“It is extremely unlikely any other referendum has ever been as extensively fact-checked” This was the headline finding of recent research about the EU referendum by the UCL Constitution Unit. Full Fact, the UK’s only independent fact-checking organisation, was proud to have helped make this happen.
But the question we all want answered is: did it work? Did people vote with more or fewer facts on June 23 than would have otherwise been the case? Did politicians stop using claims that had been debunked? Did facts cut through the spin?
It’s impossible to say. The EU referendum was unique in many aspects, but one of the ways it stood out was in the volume and reach of both of the campaigns. This was a once in a generation decision, and the first nationwide referendum to have been held in the age of social media and 24 hour news. Any attempt to cut through the noise had to have a pretty sharp knife.
But we do know that many of the “facts” presented to us weren’t really facts at all. The Electoral Commission’s Voting Guide, sent to every household in the UK, contained a page each from Stronger In and Vote Leave. Neither of these pages seemed to be factchecked, because both contained inaccurate or misleading claims.
Stronger In claimed that EU membership gave the UK greater global influence by having a seat at the “top table”, when the UK already sits on many international “top tables” individually. Vote Leave claimed we send £350 million a week to the EU as our membership fee, when in fact we send £250 million.
Made-up claims, or a grain of truth?
The now notorious £350 million claim was an example of facts being used in a self-defeating way. The correct figure, £250 million per week, is still a Very Big number. It’s hard to believe that it was that extra one hundred million that made the figure so compelling. So Vote Leave could have made the same point without their claim being inaccurate.
Similarly, David Cameron repeated throughout the referendum that 90% of economists agreed that Brexit would be bad for the UK economy. The majority of economists did agree that Brexit would damage the economy, but there was no reliable evidence for the 90% figure. So why bother?
In a democracy where trust in politicians has been languishing at a low level for decades, it’s in no-one’s interest to fuel the flames of discontent.
In both cases, the inaccurate claims were not drawn out of thin air. The £350 million figure came from the Office for National Statistics’ 2015 ‘Pink Book’ on the balance of UK payments, which didn’t take into account the UK’s rebate on the EU membership fee, which is never sent to the EU. Stronger In’s claim about 90% of economists was based on an Ipsos MORI survey, in which only 17% of economists who were asked responded. Just as politicians need to be better at checking the accuracy of their claims, information providers can and should do more to ensure that their research isn’t misused.
Starting in the right place
Of course, facts and claims are spun in every election, and in daily public debate. That’s why factchecking needs to be part of the standard process of making, reporting, and repeating/sharing claims. Inaccurate claims are harder to check when people don’t have access to a baseline of robust information that’s clear and easy to understand. The years between elections are just as important—if not more so—as the weeks immediately before them.
Despite this, there is more that could be done to anchor public debate to reality at the height of campaigns as well. The Electoral Commission’s Voting Guide is an official, neutral leaflet that arrives through every letterbox with the impression that it is a canonical source of information. You might reasonably expect the official-looking information within it to be factually accurate.
It’s also reasonable to expect that broadcasters challenge inaccurate claims when they are made on air. The £350 million EU membership fee claim was debunked by the IFS and the UK Statistics Authority, and described by the Authority’s Chair, Sir Andrew Dilnot as “misleading”. When so many independent organisations have condemned a claim, it’s important to point this out to provide a balanced view to your audience.
We made this point in our evidence to the BBC Trust’s report on the accuracy and impartiality of reported statistics, and were pleased to see it recognised in the report’s recommendations.
So what now?
Action from regulators and the media is just the beginning. At Full Fact, we’re also working on three major projects that will improve the accuracy and use of facts in daily public debate, and in the next election.
We need to be able to properly anticipate what information we need to inform public debate in the coming years. That’s why we’re talking to the country’s leading academics, policy experts, social researchers and information providers to scope out the existing gaps in information, and figure out how we can fill them. With this comes the need to identify and address where information needs to be better communicated.
We’re also about to launch a weekly series of factcheck videos with LBC radio, which will be shared with an audience of millions on their website and social media feeds. Our agreed goal in this project will be helping listeners make up their own minds, which is what Full Fact is all about.
Finally, we’re working on pioneering automated factchecking technology. We already have a prototype, and are months — and a relatively small amount of funding — away from putting practical tools into the hands of journalists and then factcheckers all around the world. These tools will automatically check statistical claims, such as “employment has risen by 3%”, against relevant source data, monitor how frequently and where claims appear in public debate, and be able to live fact-check television subtitles against source data and our existing database of factchecks. You can read more about our automated factchecking work here.
Ultimately, facts don’t make decisions, people do. But everybody deserves to have accurate and impartial facts to inform their opinions, and there is more that all of us can do to promote them. Getting the facts rights is only half the battle. The even bigger job is persuading people that we all have a role to play in making public debate more accurate and therefore more useful for everyone.
By Will Moy, Director of Full Fact