Politicians cannot beat fact-checking groups, so they should engage with them

It’s very clear that making the facts your enemy is a poor long-term strategy

In a bar a little while ago, I had the following fascinating exchange with someone who worked for a Labour MP:

Me: “I’ve not heard of [MP], I’ll have to look them up on theyworkforyou.com

Them: “Oh, TheyWorkForYou? The MPs don’t like that”

For those of you that don’t know, every MP has an automatically generated page on www.theyworkforyou.com giving information to the public about what they say (by processing Hansard), and how they’ve voted.

As far as I’m concerned, the only reason for an MP to dislike TheyWorkForYou would be if they didn’t want their constituencies to know what they were saying or how they were voting.

They should panic if they don’t want to be judged on their election materials as well. electionleaflets.org is a database of 9,000 election leaflets uploaded by people from all over the country. Hopefully they’ll make the classic Lib Dem Bar chart an endangered species and maybe allow fewer candidates to style their materials after official county council letters.

Standing as a candidate? You probably have a profile at yournextmp.com, the crowdsourced database of general election candidate data. In 2010 it was more accurate that the commercial equivalent.

And if you want to play fast and loose with the figures then you are going to run up against fullfact.org, who launched in 2010 as the UK’s independent fact checking organisation and who have managed to wrangle a correction out of just about every news outlet since.

This is good, no? More transparency, better information flow, more knowledge about policies. These things can only help the party that is correct right? And we know that’s us. So what can be done?

Will Moy, director of Full Fact is forthright:

“The best thing MPs could do is set up a corrections column in Hansard so that when MPs make mistakes they can fix them, and take pride in doing that.”  

And candidates must, must, engage with these groups. Many of these projects were pups (Democracy Club only had seven thousand volunteers in 2010) in the last election cycle. Now they are growing up.

And parties need to be in front of this wave. Because in 2015 and beyond there is going to be far less wiggle room.

The 13-year-old veteran elephant in the room is, of course, Wikipedia. The first stop for most UK residents wanting to know about their MP. A place that many MPs have tried to ‘beat’. Beating it is hard, working with it is easy. They like being worked with. Simon Knight, one of Wikimedia UK’s trustees, is quite clear: the best thing that parties can do is produce content:

“The best thing that MPs, political parties, or government could do to improve coverage of politics and politicians on Wikimedia projects is release CC-By [give implicit permission for projects like Wikipedia to use their materials]”

Indeed the idea that a political group reserves the copyright on the wording of its position is bizarre as soon as one stops to think about it.

There are thousands of people right now, working to improve democracy in the UK with no reference to policy or ideology, just a love of facts, and openness, and data.

Labour can choose to be defensive, can choose to see this as a threat, or they can choose to engage. It’s very clear that making the facts your enemy is a poor long-term strategy.

Joe Reddington blogs on disability and technology issues. Follow him on Twitter

2 Responses to “Politicians cannot beat fact-checking groups, so they should engage with them”

  1. Gary Scott

    They can talk nonsense quicker than fact-checkers can check facts. They know this and depend on it. Still, it’s a pity that TV and print journalists didn’t pick up the ball and try checking facts…

  2. Cole

    Many print journalists, eg Mail, Telegraph, just write propaganda for the Conservative Party. They’re not real journalists.

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