Tuesday, August 31, 2021

Search engine update!

Occasionally we get curious about how search engines are treating the PolitiFact Bias site. We have a number of SEO advantages, perhaps the strongest being the lack of advertising.

One of our advantage was using the (still free!) Google Blogger platform. Once upon a time, using that platform gained an SEO advantage from the Google search engine. But times change, and Google's algorithms also change.

Results are mine. Thanks to algorithms, your results may vary:

DuckDuckGo: No. 1, if we don't count the sponsored link. Otherwise No. 2.

Bing: No. 1.

Google: Our Twitter account is No. 4, thanks to Jeff's fine work.

Our Facebook page ends up at the bottom of the second page of hits.

This website comes in as the fourth hit on Google's third page of results.

We count this as a result of Google's successful effort to elevate "reliable" websites and downgrade dubious ones in its search results.

Even when the dubious ones are right and the "reliable" ones are wrong.

Friday, August 27, 2021

PolitiFact creates smear of Dan Patrick by evaluating invented claim

PolitiFact took something Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick (R) said and completely transformed it into something PolitiFact could give a "False" rating.

It's another clear illustration of the fact-checking methodology PFB co-founder Jeff borrowed for use on the PolitiFact Bias Facebook page years ago.

It's from HopeNChangeCartoons.com.

PolitiFact cheats by giving Patrick's statement a wild interpretation and then declares him a liar.

Let's break it down, starting with PolitiFact's headline/graphic/deck presentation.

If we were to interpret Patrick hyper-literally, he starts right off with a falsehood. Democrats do not blame Republicans on low vaccination rates. Rather, they blame Republicans for low vaccinations rates (leading to growth of the covid-19 pandemic).

Hopefully, it's plain that using such an interpretation counts as pedantic. It's plain from the context what Patrick was trying to say.

Patrick follows with "Well, the biggest group in most states are African Americans who have not been vaccinated." The context does less to clarify Patrick's meaning, but the meaning has to fit with his point: He aims to undercut the Democratic Party's narrative that unvaccinated Republicans drive the covid-19 resurgence. Patrick's last line in the quotation supports that interpretation ("90% of them vote for Democrats").

Either of two meanings would fit the context of Patrick's point as we have described it. Patrick could be talking about the raw numbers of unvaccinated African Americans--plainly a stretch given that Blacks make up less than 14% of the population--or he could mean that in most states Blacks are the demographic with the lowest vaccination rate.

Either interpretation might serve Patrick's purpose, and PolitiFact reported he later clarified that he was talking about low vaccination rates, not sheer numbers of unvaccinated Blacks.

But that's not how PolitiFact plays media fact checkers.

Here's the big cheat (bold emphasis added):

Republican Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, asked last week to defend the Texas response to surging coronavirus cases, blamed Democrats for the present COVID-19 wave, specifically African Americans, who he said are reliable Democratic voters.

Where is PolitiFact's proof that Patrick blamed Democrats, particularly Black Democrats, for the recent COVID-19 wave?

Here's PolitiFact's second mention of Patrick's alleged point:

Regardless of whether or not he was referring to vaccination rates, he did not seek to change his main point, that Black populations are playing a major role in fueling the present COVID-19 surge. But there’s no evidence to support that. 
PolitiFact should have noted that "there's no evidence to support that" Patrick's main point was "that Black populations are playing a major role in fueling the present COVID-19 surge."


Oddly, by the time PolitiFact reached its concluding section Patrick's point had changed to something else: Democrats are responsible for vaccine hesitancy!


In an attempt to blame vaccine hesitancy on Democrats, Patrick said on Fox News that the biggest group of unvaccinated people in most states is African Americans.

There's likewise no evidence Patrick was blaming vaccine hesitancy on Democrats, though he did say Democrats were not doing enough to get Blacks vaccinated.

Second paragraph of PolitiFact's conclusion:

His on-air statement is wrong. Black people aren’t the largest group of unvaccinated people in any state. But his revised statement, that vaccination rates among the Black population lag behind that of other racial groups, is correct. 
With two plausible ways to interpret Patrick's statement, PolitiFact chose the one it could rate false and apparently gave no consideration to the one it said was true when levying its "False" rating.

We fully grant that the interpretation PolitiFact chose was the more literal of the two. But the same condition that holds when we interpret "on" as "for" when Patrick started speaking holds for Patrick's second sentence. The Fox News host asked Patrick for a quick response. Quick responses may understandably require charitable interpretation.

PolitiFact prefers not to do that for Patrick's second sentence. And that, plus the point PolitiFact chose for Patrick, resulted in the "False" rating.

PolitiFact cheated to make Patrick a liar.

Thursday, August 19, 2021

PolitiFact supplies misleading missing context

This week the fact checkers at PolitiFact fixed a supposed problem with missing context by supplying completely misleading context.

Gohmert wasn't talking about solar panel farms. He was talking about facilities that concentrate reflected sunlight. Nor did Gohmert suggest avian deaths would bring the nation down. But those blunders represent the least of our worries.

The big problem in the fact check comes from its attempt to set the record straight. PolitiFact claimed Gohmert left out the fact that fossil fuel plants cause far more deaths than solar energy plants like the one Gohmert mentioned: "Solar farms kill thousands of birds, but not as many as fossil fuel plants."

"Is that true?" we wondered.

It may be true, we suppose. But the reasoning PolitiFact provided was illegitimate.

"It is wrong to single out solar and wind (power) as having bird mortality issues," said David Jenkins, president of Conservatives for Responsible Stewardship. "The estimated number of birds killed by fossil fuel power plants through collisions, electrocution and poisoning actually dwarfs those attributed to solar and wind."

A 2016 study found that solar power plants cause 37,800 to 138,600 annual avian deaths in the U.S., compared with 14.5 million attributed to fossil fuel power plants. Another study attributed 365 million to 988 million avian deaths to collisions with buildings and windows.

The big problem (there are many small problems in the fact check) starts between the two paragraphs above. The Jenkins quotation sets up the reader to expect that avian deaths caused by fossil fuel plants will represent deaths from "collisions, electrocution and poisoning."

But the second paragraph betrays that expectation. The 14.5 million estimate in the second paragraph comes almost entirely from the predicted effects of climate change.

We must be kidding, right?

We're not kidding.

PolitiFact's link leads to A preliminary assessment of avian mortality at utility-scale solar energy facilities in the United States, hosted at Science Direct. That paper estimates bird deaths at facilities like the Ivanpah solar facility Gohmert mentioned, including those under construction. The paper says it includes collisions with facility structures along with birds killed while trying to fly through the concentrated sunlight (formatting tweaked to help simulate the appearance of the original):

There are currently 2 known types of direct solar energy-related bird mortality [9], [12], [13]:

  1. Collision-related mortality – mortality resulting from the direct contact of the bird with a solar project structure(s). This type of mortality has been documented at solar projects of all technology types.
  2. Solar flux-related mortality – mortality resulting from the burning/singeing effects of exposure to concentrated sunlight. Mortality may result in several ways: (a) direct mortality; (b) singeing of flight feathers that cause loss of flight ability, leading to impact with other objects; or (c) impairment of flight capability to reduce the ability to forage or avoid predators, resulting in starvation or predation of the individual [12]. Solar flux-related mortality has been observed only at facilities employing power tower technologies.

As for the estimate for fossil fuel energy generation, the authors derived that based on research from an earlier paper:

We ... used the mortalities calculated by Sovacool [25] as an estimate of avian mortalities associated with fossil fuel power plants across the United States.

The Sovacool paper did not limit itself to the avian death categories PolitiFact mentioned. PolitiFact readers would naturally conclude that in a typical year such as 2019 (after the study was published), fossil fuel power generation resulted in approximately 14 million dead birds from collisions, electrocutions and poisoning.

That's false.

In fact, the study got nearly that entire number by estimating future effects on bird populations in the United States from climate change.

So this PolitiFact fact check will be in the running for worst fact check of the year.


Adding the avian deaths from coal mining, plant operation, acid rain, mercury, and climate change together results in a total of 5.18 fatalities per GWh (see Table 3).
Table 3:


Table 3 makes abundantly clear that Sovacool draws the great bulk of estimated avian deaths from fossil fuel electricity generation on the future effects of climate change.

Footnote No. 6 on the previous page makes that conclusion inescapable (bold emphasis added):

While there are more than 9800 species and an estimated global population of 100 billion to one trillion individual wild birds in the world, only 5.6 billion birds live in United States during the summer (Hughes et al., 1997; Elliott, 2003; Hassan et al., 2005). Taking the mean in climate change induced avian deaths expected by Thomas et al. (26%), one gets 1.5 billion birds spread across 41 years for the United States, or an average of 36.6 million dead birds per year. Attributing 39% of these deaths to power plants (responsible for 39% of the country’s carbon dioxide emissions), one gets 14.3 million birds for 2.87 million GWh per year, or 4.98 deaths per GWh.

Note that the number in Sovacool's footnote closely matches the estimate from paper PolitiFact cited (14.5 million annually).

So PolitiFact is peddling an apples-to-oranges comparison between two types of bird deaths at solar energy power plants and future predicted climate change effects from fossil fuel energy plants. And doesn't tell you that's what it's doing.

It's hypocrisy of the highest order.

There are more layers to this BS narrative on bird deaths from fossil fuels, but suffice it to say that PolitiFact's claim that fossil fuel generation causes far more bird deaths than solar is far more misleading than Gohmert's claim about Ivanpah.

Saturday, August 14, 2021

PolitiFact's shell game with claim selection

There they go again.

We've pointed out the bias inherent in PolitiFact's choices about what parts of a claim to rate. And they're at it again at PolitiFact, this time at PolitiFact Wisconsin:

PolitiFact Wisconsin based its "Pants on Fire" judgment solely on the source of the money.

  • Cost: about $50k (true)
  • Source of funds: tax dollars (false)
  • Rock considered a symbol of racism by some (true)

So guess where PolitiFact puts its story focus? Take it away, PF:

For this fact-check, we’ll be focusing on her claim that Wisconsin taxpayers were on the hook for the rock removal.
So PolitiFact didn't consider the amount spent on the rock removal or the reason it was moved.

Totally legit? No. It's one of the easy avenues for bias to enter fact-checking, which some people hilariously believe is strictly the telling of facts.

We've brought up in the past the "Mostly True" rating Barack Obama received during the Democratic presidential primaries when he claimed his uncle had helped liberate Auschwitz.

Here's that set of claims, for comparison:

  • Uncle among Allied troops liberating concentration camp (true/truish)
  • Auschwitz: (false--Soviet troops liberated Auschwitz)

In Obama's case, PolitiFact downplayed a claim it could have chosen to make the focus of its fact check. Instead, it prioritized everything else in the claim to justify the "Mostly True" rating.

To avoid that manifestation of bias, a fact checker needs to employ the same standards consistently. Picking and choosing story focus counts as yet another subjective aspect of fact check ratings.

It's a scam. And it's a lie to call it unbiased.

Yet that's what PolitiFact does.

Obama could have received a "Pants on Fire" rating with a story focus on whether his uncle liberated Auschwitz.

Campos-Duffy could have received a "Mostly True" with a story focus taking her whole claim into account and giving her credit for the true elements.

And we want these people partnering with Facebook to help decide what get throttled down?

Updated seconds after publication to tag the PolitiFact writer Laura Schulte.

Sunday, August 8, 2021

PolitiFact attack on DeSantis attacks a straw man

PolitiFact's supposed fact check of Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) of Florida did not fact check what DeSantis said. Instead it attacked a straw man version of DeSantis' words.

The tag we use on these kinds of stories here at PolitiFact Bias is "altered claims." It's a relatively common occurrence. We just don't have time to document them all.

The problem sticking out like a sore thumb yet invisible to PolitiFact? DeSantis didn't say anything about what's driving the coronavirus surge. Look for yourself. Here's PolitiFact's account of what DeSantis said, with our highlights of DeSantis' actual words:

DeSantis unloaded on Biden during an Aug. 4 news conference in Panama City, Fla. 

"He’s imported more virus from around the world by having a wide open southern border. You have hundreds of thousands of people pouring across every month," DeSantis said. "You have over 100 different countries where people are pouring through. Not only are they letting them through — they're then farming them out all across our communities across this country. Putting them on planes, putting them on buses."

DeSantis doubled down in a fundraising letter later that day: "Joe Biden has the nerve to tell me to get out of the way on COVID while he lets COVID-infected migrants pour over our southern border by the hundreds of thousands. No elected official is doing more to enable the transmission of COVID in America than Joe Biden with his open borders policies."

See? There's not a word from DeSantis about what's driving the current coronavirus surge.

Perhaps the fact checkers somehow derived the core of their fact check based on the news report they cited in the story (WPTV):

DeSantis accused Biden of accelerating the pandemic through lax security at the U.S.-Mexico border.

But again, DeSantis didn't say anything about accelerating the pandemic. He said Biden's border policy was "helping to facilitate" the spread of covid-19:

(")And so he's not shutting down the virus, he's helping to facilitate it in our country."

"Facilitate" is not the same word as "accelerate." They don't mean the same thing.

"Accelerate" is not the same word as "drive." They don't mean the same thing.

In like manner, "facilitate" doesn't mean the same thing as "drive." 

It's irresponsible and wrong for journalists to play the telephone game with key terms.

The fact check's conclusion derives almost entirely from PolitiFact's straw man focus:

DeSantis said Biden has driven the current coronavirus surge because he "imported more virus from around the world by having a wide open southern border." 

The available evidence shows that coronavirus hot spots tend to be clustered either far from the border or on the water, whereas the entire land border with Mexico has fairly low rates. The hotspot locations tend to correlate with low rates of vaccination among the public. 

In addition, the U.S. does not have a "wide open" border. Most people who are encountered are turned away under a Trump-era policy that Biden continued. 

We rate the statement False.

DeSantis did not say Biden has driven the current coronavirus surge. DeSantis said Biden had done more than any other elected official to facilitate the spread of covid. PolitiFact's experts affirmed that border crossings under Biden represent a valid concern. PolitiFact never bothered comparing Biden's border policy to that of any other elected official (Gov. Cuomo, maybe?).

PolitiFact put two other (post-publication note: we deal with one of them!) elements in its fact check that we find worthy of note.

'Hotspot Locations Tend to Correlate With Low Rates of Vaccination'

That sentence was a fact check of Biden, albeit carried out with a carelessness that totally undermines its validity.

Let's take a look at the map of "hotspots" PolitiFact provided.


Now take a look at the Johns Hopkins map (as of Aug. 8, 2021--archived version doesn't show the map) showing vaccine percentages by state (fully vaccinated, top; at least one dose, bottom):


The claim from President Biden and repeated by PolitiFact, deserved far more scrutiny than it got (look at Nebraska and Nevada, just for starters).

PolitiFact supposedly relied on The New York Times to support the notion that low vaccination rates explain the surge's current pattern:

There’s also a more plausible explanation for the coronavirus surge’s current pattern: Case rates are higher in places with lower rates of vaccination. 

An analysis by the New York Times found that at the end of July, counties with vaccination rates below 30% had coronavirus case rates well over double the case rates in counties with at least 60% vaccination. And five of the six least-vaccinated states — Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Louisiana, and Mississippi — are all squarely within the geographical quadrant of the country that has the highest case rates.

PolitiFact's claim relies on specious reasoning, given that the Times conducted nothing like a controlled experiment. The Times showed some charts of test results in high-vaccinated counties compared to low-vaccinated counties. But a vaccinated person is more likely to dismiss mild illness as something other than covid and skip testing. Unvaccinated people would be more likely to get tested and artificially bump the percentage for positive tests in counties with low vaccination percentages.

We'd say that a fact checker who fails to realize this perhaps belongs in another line of work.

Instead of building a straw man out of DeSantis' claim, PolitiFact would have served the public better by doing a serious examination of Biden's implied claim that vaccination effectively provides a significant degree of immunity against covid--to the point where vaccinated persons do not need to worry much about passing the virus on to others (vaccinated and unvaccinated alike).

How does Iceland fit with PolitiFact's rubberstamping of Biden's claim, for example?

From the Brussels Times (bold emphasis added):

About one month ago, the country became the first in Europe to lift all its domestic restrictions, however, on 12 July, it faced a sharp spike in COVID-19 cases for the first time since October, registering 355 new infections, despite over 70% of the total population being vaccinated.

Three-quarters of these were among vaccinated people, and most were linked to the Delta variant of the virus, according to the health authorities. The last such spike in the country had been in late October.

How will mainstream media fact checkers wean themselves from preferring narratives instead of checking facts?

Thursday, August 5, 2021

PolitiFact has it both ways on 'vaccination'

 PolitiFact's July 30, 2021 fact check confirming as "Mostly True" that Gen. George Washington "mandated smallpox vaccines for the Continental Army" surprised us.

It surprised us because is was barely six months (Dec. 15, 2020) ago that PolitiFact effectively told us that immunity acquired from having COVID-19 did not count as any sort of vaccine.

In December 2020, President Donald J. Trump said (bold emphasis added):

I think that the vaccine was our goal. That was number one because that was the way — that was the way it ends. Plus, you do have an immunity. You develop immunity over a period of time, and I hear we’re close to 15 percent. I’m hearing that, and that is terrific. That’s a very powerful vaccine in itself."

For some reason, PolitiFact concluded Trump was saying 15 percent natural immunity could confer herd immunity. But Trump was obviously saying that immunity acquired via means other than the new vaccines would contribute toward herd immunity. PolitiFact gave the impression that claim was false, basically by suggesting natural immunity doesn't count as a vaccine:

Is 15% natural immunity among the American population anywhere close to a "powerful vaccine," as Trump alleges? 

No, said the experts. And there’s nothing "terrific" about that level of infection within the community.

We doubt the experts were primarily at fault for misinterpreting Trump's statement, by the way. PolitiFact likely insinuated its misleading narrative in the questions it posed to its chosen list of experts.

PolitiFact's July 2021 fact check reversed on viewing naturally acquired immunity as a vaccine.

The smallpox vaccine didn’t exist when Washington was commander in chief of the Continental Army, but the point remains: he ordered the inoculation of troops against smallpox by the means that was then available, variolation.

So, even though vaccines were not invented until after the Revolutionary War, PolitiFact found it "Mostly True" that Washington mandated vaccinations for the Continental Army.

Variolation, by the way, simply meant intentionally infecting people with smallpox. It was the same virus, but tended to cause less severe illness

It's just another reminder that PolitiFact "fact checks" largely count as subjective exercises.

Note: We also wrote about the fact check of Trump back in January 2021.

Note 2: We doubt scientists have a solid idea why variolation was effective.