Words Have Meanings, PolitiFact Versus PolitiFactBias on the Donald Trump Landslide Election


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Donald Trump and his top supporters or members of his transition team have been claiming that Donald Trump won the 2016 election by a “landslide” and that Donald Trump, or even Republicans generally, have a “mandate.” PolitiFact (PF) rates this use of the word “landslide” as “false.” A response by PolitiFactBias (PFB) finds the “false” rating to be “folly” because the word has a “non-technical definition.”

POLITIFACT APPROACH

PolitiFact consults ten experts in related areas to help determine whether this use of the word “landslide” is true or false. All of the experts agree that they do not consider the 2016 election a “landslide,” with one saying it was “pretty close.” The experts fail to produce a technical definition of the term. Based upon this, PolitiFact concludes that the statements are “false.”

POLITIFACTBIAS REBUTTAL

PolitiFactBias (PFB) publishes a response, reproducing this section of the PolitiFact article:

Landslide, of course, is not technically defined. When we asked for information to back Priebus’ claim, the Republican National Committee merely recited the electoral figures and repeated that it was a landslide.

PFB then explains:

If “landslide” is not technically defined then what fact is PolitiFact Wisconsin checking? Is “landslide” non-technically defined to the point one can judge it true or false? … One has to marvel at expertise sufficient to say whether the use of a term meets a non-technical definition.

PFB concludes:

PolitiFact might have produced an “In context” article to talk about electoral landslides and how experts view the matter. But trying to corral the use of a term that is traditionally hard to tame simply makes a mockery of fact checking.

Someone posts a critical comment on the page.

I agree that “landslide” is a poor choice of a “fact” to fact-check, but there is no way in which 303 electoral votes can be considered a landslide. It is the 2nd lowest winning count in the last 9 elections, and 5th lowest in last 15 elections. The average electoral win is 338 for the last 4 elections before this one, 382 for last 8, and 389 for the last 14 (going back to 1960). 306 out of 538 is 57% of the votes. So its one of the narrower victories in recent history and is not even 60% of the votes.

Jeff D., one of the PFB authors replies.

Those are persuasive and, in my view, damning arguments against Preibus’s claim. (Bryan and I both noted in the post that the claim is on shaky ground.) But it’s not a fact.
Perhaps you could provide us with the universally accepted and unarguable figure for a landslide victory? Is it a 75% margin of victory? 65.3%?
We’ll be happy to update the post when you get back to us.

INADEQUATE APPROACHES

Both PolitiFact and PFB employ inadequate approaches to tackle the issue.

PolitiFact runs to its team of experts looking to quantify “landslide” as a technical term, but fails. PF winds up gaining agreement of the experts that the term is used inappropriately. PF concludes that the original statement “false.” This approach comes up lacking in three ways.

First, if there is no specific technical rule by the experts, then there is no standard. If there is no standard, then the statement cannot be tested for truth.

Second, even with an agreement of the experts, bias is not controlled. The information arrived not in a theoretical matter, but rather, after the fact. Personal opinions of the experts about Donald Trump may have entered into the calculations.

Finally, the word “landslide” was not used as a term-of-art in an expert setting. It was used as a lay term in the general population. Common usages are often different from technical terms-of-art. If there had been a technical definition, it would not necessarily make the statement false in common usage.

PolitiFactBias jumps on the lack of an exact “universally accepted and unarguable figure” and declares the entire exercise “folly.”

ENGLISH LANGUAGE TESTING

Words have meanings. Usually, those meanings may be quantified within or outside of a range of commonly accepted usage.This may be tested:

An election victory applies when someone wins an election.

A landslide is an overwhelming election victory. We know by context that landslide as used here refers to elections, not to volcanoes or skiing incidents.

An adjective modifies a noun. The word “overwhelming” describes a type of election victory. There are other types, like for example, a “squeaker.”

All landslides are election victories. Now, we have a fully quantified complete set of items.

Some elections are not landslides. Now, we know that landslides are a subset of election victories.

Quantification has begun.

When looking up the word “overwhelming,” descriptive words include: destroy, crush, bury, overthrow, and excess. These are all words that describe something more near one far end of a range than near the middle. An overwhelming election victory is not in the middle, not at the average and not usual. Rather, it is crushing, destroying, and burying.

By definition, a landslide must be something more than above average – exactly how much is uncertain. But the 2016 Donald Trump victory is well below average in the set of election victories and must be excluded. The word is used incorrectly. It is not a landslide. The statements are false.

CHANGING DEFINITIONS

Words are used to communicate. In American English, there are no official definitions. Dictionaries report common usage of words. These can change. Here, the word “landslide” is used in a novel way that reduces meaning or understanding. The use of the word to describe the 2016 election creates confusion and undermines the purpose of language. It should be called out as a false use and it should be stopped.

POLITIFACT SITE

PolitiFact is a well-connected semi-official mainstream media fact checking site. For years, the quality of its fact checks have been critiqued online, mostly by Republican partisan sites. Sometimes, critiques are published in other mainstream media sources.

The two main criticisms of PF were discussed above. First, PF turns matters of opinion into fact. Second, PF uses selection bias to skew results.

Top social media website Facebook has announced that it will employ PolitiFact to label and demote suspect “fake news.” Mainstream media generally describes this new partnership positively, while Republican sites are negative on it.

These polarized responses should ring alarm bells. PolitiFact as censor will neither resolve the “fake news” controversy, nor will it calm the environment. Rather, the haggling over “fake news” will become the centerpiece of distraction from important news and information – and the political climate will become even more polarized.

POLITIFACTBIAS SITE

PolitiFactBias is an answer site to PolitiFact. “We’re a nonpartisan, independent website highlighting PolitiFact’s liberal bias,” says the official Twitter account. PolitiFactBias explains:

We note that PolitiFact’s stories appear to damage Republicans far more often than Democrats despite the fact that PF tends to choose about as many stories dealing with Republicans as for Democrats.

PFB ASSUMES FALSE BALANCE

The key unstated assumption here is that Republicans and Democrats cause equal “damage” and should be exposed equally. This is not likely to be true. When there are so many complicated differences in perspective, there is virtually no chance that the two are equal. There is no reason to assume balance is required – more likely, we should start out with the presumption that “damage” is not balanced. Then, we may investigate which way the imbalance falls.

PFB ENGAGES IN “SELECTION BIAS”

PolitiFactBias is concerned about “selection bias.” PFB explains:

Selection bias, in the context of journalism, means that the subject matter and the approach to the subject matter are not chosen at random. The factors determining the non-random selections typically offer opportunities for an ideological skewing of the subject matter.

But PFB approaches subject matter from an angle not chosen at random. PFB chooses to expose bias against Republicans and for Democrats, thereby ideologically skewing itself.

PFB FALSELY CLAIMS THAT IT IS “NONPARTISAN”

PFB is purely partisan. It begins with an unsupported or false assumption that there should be balance. Then, it adheres to one side of the debate every time, even though both sides produce errors. This is the core of the meaning of the word “partisan” – especially when it applies to Republicans and Democrats. PolitiFactBias cannot seriously or honestly claim that it is nonpartisan.

While fact checking the fact checkers is a noble cause, especially when done from an actual nonpartisan perspective, those who do so from a partisan perspective should simply admit the bias or the counterbalance and not pretend to be nonpartisan. If PFB can do that, and if articles at PFB can be reasonably accurate, then PFB could become a credible site. It is not credible now. A partisan site is not nonpartisan. That is false. Once again, words have meanings.

PFB responds: “We use ‘nonpartisan’ in our self-description partly to show how it is devalued when organizations like the Heritage Foundation and PolitiFact employ it in *their* self descriptions.” See below.

BOTTOM LINE

Fact checker sites and their fact checker-checker sites are not reliable. Readers need to discipline themselves to recognize poor quality articles every time they open an article. Articles with obvious errors should not be liked or shared. Neither censorship nor site blacklisting will resolve the issue.

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