months later.

But Washington Post editors noticed that thousands of readers, searching the internet for information, every day kept coming back for the original campaign fact checks, even months after they were first posted. There was clearly a hunger for nonpartisan, fact-based research on public policy topics. So the Fact Checker was relaunched almost 12 years ago under my direction.

So that’s the caveat — there is a 26-month gap in our 15-year history. But we’re pleased to be one of the pioneering fact-checking organizations in the United States (along with, launched in late 2003).

The growth of political fact-checking since 2007 has been astonishing and also gratifying.

As of June, nearly 400 fact-checking organizations have been formed in more than 100 countries. Annual meetings of fact-checkers from around the globe that started in 2014 led to the creation of the International Fact-Checking Network, housed at the Poynter Institute and eventually the adoption of an international fact-checking code of principles. Members of the organization that abide by the code are assessed by independent experts to ensure compliance.

As for the Fact Checker, we’ve published about 4,000 fact checks on meaty policy issues such as health care and the federal budget, complex social issues such as abortion and gun rights, and even arcane subjects such as the economics of a child tax credit and government “march-in” rights that some believe could lead to lower prescription-drug prices.

At its heart, the Fact Checker is intended to explain complex policy debates, using quotes by politicians and advocacy groups as a jumping off point. Politicians often speak in code or shorthand. We have found that the more complex a subject is, the more likely a politician will try to hoodwink voters about it. Our goal is to make people better informed, not change votes.

Over the years, we have also delved into fact-checking biographical claims and offered timelines and explanatory articles about issues in the news. More recently, we have tried to not only debunk false claims but to trace the flow of misinformation. We also developed a universal language to label manipulated video and hold creators and sharers of this misinformation accountable.

During Donald Trump’s presidency, we started a 100-day project to document every false or misleading claim made by the president — which turned into a four-year behemoth that recorded 30,573 claims. It proved to be too much for our small staff to handle, so for Biden we limited it to a 100-day project, to the dismay of some readers.

Our rating system of Pinocchios remains controversial — readers often disagree with our rulings — but, as the video above shows, there is no denying that Pinocchios have become part of the political lexicon. Trump on 20 occasions mentioned getting Pinocchios — and Biden has as well. One political ad-maker once famously quipped he was not doing his job right if his ad didn’t earn Four Pinocchios.

The biggest change since 2007 has been the rise of social media — especially as a conveyor belt for misinformation. Increasingly, many Americans appear content to remain in left or right-wing information silos. A 2017 study found that two-thirds of liberals and conservatives surveyed were uninterested in hearing views of the other side on contentious issues such as guns and climate change — even when they were offered extra money to do so. Sometimes, fact checks are deliberately misconstrued or twisted in social media posts, replete with misleading screenshots, in an apparent effort to discredit fact checks or shape perceptions of them.

One constant is that about half of the fact checks result from tips or questions from readers. We appreciate everyone who reads our reports, even if the findings annoy them.

(About our rating scale)

Send us facts to check by filling out this form

Sign up for The Fact Checker weekly newsletter

The Fact Checker is a verified signatory to the International Fact-Checking Network code of principles