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About this book

This text presents an historical examination of political fact-checking, highlighting how this is part of a larger phenomenon of online scrutiny that manifests itself in multiple forms. Reflecting the long history of “fake facts” in America, the book discusses important developments in this area from the emergence of the public Internet in the 1990s to the start of the Trump-Clinton presidential election campaigns.

Topics and features: describes how some of the major players in political fact-checking began with the purpose of scrutinizing and debunking of urban legends; considers how this was part of a wider culture, encompassing B-grade horror movies, truth-or-fiction television shows, and groups warning about computer viruses; explains how such developments are connected, revealing political fact-checking as one of many forms of scrutiny applied in the face of a complex, dangerous world; provides a range of detailed case studies, covering such topics as the rumors surrounding the 9/11 terrorist attacks, and academic interest in contemporary legends; discusses how pre-Internet technologies such as bulletin boards, Usenet, and proprietary online service providers such as CompuServe and AOL were used to both disseminate and debunk urban legends; examines the rise of political fact-checking, reviewing all of the major initiatives in this area undertaken in the United States.

This timely study touches on issues of popular culture and major events, and offers profiles of colorful individuals and organizations, and as such will appeal to a broad audience interested in the history of fact-checking and efforts to protect the political process from falsehoods.

Table of Contents

Frontmatter

Chapter 1. The Concept of Scrutiny

Abstract
This introductory chapter considers the concept of scrutiny, which is a concept that underlies the analysis throughout the book. Scrutiny is an essential element of the methodological practices of science and philosophy. It is also essential to being a consumer in a world in which one is assaulted by advertising every place one turns, or in determining the authenticity of a cultural artifact such as a novel or play. The politics of honest election and fair governance are also a place where scrutiny is important. Scrutiny is what ties together the topics covered in this book (debunking of urban legends, political fact-checking, truth-or-fiction television programming, grade B horror movies, and sites that protect one from computer viruses) that have been prevalent in the years 1990 to 2015. This chapter looks in particular at scrutiny in online settings.
William Aspray, James W. Cortada

Chapter 2. From Debunking Urban Legends to Political Fact-Checking

Abstract
This chapter provides a new, broader understanding of the political fact-checking that has been so prominent in the United States since the 2016 presidential election but which is also becoming a major trend in many other countries. The major story line in this chapter is the emergence of snopes, one of the leading political fact-checking organizations today, out of the Usenet newsgroup alt.folklore.urban (AFU), when two of AFU’s most active members, David and Barbara (Hamel) Mikkelson, pulled their material from AFU to create snopes, taking advantage of the newly created public Internet. The chapter describes the creation and the culture of AFU, the concept of urban legends and the style, purpose, and methods used by AFU members to evaluate urban legends. The chapter then traces the history of snopes as it evolves from the study of urban legends to political fact-checking. The growth in popularity of snopes, the methods and practices it follows, and some criticism of these methods by information scholar Kalev Leetaru are considered. The chapter closes with the crisis for snopes that occurs when the two founders divorce and the organization is beset by legal challenges from its marketing and technology support organization.
William Aspray, James W. Cortada

Chapter 3. Urban Legends and Rumors Concerning the September 11 Attacks

Abstract
This chapter provides an extended case study of the legends and rumors surrounding the September 11 terrorist attacks in the United States in 2001. The chapter draws upon existing scholarship about the cultural meaning of urban legends to explain how these legends are coping mechanisms for dealing with a complex, dangerous world in which the rules of life are changed. Based on a detailed analysis of the hundreds of stories about 9/11 on snopes and the thousands of posting on alt.folklore.urban about 9/11, the authors categorize the many types of urban legends associated with this event and give illustrations of each. The chapter also considers the role of conspiracy theories associated with these terrorist attacks and in particular looks at the 9/11 Truth Movement, which denies the accepted story of what happened on September 11. This case study enables us to look in depth at the working style used by snopes. The response on AFU to the terrorist attacks is compared to the response on two other Usenet newsgroups. The chapter also looks in particular at mercantile legends and how companies are harmed by urban legends – with a particular look at one restaurant, The Sheikh in suburban Detroit, which was harmed by false claims that its Arab workers celebrated the terrorist attacks. While most urban legends are textual, the chapter closes with a discussion of visual versions using photoshopping techniques.
William Aspray, James W. Cortada

Chapter 4. Debunking as Hobby, Entertainment, Scholarly Pursuit, and Public Service

Abstract
The book so far has focused on only two kinds of activities involving scrutiny, urban legend debunking and political fact-checking. The main purpose of this chapter is to show that, in the period 1990–2015, there were a wider set of activities that are associated with scrutiny. Before turning to this main topic, the chapter examines the decade prior to the creation of the public Internet in the early 1990s and shows how urban legends were both spread and studies in pre-Internet technologies such as fax, bulletin boards, and proprietary online service providers such as America OnLine and Prodigy. The chapter then turns to the creation – beginning in the 1980s – of a new academic sub-discipline, the study of contemporary legends, primarily out of the disciplines of folklore studies and sociology. The focus is on one particular organization, the International Society for Contemporary Legend Research. The next section focuses on organizations such as Hoaxbusters, Scambusters, and VMyths, which were created as a public service to help individuals and organizations avoid computer viruses, chair letters, and Internet hoaxes through the use of appropriate scrutiny. The following section discusses entertainment. There are two types of entertainment considered here: one type are truth-or-fiction television shows such as Mythbusters and Unsolved Mysteries, which tell a narrative and then ask the audience to determine whether it is true or fake. The films, such as Candyman, and I Know What You Did Last Summer, either provided a full-length account of a single urban legend or offered up multiple urban legends in the same movie. The chapter concludes by pulling together these disparate events into a single coherent narrative involving scrutiny.
William Aspray, James W. Cortada

Chapter 5. Recent Political Fact-Checking

Abstract
This chapter is about recent political fact-checking. The chapter provides an accounting of all of the major political fact-checking initiatives undertaken in the United States between 2003 and 2018. The chapter observes that the rise of these fact-checking organizations appears in waves, driven by national elections in the United States. The most extensive coverage is given to PolitiFact, one of the leading fact-checking organizations. Examples are given of evaluations made by PolitiFact to claims made by politicians, and to pushback from various political groups and to charges of bias, which we see are largely unfouded. Some of the other fact-checking operations that are considered here are the Washington Post FactChecker and The Weekly Standard FactChecker. A number of university-based research efforts to deal with the issue of fake news are considered, including the University of Santa Clara’s Trust Project, the University of Missouri’s Trusting News project, the CUNY News Integrity Initiative, and the Data & Society Research Institute’s Media Manipulation Initiative. Two recent trends are discussed: one is the creation of for-profit businesses to deal with fake news, such as NewsGuard by the well-known journalists Steven Brill and Gordon Crovitz and the startup Our.News; the other trend is the use of technology to address the issue of fake news, such as the use of machine learning by Deepnews.ai, and the use of crowdsourcing by WikiTribune (created by Wikipedia’s founder Jimmy Wales).
William Aspray, James W. Cortada

Chapter 6. Where Do We Go Next?

Abstract
In conclusion, this chapter first ties together these disparate activities in the period since 1990: urban legend debunking, political fact-checking, public service sites intended to protect people against computer viruses, academic study of contemporary legends, grade B horror movies, and truth-or-fiction television programming. The chapter then identifies six ways to build on this study: first, other topics involving scrutiny in the United States in the period 1990–2015, such as consumer protection in a world dominated by advertising; second, extension of coverage to events outside the United States, such as urban legends or political fact-checking in other countries; third, extending the coverage back in time prior to 1990, such as scrutiny during the early twentieth century in connection with Progressivism; fourth, a deeper analysis of the concept of authenticity, which so far has been most studied in the context of art forgery and is otherwise relatively unstudied; fifth, connecting this study to the emerging field of information history, for this study has close ties to two main topics of information history – misinformation and overabundance of information; and finally, sixth, tying this work more closely to computing history, both by examining the use of computing technologies and not the technologies themselves, and by examining the pre-history of the Internet more closely by examining bulletin boards, Usenet, and online service providers that predate the public Internet.
William Aspray, James W. Cortada

Backmatter

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