Fact Check Or Stacked Deck?

1 April 2024
Fact Check Or Stacked Deck? - Featured image

Analysis of Australian fact checking organisations from 2019 to 2024

Under the federal government’s proposed Communications Legislation Amendment (Combatting Misinformation and Disinformation) Bill 2023, social media companies can be penalised by the Australian Communications and Media Authority for failing to remove “misinformation” and “disinformation” from their platforms.

It is expected that the social media companies will outsource to fact checking organisations—namely, RMIT ABC Fact Check, AAP FactCheck, and RMIT FactLab—the responsibility for adjudicating whether content amounts to misinformation or disinformation.

This analysis is a two-stage examination of all publicly listed and available fact check investigations posted online up to 9 February 2024 to determine whether Australia’s fact checking organisations have exhibited partisan political bias or preferential treatment in three policy areas: climate policy, Covid policy, and on issues relating to identity and sexuality.

The first stage of the analysis is an assessment of how often the fact checking organisations investigated claims by politicians and whether their verdicts favoured the political left or the political right. The analysis found:

  • 65% of fact checking investigations delivered verdicts that were favourable to left-of-centre politicians compared to only 35% that were favourable to right-of-centre politicians.

The second stage of the analysis tested whether the different results identified in the first stage were due to a partisan or ideological bias. This was tested by examining whether fact checking investigations relating to Covid-19 policy, climate policy, and identity and sexuality policy targeted advocates—which are generally left-of-centre viewpoints—or critics—which are generally right-of-centre viewpoints. The analysis found: 

  • 502 of 534 (94%) fact checking investigations relating to Covid-19 claims targeted critics of the official response to the pandemic. This indicates a significant proportion of fact checking activity during this period was committed to bolstering support for government responses to the pandemic, and minimal scrutiny of claims made by governments or efforts to hold governments to account.
  • 124 of 153 (81%) fact checking investigations relating to climate change and energy policy targeted critics, and almost none of the controversial claims made by activists, such as predictions of imminent catastrophe, are investigated by the fact checkers.
  • Of the 17 investigations into claims relating to identity and sexuality—another policy focus of the political left—16 investigations targeted critics of the political left’s position on these matters.
  • RMIT FactLab engaged in 32 investigations relating to Covid-19 and climate change and energy policy, and all 32 (100%) were directed against critics of official Covid-19 and climate change and energy policies.

The disproportionate focus on one side of these policy debates cannot be justified on the basis that only one side of the debate is making contentious claims or that only one side of the debate is prone to error. The only rational explanation for why just 62 of 703 claims investigated were targeted towards advocates of climate, Covid-19, and identity policies is ideological bias.

As private organisations, the fact checkers are free to express whatever view they wish on any matter they choose. But under the government’s proposed internet censorship laws, their position of unofficial arbiters of what is true or false on the internet will be made official, and they will be granted greater power to influence important public debates.

Given their demonstrable bias over a significant period of time, there should be no role for these organisations in arbitrating what is or is not ‘true’ on the internet. 

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