Flackcheck.org uses humor to test the truth of political ads

Armed with weaponry of the modern day media machinery, how would today’s political spinmeisters attack the presidential candidacy of Abraham Lincoln?


There’s no need to search the darkest recesses of the minds of Karl Rove or David Axelrod to find out. The clever folks at FlackCheck.org can do the dirty work just fine.

“Before he was president, Lincoln lost his congressional seat, his bid for Senate, and more than half the cases he argued in court,” states an ominous voiceover in “The Union Needs a Winner!,” one of the mock ads in the new website’s series, “Could Lincoln Be Elected Today?”

“And now loser Lincoln says he’s the man to win the Civil War?” the ad asks, with tongue firmly in cheek.

Penn’s Annenburg Public Policy Center rolled out FlackCheck in January. Director Kathleen Hall Jamieson calls it “a second cousin, once removed,” to the wildly successful (and quite serious) FactCheck.org, which monitors the factual accuracy of political rhetoric.

FlackCheck features satirical political videos designed to reach a younger audience.

“Humor is a powerful reframing device,” Jamieson says. “The question is, can we take an audience that won’t read traditional journalism but does spend a lot of time on the Web and consumes news in the process and drive it from humorous video to want to read more? That’s why our pieces are linked to FactCheck articles.”

Since its launch in 2003, FactCheck, a nonpartisan, nonprofit “consumer advocate” for voters, has been tremendously influential. In January of this year alone, the site received more than 2 million page views.

Yet along the way, new research has emerged showing that when people read a correction of an inaccurate statement, they process the inaccuracy before the correction.

“The danger is that when you say it’s false and people hear the underlying statement, it’s actually reinforced,” Jamieson says. “There might be a way to use the capacities of the Web to get rid of that problem by metacommunicating as we reframe it from the very beginning so that we’re not laying down the original statement without laying down the corrective context all the way through. You can’t really do that when you’re writing a sentence. But you can do it when you’ve got a visual medium.”

That is why FlackCheck was created. Jamieson assembled a team of scholars, researchers, improv artists, and comedians, and tasked them to make short videos that not only dispel inaccuracies in political ads and debates, but also entertain in the process.

“Good satire has just enough truth to it to be recognizable, but [also] enough absurdity to make you laugh. That’s a tricky thing to balance,” says Paul Falzone, a freelance producer who made the Lincoln series. Falzone earned his Ph.D. from Penn in 2008, and is the founder and director of Peripheral Vision International, a nonprofit that creates and distributes advocacy media in Uganda.

When Jamieson sees an ad or debate statement that’s particularly misleading, she sends an email to her team, including talent coordinator Dannagal Goldthwaite Young. Now an assistant professor of communication at the University of Delaware, Young earned her Ph.D. from Penn in 2007 in the psychology of satire.

“Some people think that satire is cynical or mean-spirited, but I would argue that when you look at the great satirists, or when you look at it done right, it’s actually optimistic,” says Young. “It says whatever they’re criticizing at that moment, that’s not working, but we deserve something better, and that better thing is attainable, and we need to work to get there.

“It’s a lot harder than I would have thought, because there is this obligation to not just goof off with our fingers up our nose, but to actually make sure that people come away with an accurate understanding of the debate and to fix the misperceptions,” says Young, who’s performed with the improv comedy troupe ComedySportZ Philadelphia since 1999.

But FlackCheck isn’t all fun and games. The site’s Debate Watch department produces traditional fact-checking videos, and in Media Watch, third-party television ads are scrutinized. But they exist right alongside features titled “Stinkweeds and Orchids,” and “They said WHAT?!”

“When we launched FactCheck.org, we were the first journalistic site to focus on checking advertising and debates,” Jamieson says. “So Penn contributed something to the evolving internet world. We are now trying to make the same move again. We are trying to say that the visual capacity of the Web can be exploited to create a more informed electorate. We as scholars can determine how to do that best by creating something based on the theory, and then testing it. We can improve our ability to use the Web to create civic literacy, and that’s really what we’re all about.”

Originally published on February 16, 2012