Postmodernist “thinking” and metaphysical obstinacy aside, there are such things as facts. A hydrogen atom has one proton. Gravity varies in an inverse-square fashion. The sky is blue and water is wet (and if you want to argue about those two points, just… stop). Some facts are simple, others are more complex.

Standing in contrast to facts are conclusions, i.e. the product of a logical assemblage of hypotheses, facts, empirical data, and other forms of evidence. Many conclusions rise to the level of fact (that which is, in practical terms, irrefutable), and indeed there is a substantial Venn overlap of facts and conclusions, but not all conclusions are facts. As examples of contemporary debate, “COVID-19 vaccines exist is a fact” while “COVID-19 vaccines are safe” is a conclusion (and, again, if you want to be argumentative, stop it – we both know what I mean here).

The difference between facts and conclusions can be subtle, or it can be stark. While “subtle” has been demonstrably futile in Internet discourse ever since Internet discourse came to exist, nowadays that even the “stark” examples of this difference are being misconstrued with ever-increasing frequency.

All this was born of the “fact-check” phenomenon that emerged to counter the Internet’s massive amplification of an apocryphal Mark Twain aphorism:

A lie can travel around the world and back again while the truth is lacing up its boots.

Fact-checking became its own thing, with dozens of websites popping up to offer the service to those interested in verifying others’ assertions. It didn’t take long, though, for these fact-checkers to cloud the difference between facts and conclusions.

It also didn’t take long for them to evolve as Eric Hoffer told us they would:

Every great cause begins as a movement, becomes a business and eventually degenerates into a racket.

These sites aren’t run by tonsured and cassocked monks, dedicated to truth-above-all and suffused with integrity. They’re run by people like you and me, subject to both personal biases and market forces. Integrity is itself a product, to be marketed as others are, with “caveat emptor” and disparity between presentation and reality. In a free market, such sites will sort themselves out. Reputation is everything if you’re competing for the public trust. Of course, we are all prone to conclusion shopping, and so we are more apt to have affinity for sites that help validate our conclusions.

You’ll notice I just swapped out “fact” for “conclusion,” and indeed this is the reality of fact-checkers: most of what they do is more about providing support for conclusions than in affirming that water is wet. But, again, in a free market this can sort itself out. While a conclusion shopper will gravitate to a site that gives him what he wants, he’ll often do so to try and win arguments with those who haven’t come to the same conclusions as he has. Citing a blatantly biased source as support won’t win those arguments, so if a fact-checker wants to be taken seriously by more than just the like-minded, he’s got reason to minimize biases and present tendentious arguments.

There’s no perfection, of course – there never is, and those who pay enough attention get to know the biases of the major fact-checking sites. I generally trust that Snopes will do a good job delving into non-political assertions, but I have much less trust for the site when it comes to partisan political issues. Since it’s not being foie-gras-goose-fed to me, I don’t care that Snopes has opted (in my opinion) to allow political bias to corrupt its purported mission.

The trouble today lies in the vertical integration of this fact-checking behavior. Social media platforms – the “public squares” of today – have set up their own “fact-checking” apparatuses, and are fitting us with Clockwork-Orange-esque eyelid clamps to ensure that we see their “fact-checks” whenever certain assertions are made by others in those town squares. Rather than letting people argue things out, they are not only stepping into the middle of arguments, in many cases they are actually muzzling some of the arguers.

Now, if these interventions were limited to “water is wet” arguments, it’d be annoying but not troubling. While we don’t need some third party to slap down a refuter of “water is wet,” being muzzled over presenting a “wrong” conclusion is where things get hairy. Not only do we lose liberty, but we are now being made dependent on the marketplace’s owner’s ability to correctly “fact-check.” In essence, we are witnessing an emergence of a conclusion monopoly.

I refer you back to Hoffer here. “Facts,” aka conclusions, have already become a business. That they’re being taken over by the social media platforms is them devolving into a racket. When the mobster visits you and suggests you offer up some protection money, do you really have a choice?

Two recent examples tell the tale. The Wuhan lab origin hypothesis of the COVID-19 virus was, for months, not only dismissed as baseless conspiracy theory, its mere mention was both muted and refuted by social media sites (almost certainly because Trump hawked the hypothesis). Today, we know that even then there was sufficient “smoke” to make it a plausible hypothesis worth debating and investigating. A year ago, we were told that an anti-Trump crowd was tear-gassed and dispersed by the US Park Police for a Trump photo-op. This was “fact,” and questions or assertions to the contrary were treated as lies. Now, a report from the Office of the Inspector General debunked this “fact,” putting the matter into the realm of arguable conclusions.

Quashing one side of the debate in both these matters is, let’s be perfectly frank, not remotely “fact-checking,” it’s attempted conclusion-coercing born of political bias. Good reporters would have dug into these matters from the get-go, rather than being happy to prop up the conclusions that helped their side and hurt the hated Trump.

I don’t expect either of these “egg-on-face” instances to humble the social media platforms. They’re enjoying their self-appointed role as conclusion institutions, and will continue to tell us whether the sky is blue or not. Whether they don’t realize the harm they’re doing to themselves and to the fabric of our society, or simply don’t care, doesn’t matter. The damage is the same either way.

Peter Venetoklis

About Peter Venetoklis

I am twice-retired, a former rocket engineer and a former small business owner. At the very least, it makes for interesting party conversation. I'm also a life-long libertarian, I engage in an expanse of entertainments, and I squabble for sport.

Nowadays, I spend a good bit of my time arguing politics and editing this website.

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