The importance of fact-checking

We’ve all seen them, even if we don’t recognize them at first. A graphic espousing some ideology that we share on social media sites without fact-checking. It doesn’t matter what viewpoint they take, they’re almost always factually incorrect and this is a problem. We jokingly quote Abraham Lincoln as having said you can’t trust everything you read on the internet, but it seems like nobody has taken that to heart and the lack of fact-checking before sharing or re-posting these images damages credibility. If you don’t fact-check this item (typically because it suits one’s ideology) it becomes perfectly reasonable to suspect you’re wrong on other topics, as well.

Nowhere is this more damning or damaging to one’s credibility then a claim that is plainly falsifiable.

The problem is this info is almost 100% wrong.

The problem is this info is almost 100% wrong.

I’ve seen this graphic several times already, but the most recent encounter was from someone whose judgment I question, so I was prompted to fact-check it. This isn’t a political statement, this is purely because the numbers and claims are easily falsifiable. Some who like the message’s premise may protest “Statistics can be made to say anything you want”, but I argue that data cannot. This isn’t about shifting the representation of data, this is about pure numbers and the veracity of the claims. Here we go.

  • $450k is the salary of a SITTING president only. Their pension is less than $200k. There are only four surviving retired presidents. <$800,000 
  • House and Senate members’ retirements fall under either CSRS or FERS, just like any other federal employee. In 2006, 413 retired members drew pensions. 290 earned ~$61k under CSRS, 123 averaged $36k under FERS. This totals $22,118,000 annually.
  • In 2010, a Congressional Budget Office estimated the average active duty military member receives $99,000 a year in benefits. (Includes medical, etc.)
  • In 2009, there were almost 1.4 million active duty military members. This doesn’t include National Guard, Reserve, or retirees (but does include Coast Guard). My calculator doesn’t have that many digits, but it’s about 1.385 BILLION dollars in active duty salary alone. $1,385,000,000.
  • In 2012, 1,944,049 military retirees drew over 52 BILLION dollars in retirement benefits. $52,000,000,000.
  • The average annual Social Security payment to seniors is actually $15,600. 38 million people will receive a monthly average of $1,294, for a total of 49 billion dollars A MONTH. In 2014, over 59 million Americans received almost $864,000,000,000.

As an aside, being military pays better than the private sector. I’ve worked both and can verify this personally, but there’s data to back it up.

I understand the sentiment behind the post, I really do. But in reality, the numbers just don’t mean much. For one, they’re just plain wrong and outright lies. But secondly, the politician’s pensions (not salaries) are inconsequential next to the claims being made. If anything, this graphic is playing the “statistics game” by skewing the representation down to the micro level and then suggesting they would be a source of reasonable cuts at the macro level.

  • Total US military spending on salaries and benefits is 150 billion dollars. $150,000,000,000.
  • Total Social Security benefits received are 864 billion dollars. $864,000,000,000.
  • Combined, somewhere around 61 million Americans will receive this total of 1.014 trillion dollars of government spending. $1,014,000,000,000.

The combined totals of presidents’ and House/Senate members’ retirements is still less than 23 million per year. That is less than 0.0023% of what we spend on Social Security and our troops (past and present). Even if we did away with the politician’s retirements entirely and distributed as the graphic suggests, giving $23 million dollars to 61 million people only benefits them an additional 38 cents per year.

The graphic is factually incorrect, and if you actually run the numbers it’s just plain stupid.

Again, this isn’t a political statement. This is a plea for people to fact-check before sharing things on social media. I chose this example because it was in front of me, numbers are easy to run, and the actual data is publicly available, but a healthy dose of skepticism should be applied to any claim making the rounds on social media before sharing and being identified with it. Because another quote ascribed to Abe Lincoln (likely also not his) is, “Better to remain silent and thought a fool than to speak and remove all doubt.”

Sharing things that are untrue or just plain foolish makes one look like a fool by association. My name and reputation for honesty and accuracy matter to me as a personal brand. I want people to know that if I say something they can take it to the bank in every circumstance. It’s better to say “I don’t know” than give an answer based on wish-thinking, and better to speak a truth that hurts oneself than a comforting inclination. Because an untrue statement is like a crumbling brick in the structure of one’s credibility- a weak brick, depending on size and location, can bring a building tumbling down despite lots of other good, solid bricks. A building with a bad foundation is untrustworthy. So is a person that allows ideology and emotion to trump facts. I disconnect from repeat offenders, because if I can’t count on them to be honest, why associate them at all?

Don’t be a fool. Don’t be dismissible. Don’t share without fact-checking.

2 thoughts on “The importance of fact-checking

  1. Someone needs to tell this to other sites like Jalopnik and IO-9. I’ve never seen so many corrections/retractions on what is supposed to be a news/information site.

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