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.

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”


, 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.”

Read the Whole Article