One of the first bad signs for Verrit: it doesn’t date its posts.
Verrit is a new digital publication devoted to social media friendly facts and quotes, like a liberal arsenal of Twitter-friendly thought bullets, but take a look at its post announcing the site’s existence. This would seem like a good post to put a date on, but there isn’t one. Without dates, it’s impossible to place any given post on a timeline and understand where it fits into recent history.
Verrit’s content speaks to a center left audience, people who wish that Hillary Clinton would have won the 2016 election. Whether this is a good business model or not we’ll let others to decide, but something else about the site jumped out at us: Each nugget published on Verrit has an authentication code attached to it, so that if it’s downloaded and reposted without the original link, a user can still find its sourcing by searching for that code on the site.
“We’re in a time now where you just no longer trust anything that you’re reading,” CEO Peter Daou told Business Insider. “So we want to do something where we rigorously vet these facts and we actually stand by our research and put an authentication code on every fact that we put up.”
This would be a useful exercise, because it’s so easy to make something phony look authentic on social media.
For example, there was a meme going around during the election that showed a younger looking Donald Trump saying that if he ever ran for president, he would run as a Republican because the party’s voters are so dumb. The Reno Gazette-Journal looked into this, though, and couldn’t find any evidence that Trump had ever said it or said anything like it (Snopes agreed). The meme’s creator cited People, assuming that no one would check to see if it was accurate. They didn’t and the meme blew up.
Whatever you think of Trump, we can all agree that it’s not fair to hold him to account for something he never said. Presumably, if the quote had shown up on Verrit, there would have been an authentication code attached that would have let a reader check its source.
So how good is Verrit’s authentication system? Is it really rigorous? We randomly selected a few Verrit posts just to see. We didn’t find any outright fabrications, but we did find signs that the site is more focused on advancing its messaging than proper sourcing:
- How the gender wage gap is worse for black and latino women. This on isn’t so much a “fact” as an extrapolation of a trend, but that’s fine as long as a reader can find out what it’s based on. In this case, it comes from analysis by the Institute for Women’s Policy Research. The site could stand to do some design work to help readers see which of the links on a post’s page are further reading and which one is the source, but the source is there. A person can see the analysis, see what organization did the analysis and dig into methodology from there. All good.
- Dwight Eisenhower quote on political parties. This one falls far short, though. It cites the “Republican National Women’s Conference, 1956,” but we have no idea what evidence they have that he said what he said there. There are two links on the page to stories by Think Progress and New York magazine that opine on the ethical state of the GOP, but neither of these quote Eisenhower (and even if either of them had, that would still be at least a secondary and probably a tertiary source). It looks like Ike did say it, though. By googling the quote, we found it in Google Books and on the American Presidency Project (a non-profit that puts presidential documents online). If Verrit rigorously fact-checked this quote, it didn’t give users an easy way to check its work.
- Joy Reid quote on people who’ve been fooled. This one left a different question for us. Its citation is solid (a tweet), but its contextualization is weak. It quotes “Joy Reid” without any explanation of who she is. She’s a host on MSNBC and author. Knowing that helps a reader gauge the credibility of her opinion and what experiences she might be basing it on, but that context is absent. Though Reid has 815,000 followers on Twitter, there may still be any number of people who aren’t familiar with her.
- JFK quote on neutrality. This one is weird. At first blush, it seems like a misattribution to JFK, who was really quoting Dante Alighieri (it’s like someone calling “Georgia On My Mind” a Willie Nelson or Ray Charles song—both recorded it, but Hoagy Carmichael and Stuart Gorrell wrote it). The Verrit doesn’t actually cite a specific time that the slain president actually said it. Instead, it cites a page on the JFK Library’s website that says it’s a thing he often said, explaining that it’s an interpretation of a passage from The Inferno. The library quotes a translation of the passage, which makes it clear that the author really sees people who maintain neutrality more as losers who are dead inside than true sinners. We googled around also couldn’t find a primary source where Kennedy uses this construction.
- Quote from Abraham Lincoln about public opinion. The only thing on this page is a link to the full text of Lincoln’s speech where he speaks the words quoted, from a digitized collection maintained by the University of Michigan. Solid.
- GAO report showing far-right groups have executed more terrorist attacks than Islamic extremists. It’s weird that this one doesn’t link its original source because it’s so easy to find. Here it is, pages 4-6. Also worth noting that while there have been more attacks by the far right, the total fatalities since September 12, 2001, have been about equal. Add in total fatalities including September 11, and the balance shifts dramatically. The fact is real but the primary source isn’t linked.
Verrit is a new site and it takes a while to work out standards and procedures, especially when its founders want to launch with a bunch of content to create buzz, but there are some real gaps here. If the site wants to claim real standards around truth and accuracy, it needs to get this stuff right.
Daou previously worked for John Kerry and Hillary Clinton’s past presidential campaigns, and he has been a staunch defender of Clinton’s record. He was not immediately available for comment.
There’s a kernel of a good idea in Verrit. Putting a code on an image (or even encoded invisibly in the file or in its metadata) could add more credibility to facts that spin wildly around social media during heady cultural and political fights. If at least part of the public learned to expect checkable citations on their memes, it could prevent wild fabrications from spinning out of control.