What do Stephen Colbert, a whale named Mr. Splashy Pants, and PunditFact have in common? As of this week, the answer is reddit, a news sharing website where the number of users is bigger than the population of Germany. With Colbert, reddit users spontaneously raised over $100,000 for Colbert’s favorite education charity. They also flooded the environmental group Greenpeace with their pick in a poll to name a humpback whale (Hello Mr. Splashy Pants). And now they have a platform to bring attention to claims by pundits.
PunditFact has launched a special section on the reddit site where anyone can post interesting claims that they think bear a closer look. The nation is awash in pundits but PunditFact has a core staff of three. Having 100 or 200 more people minding the store would broaden the reach of this form of accountability journalism.
"It’s an experiment," said PunditFact editor Aaron Sharockman."Reddit was built around the idea of sharing news and data. What we hope to do is focus some of that energy on pundits."
The PunditFact staff will participate in one of reddit’s "Ask Me Anything" sessions starting at 11 a.m. Feb. 27, 2014.
Reddit users, or redditors, can vote suggested claims up or down. The claims that get voted up the most might just get fact-checked by the PunditFact staff.
At first blush, reddit would seem to be an ideal place to invite the public into the task of fact-checking. It’s far from the most popular social networking site (Facebook and Twitter tower above it in terms of raw numbers). But reddit has the highest percentage of visitors, about 65 percent, who use the site to get news.
The site gives PunditFact the ability set a code of conduct and expectations. Good material gets displayed. Really off-base material gets zapped. Along the way, PunditFact staff and experienced reddit moderators can help new users wrap their heads around the best ways to add to the fact-checking process
"What a project like PunditFact can do is provide structure and promote evidence-based discussion," said a reddit moderator who goes by the handle Kazmarov. "It provides a common purpose that users can buy into and work towards."
That’s the vision, but will it work? The general manager of reddit, Erik Martin, gives it long odds.
"NPR, PBS, and countless other beloved and well known organizations have failed to get theirs off the ground," Martin said. "We're excited by what you all are trying to do, but just want to warn you it is VERY difficult."
We at PunditFact have some notions on how to avoid having this venture end up as another abandoned wreck on the side of the reddit highway.
"We are not starting from zero," Sharockman said. "Redditors post links to our stories today. Outside of reddit, our readers send us suggestions all the time. If we repeatedly use reddit, Facebook, Twitter and our own site to reach these people, some of them will show up on our reddit page."
It is a strategy geared toward finding a relatively small number of users to take on some very specific tasks. Much as the Audubon Society relies on amatuer birdwatchers to conduct annual bird counts, the PunditFact reddit page would cultivate a group of observers who know what to look for and are able to point toward data and reports that shed light on a claim.
In the long run, the reddit page might create a parallel path for users to resolve fact-checks among themselves. How that would happen and what it would look like are unclear but it could be possible with the underlying tools on the site.
Clay Shirky, a New York University professor and prominent observer of the Internet and society, said the process can work.
"Meaning arises because humans make meaning," Shirky said. "It's what we do."
Shirky’s book Cognitive Surplus examines how the tools of the Web can tap into and aggregate small bits of time and effort contributed by many individuals. The approach can lead to something as playful as a whale named Mr. Splashy Pants, or as useful as citizens armed with better facts.
Want to participate? Here’s what to do:
1. Learn more and get comfortable with reddit. This page of "redditquette" is a good place to start.
2. Register on reddit. It’s free and people go by their usernames alone. How private you want to remain is up to you.
3. Go to the PunditFact subreddit.
4. Listen, read and watch pundits in action. If you hear a factual claim that strikes your fancy, post it! (Give as many details as you can to help us verify what was said.)
4. WWCT stands for what we’re checking today those posts tell you what’s on our plate. If you know of some data or a report that would shed light on the subject, please post it as a comment.
5. Use Facebook, Twitter, Google+ and email to invite your friends to pitch in.
Time, The six most important moments in Reddit’s history, Oct. 1, 2013
ICUC, A brief history of Reddit, Sept. 12, 2013
The Next Web, A rundown of Reddit, Oct. 14, 2011
New York Times, The founder of Reddit and the internet’s own cheerleader, Nov. 22, 2013
Business Insider, Here’s how Reddit survived and thrived, Sept. 3, 2012
Email interview, Erik Martin, general manager, Reddit, Feb. 19, 2014
Nations online, Population figures by country
Reddit, Reddit myth busters, Aug. 6, 2013
Email interview, Clay Shirky, professor and writer in residence, New York University, Feb. 19, 2014