Truth-O-Meter: Is Trump Sabotaging the Affordable Care Act?

Not a day go by when healthcare is not in the news as the next attempt to repeal or replace or repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act takes up the news cycle. But what is the state of the ACA right now? It is allegedly under attack.  An article claims that the Trump Administration is trying to sabotage the ACA.

For a little background, the ACA is a “The comprehensive health care reform law enacted in March 2010” during President Obama’s administration, often referred to as Obamacare, according to healthcare.gov. It is common knowledge that President Trump is no fan of the ACA. Just to double check his stance, I found an article from ABC news that chronicles his changing positions, using his own tweets for reference. His latest position is that the ACA will fail on its own and should be replaced afterwards. The idea that his administration would aid the failure of the ACA might be easy to believe, but let’s do some digging before we buy into this claim.

So who is making this claim? The article is from MSNBC’s website, but that doesn’t tell us much. Borrowing a technique from Michael Caufield’s Web Literacy for Student Fact-Checkers called reading laterally. Essentially, I am reading what other reputable sources are saying about the source I am checking. One such reputable source would be Politifact, a reliable fact-checking website. According to Politifact, 35% of claims made by NBC (MSNBC’s parent network) are only half true. Given that their record isn’t impeccable, a deeper fact-check is warranted.

The article in question relies heavily on information from Roy Mitchell, who is the executive director of the Mississippi Health Advocacy Program (MHAP). Mitchell claims that officials from the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), who had previously helped with ACA advertising events, cancelled last minute and said “HHS wouldn’t be doing any Obamacare marketplace events in the South this year.” To fact check MSNBC, I used another Caufield strategy called going upstream, which is when you follow a trail of sources to find out where information originally came from. MSNBC provided a link to a Vox article they were re-reporting information from. I took a look at article from Vox and found that they had interviewed Mitchell directly. Next, I looked into Mitchell himself to see if he is a credible source when it comes healthcare. According to MSLobbyist, MHAP is a lobbyist organization that promotes health care reform and David Mitchell is their executive director. While a health care lobbyist would have a reason to be working with the HHS and to know a lot about healthcare, it is important to keep in mind that Mitchell may have bias. It is very likely that HHS did cancel on him, but I’m not convinced he is the person to trust when he says “it’s sabotage.”

For that quote, the stream ended at Mitchell, so I circled back to the original article to see if there was another stream to follow. Another person quoted in the original MSNBC article was Caitlin Oakley, a spokesperson for HHS. MSNBC quotes her as she said “HHS is carefully evaluating how we can best serve the American people who continue to be harmed by Obamacare’s failures.” It seems a little presumptuous, and biased, for a federal government official to declare a law a “failure” instead of enforcing the law to the best of their abilities, but let’s go upstream before we accuse Oakley of anything. MSNBC cited the quote as coming from CNBC. When I investigated the CNBC article I found that Oakley is the HHS press secretary and provided CNBC the following email as a response when asked about HHS pulling out of marketplace events:

“Marketplace enrollment events are organized and implemented by outside groups with their own agendas, not HHS. These events may continue regardless of HHS participation.

“Obamacare has never lived up to enrollment expectations despite the previous administration’s best efforts. The American people know a bad deal when they see one and many won’t be convinced to sign up for ‘Washington-knows-best’ health coverage that they can’t afford. For the upcoming enrollment period, Americans are being hit with another round of double-digit premium hikes and nearly half of our nation’s counties are facing Obamacare monopolies. As Obamacare continues to collapse, HHS is carefully evaluating how we can best serve the American people who continue to be harmed by Obamacare’s failures.”

Oakley does use a lot of politically charged language and seems to be denouncing the ACA. I did find it odd that the HHS press secretary would refer to the ACA as Obamacare, instead of the law’s actual name. Just to double check that others are reporting the same quote, I found a CNN article that reports part of the email as well.

Of course Mitchell and Oakley are people with biases and opinions that may influence their words, so I was curious if there was solid policy that could be confirmed. Circling back to the Vox article, I found a claim that “The Trump administration has already cut this year’s open enrollment period in half. It slashed spending on advertising by 90 percent.” These are some hard numbers that I can confirm or disprove. Vox only provided hyperlinks to articles from their own website for sources, so I took to Google to see if someone else had done the leg work for me. And trusty Snopes came to the rescue.

Snopes, a reliable fact checking website, provided an indepth page confirming that the Trump Administration has cut the advertising by 90%, shortened the enrollment period, and decreased spending on in person enrollment assistance. They provided links to official announcements from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS).

The announcement also provides a different side to the story. ACA advocates like Mitchell have been claiming that these reductions are evidence of “sabotage.” The announcement from the CMS provides evidence for Oakley’s claim that Obamacare is not as successful as people think it is.  The CMS stated:

“During the most recent open enrollment period, CMS spent more than $100 million on promotional activities – nearly double what was spent in 2015 – but saw first-time enrollment decline by 42 percent and effectuated enrollment decline by approximately 500,000 individuals.”

So according to those from the Trump Administration, the scaling back of advertisement and resources is simply because the extra money wasn’t producing the increase of enrollment they were hoping for. Their story is that this new budget fits the needs of current demand they have.

The claim that the Trump administration is scaling back the ACA efforts is true. Whether that is because the administration is actively sabotaging the ACA is conjecture. There is a lot of circumstantial evidence that could suggest sabotage.  They have stopped supporting marketplace events, cut advertising budget, shortened the enrollment, use inflammatory language when talking about the ACA, and Trump himself says that he thinks Obamacare will fail. None of these actions will help the ACA grow in size. But the administration is sticking to their story that it is because enrollment numbers did not justify a budget more than $100 million dollars. Whether the ACA is failing is a fact check for another day. Healthcare is a complex issue. Numbers and figures and hyperbolic language get flung everywhere, so it is important to look at the evidence to judge for yourself, and not on how news outlets and pundits are interpreting that evidence.

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Fact Check #6: What should I fact check next?

Some fact checks are just too big to do in a short, informative blog post. Some need a bigger, longer blog post. I have done some preliminary research to find three possible claims that warrant a longer fact check.

The first comes The Nation, which claims a recent study found that women are more likely to be killed by a man with a gun than use a gun successfully for self defense. The article uses this study to declare that the NRA’s argument that guns are essential for self defense is “debunked.” I thought that this claim would provide multiple areas of fact checking. The fact that The Nation cited a specific study gives me the opportunity to go upstream to find the actual source and see if they took anything out of context. I can also do further research to see if that study agrees with the consensus of the larger scientific community. Furthermore, The Nation is a left bias source, according to mediabiasfactcheck.com. I would also have to investigate The Nation to see how reliable they are. Gun violence is a complex issue and there are many views on the subject to research.

The second claims comes from MSNBC. An article claims the trump administration has be sabotaging Obama Care by not marketing or spreading information about it. According to Politifact, MSNBC has a mixed record when it comes to telling the truth and they are known to have a leftist bias. I would have to read laterally more to determine their credibility. The article itself provides many different points to follow upstream, such as re-reports from Vox and Buzzfeed, and a quote from an HHS spokesperson. MSNBC claims that the sabotage is an ongoing thing, which gives me the opportunity to see if anyone else has reported similar claims. Healthcare is a partisan issue that would provide an opportunity to see if MSNBC is exaggerating claims to push their agenda.

Lastly, the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR) claims that illegal aliens are stealing jobs from legal citizens. They even provide a table with the total of jobs stolen by each state. Immigration is a complex issue that is influenced by many political and economic factors that I could research. The article does provide actual numbers I could check as well to see where they came from and if they were taken out of context. I would also read laterally about FAIR itself. Just a brief Google search reveals that FAIR is considered an extreme right website and a questionable source by mediabiasfactcheck.com. Any claim by them is asking for a more thorough fact check.

Fact Check #5: Is There Plastic In Your Salt?

“A recent study says….” is the mad lib of online articles and local news reports. “A recent study says…” chocolate gives you cancer. “A recent study says….” millennials are killing the bowling shoes industry. “A recent study says….” house cats are more dangerous than you think. We’ve all read articles similar to these examples, and maybe we even shared them or mentioned them to friends. But what are these studies? Who are the scientist behind them? Are you getting the full picture? These are the types of questions I am hoping to answer by taking one such article and following one of these “Recent study” claims to the source. I’ll be drawing on techniques from Michael Arthur Caulfield’s Web Literacy for Student Fact-Checkers to go upstream to the original, and supposedly scholarly, source.

By simply googling “recent study” under the news category, I was provided with a plethora of articles. One that caught my eye was “Your Table Salt Is Likely Sprinkled With Microplastics, Research Reveals” from Forbes. Microplastics are minuscule pieces of plastic, often less than five millimeters across, that are often in beauty and health products, like toothpaste. Obviously, I don’t know enough about microplastics to evaluate whether the article’s claim that “Americans likely ingest over 660 plastic pieces per year just from the salt they eat” is accurate.

So let’s head upstream. The article from Forbes provide the author’s name (Sherri Mason), what institution ran the study (State University of New York at Fredonia), and a hyperlink to the “study.” However, that hyperlink lead to another online article from The Guardian, instead of an actual study. The Guardian repeated the claim reported by Forbes as well, but provided a little more information:

“Mason collaborated with researchers at the University of Minnesota to examine microplastics in salt, beer and drinking water. Her research looked at 12 different kinds of salt (including 10 sea salts) bought from US grocery stores around the world. The Guardian received an exclusive look at the forthcoming study.”

The Guardian gave us a look into who Mason was working with, the sample size of Mason’s study, and her methodology, which at least gives the appearance that this scientific study is legit. However, The Guardian says this study is “forthcoming.” Given that The Guardian article was published September 8, 2017, I don’t think the study has been officially published and peer reviewed yet. A quick search on Google Scholar for “Sherri Mason” and “microplastics in salt” came up with nothing, which confirmed my suspicion.

While we cannot look at the study to determine whether the claim that we eat 660 plastic pieces per year from our salt intake was taken out of context or exaggerated, we can dig into who is doing the study. If Sherri Mason is credible, than we may be able to trust in this information to an extent. So I went back to Google Scholar and searched for the “Sherri Mason” and “microplastics.” The top three results were studies Mason helped author on the topic of microplastic pollution the environment, like the Great Lakes or city rivers. Furthermore, all three articles have been cited over 100 times.

I decided to check the journal which published her most cited study, “Microplastic pollution in the surface waters of the Laurentian Great Lakes”, which was cited 254 times. I noticed the full text was available and clicked the hyperlink. It took me to a page with a summary of the key citation information of the paper, including the journal Marine Pollution Bulletin. To check whether this journal is generally reliable, I did a google search for its impact factor. The Impact Factor was 3.146 and  as Caulfield explains, any impact factor over 1 is generally okay. Marine Pollution Bulletin is a legitimate scientific journal.

Next I decided to double check whether microplastic pollution is a legitimate concern and the likelihood someone would conduct a whole study on it by finding a quality secondary source. I decided to specifically look for information from the EPA, since they would have expertise in an environmental concern like this one. After googling EPA and microplastic, I found an an informative page on plastics as pollutants and microplastics on the official EPA website. Microplastics are a danger to the environment and there have been research on their effects on the environment.
In the end, I couldn’t find the specific study that Forbes claims proved ““Americans likely ingest over 660 plastic pieces per year just from the salt they eat.” I was however able to confirm the author has expertise on the subject and has authored other peer reviewed papers on microplastics. I was also able to confirm that they have been published by a reputable journal. Lastly, I have found that microplastics are a topic of research by environmental scientists and do pose a danger to the environment. I would say that study referenced by the Forbes article is trustworthy, but I can’t speak to how accurately Forbes represented Mason’s findings. In this case of “recent study” mad libs, it turns out the claim was pretty reasonable after all.

Fact Check #4: The Filter Bubbles You Didn’t Know You Live In

This fourth fact check isn’t so much a fact check, but a exploratory check to see how much filter bubbles really do influence what news we see and what news we don’t see. As Eli Pariser explains in his TED talk “Beware online ‘filter bubbles,’” filter bubbles are a metaphorical bubble of online content that is selected by algorithms based on what you previously viewed, what kind of products you buy, where you are, and a host of other factors to determine what results you see. The consequence of this search tailoring is that users don’t get exposed to new ideas, but only content and news they agree with. To see how defined these filter bubbles are, I will compare and contrast the top news stories from Mainstream (NY Times, ABC News, Wall Street Journal, USA Today, and Politico), Conservative (Townhall, Drudge Report, The Geller Report, Breitbart, and The Blaze), and Liberal news (The Raw Story, Occupy Democrats, Huffington Post, The Intercept, AlterNet) outlets.

“you take all these algorithms, you get what I call a filter bubble. And your filter bubble is your own personal, unique universe of information that you live in online. And what’s in your filter bubble depends on who you are, and it depends on what you do. But the thing is that you don’t decide what gets in. And more importantly, you don’t actually see what gets edited out.” -Eli Parsier

When comparing the top news stories, there was overlap but no one story appeared in all three news circles. Conservative and Mainstream news both covered Trump’s sanctions against North Korea. While Liberal and Mainstream news covered stories about Mueller’s Russia investigation. The only story covered by both Conservative and Liberal news outlets was Jimmy Kimmel’s attack on the new healthcare bill, but the coverage was strikingly different. Liberal online news source, Alternet.org, called the monologue “masterful” and said it “humiliated” Fox&Friends host Brian Kilmeade. On the other side of the aisle, realclearpolitics.com said Kimmel “threatened” Kilmeade. Very different pictures of the same story. If one person was in either the conservative or liberal bubble, they would never know the other side of the story. Not to mention that both the conservative and liberal bubbles forgot to mention Hurricane Maria,  the Mexico City earthquake, or the Equifax hack, which were covered by Mainstream news outlets. It’s more than just seeing what you agree with or not seeing what you don’t agree with, but essential news being left out. None of those three stories are decisive by nature. Hurricanes are neither liberal or conservative, so they get left out of the bubbles. That doesn’t mean being informed about them isn’t important. Online readers could have news gaps a mile wide and not even know it.

There is also a difference between the bubbles on how stories are reported. Mainstream news relied heavily on interviews with other credible news outlets, named sources, reports from official or government organizations, and photos with citations. For example, when covering the Mexico City Earthquake, ABC News cited information regarding trapped school children from Mexico’s Education Minister Aurelio Nuno. Liberal and Conservative news overlapped in reporting methods, which included unnamed sources, re-reporting from biased news outlets, and linking to other reports on their own website. For example, The Huffington Post covered John McCain’s role in the current healthcare debate, but while covering background information about the previous failed repeal of Obamacare, they linked to another story from their own website. Providing an outside source would bolster their credible by demonstrating that other sources agree with them. Using your website is like saying “It’s true just cuz.” Another example of shaky reporting comes from the conservative website, mcclatchydc.com, that published an article speculating on possible indictments papers that were never issued to Hillary Clinton, based on findings from “Judicial Watch, a conservative watchdog group.” A watchdog group is a biased source at best, and an unreliable source at worst.

 

Based on what I previously discussed on assessing credibly through reading laterally, I would not trust news outlets in either the liberal or conservative filter bubbles. Their lack of non decisive news and opinionated tone leads me to believe their purpose and aim more align with furthering specific political agendas, rather than reporting news. Their unverified sources and habit of simply sourcing another article from their own website, points to a lack of a proper fact checking process. I would be most likely to trust mainstream news website because they report from credible sources, but I would still be wary of getting my news just from them. Their purpose and aim appear to be simply informing the reader, so they avoid political stances, but on occasion, a reader should know what the different sides are saying. From this exercises I have learned that if you want a full picture of the news, opinions, facts, and all, I should make an effort to break out of my filter bubbles. Because every bubble is missing something, and I will never know what my news gap is unless I go out and find it.

 

Fact Check #3: Occupy Democrats

For my third fact check, I will be doing an exercise in “reading laterally,” one of Caufield’s strategies from his book Web Literacy for Student Fact-Checkers. Caulfield defines reading laterally as “looking at what other sites and resources say about the source at which they are looking.” For this exercise I have chosen to read laterally about Occupy Democrats because I am a democrat. If I’m being honest, I’m probably more likely to believe or agree with a democratic organization before fact checking. I might even be less inclined to fact check articles I agree with. While reading laterally I am trying to establish if Occupy Democrats has a process in place to fact check themselves, what their expertise is, and what their aim as an organization is.

I began my search on the Occupy Democrats Wikipedia page to gain a general sense of what Occupt Democrats is and maybe find links to more sources. Wikipedia lead me in a few different directions. First, it lead me to the Politifacts page on Occupy Democrats. Politifacts describes the organization as a “counterbalance the Republican tea party” that was founded in 2012. The Republican tea party is well known to be a far right, conservative organization, so if Occupy Democrats is their counter balance, they are probably a far left, progressive organization. Politifacts also quotes their about page, “give President Obama and other progressive Democrats a Congress that will work with them to grow the economy, create jobs, promote fairness and fight inequality, and get money out of politics!” So according to their own website, their aim is to advance the Democratic agenda, which in itself reveals them to have a heavy bias. Politifacts also had a chart that breaks down what percentage of claims Occupy Democrats have made Politifacts has judged true and false. While Politifacts has only checked a limited number of claims highest percentage of claims received “False” or “Pants on Fire” ratings, and none were true. Early signs were not good for Occupy Democrats credibility.

Another source Wikipedia lead me to was an article from the Guardian that reported on a study from the University of Missouri’s School of Journalism that ranked the most and least trusted news sources. Occupy Democrats was the least trusted according to their survey. So Occupy Democrats didn’t seem to be trusted by fact checkers and the public alike.

 

Next I borrowed another technique from Caulfield, web searching a domain, where I search for the website, but use a negative search to remove the links to the actual Occupy Democrats website. This way I can see what other people are saying about Occupy Democrats, and not what they say about themselves. I found an interview with the creators of the organization with the Huffington Post. In the interview, the founders Rafael and Omar Rivero spent more time talking about memes than their journalism process. Given that they call their website “an afterthought,” it seems that they have no confirmed fact checking process. The brothers are also quoted saying “We want to give people the ammunition to engage in meme warfare.” They go on to describe what makes a good meme and their process of learning how to make memes. It seems their expertise is not really in news reporting, but meme making.

Its unclear whether the Rivero sees what they are doing as satire or if they really hope to convince people that Ted Cruz took a bribe. Either way, Occupy Democrats is not a credible or reliable source. In doing this exercise, I’ve realized that it may be just as important to fact check the claims you want to believe as it is to fact check the claims you don’t believe. It’s easy to be critical of the the other side, but it is difficult to be critical your own side as well.

Fact Check #2: Injury Count from the London Tube Bombing

On Friday morning, September 15 2017, a bomb exploded in the London Tube at Parsons Green station. The news flooded with reports on whether it was terrorism or whether arrests have been made. My first thought upon hearing of the attack was “How many people are injured? Did anyone die?” When disaster strikes, readers want to know the severity and turn to the reported injuries and deaths to assess the situation. Often injury and death counts are listed in headlines and the openings of articles on tragedies like the London Tube bombing, but where do the journalist get these numbers? News outlets and official sources have gotten it wrong before. The official death count from Hurricane Katrina is still in debate, ten years later. I decided to try to follow one article’s injury count from the Friday bombing upstream to find the source of the information.

PJ Media, an online news source, reported that there were at least 22 commuters injured from the explosion and did not report any deaths.  They named no source or provided a link for where they got this number from. Later in the article, they report eyewitness accounts originally published by New York Times. I followed the link, thinking PJ Media might have gotten their injury count from there as well, but the New York Times listed the injured at 29. The discrepancy made me question both of their numbers. With no source listed in New York Times, I had no idea which news outlet was correct, or if they were both false.

I decided to survey a couple of other sources to see if there was any agreement. After googling “London train bombing injury count” I found an article from CNBC that reported 23 injuries, but cited London Ambulance service.  They also included a tweet from London Ambulance services that stated 19 patients had been taken to hospitals. While I was puzzling over how the same article could report two different numbers, I noticed the time stamps. The tweet from London Ambulance services was posted Friday at 9:03 am. The CNBC article was published later on Friday at 1:43 pm, but updated later the same day around 4:00 pm. Time is an important consideration when dealing with developing disasters. Information is constantly being updated and as quick as the internet is, it’s difficult for news sources to ensure every article is updated with the latest numbers. To follow farther upstream in an attempt to find any new updates, I went to the London Ambulance service twitter account. Unfortunately, there had been no other updates since they stated the count at 19 injuries.

 

 

 

I circled back to Google to find a more recently updated report. I was able to find an NPR article that had been updated only an hour later at 5:00pm on the day of the attack, but listed another source for their injury count of 29. NPR linked to England’s National Health Services (NHS) website, which had been updated at Sunday September 17, 2017 at 10:45pm. The NHS provided official counts for all bombing victims omitted to hospitals, including the ones not taken by ambulance. By Sunday night, the official injury count was up to 30.

 

Scrolling through the NHS prior updates, I found the numbers that had been popping up, including the 19 injured taken by London Ambulance services and the original report of 22 people injured that PJ Media had published. The claim made by PJ Media that at least 22 people were injured in the London Tube bombing was true given the information available at the time. Information regarding developing disasters and attacks can become out of date in only a matter of a couple of days, even hours. Through going upstream I found the original source, an official government organization, to be the best source for up to date statistics. Next time I’m searching for time sensitive reports, I will definitely be looking for official statements and checking those time stamps.

Fact Check #1: Is Sharknado Real?

I was scrolling through my tumblr feed when a surprising post appeared. It claimed Irma had made the outlandish movie Sharknado a reality by picking up sharks in its whirlwinds on its way to the Florida Coast. While if true thisc ertainly would be incredible and terrifying, I thought I would face check this before assuming “Sharknado is real!”

 

I decided to go upstream, using a method from Web Literacy for Student Fact-Checkers by Michael Arthur Caulfield to see if I could track this back to the original source. The Tumblr user pawpsicleprincess only provides a screenshot and no link, so I went to twitter to find the original post from Steve McGranahan. Turns out, it is a real twitter post and Steve McGranahan is a real person. But McGranahan is mostly known and self identifies as a comedian on his twitter bio and his personal website. A comedian is not the most reliable source for news information and it’s possible the post was a joke. His post only provides a screenshot with no link to prove it comes from CNN.

So the next step was to search for the original article or news report from CNN. A few searches on Google and CNN.com with various keywords like “Irma now contains sharks CNN” and “CNN reports sharks in Irma hurricane” resulted in nothing. I was not able to find an article or video from CNN about the dangers of Hurricane Irma bringing sharks inland. The stream of information stopped at McGranahan’s twitter feed.

irma sharks 2

@wsredneck post with watermark highlighted

Next I tried searching for previous fact checking work, another strategy from Caulfield, to see if someone before me had tried confirming Hurricane Irma’s alleged shark problem. And lo and behold, the reliable website Snopes.com had beat me to the face checking punch. The article on Snopes rated the claim that “The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reported that Hurricane Irma had airlifted several sharks” as false. They cited a watermark in the top right corner to the website Break Your Own News.  The website is a fake news generator that allows users to upload images and paste headlines onto the images. Looking back at the original twitter post, I could clearly see the watermark.

In the end, I took the long road for this fact checking mission. I could have started on a fact checking website, like Snopes, instead of trying to follow the information upstream myself. Also, if I had spent any amount of time studying the photo, I could have found the watermark myself, which would have led me to the fake headline generator. Having gone through this fact checking process in a roundabout fashion has made me realize that I may not be as vigilant as I thought. I looked at the photo, and while I had a hunch Sharknado hadn’t become a reality, it didn’t occur to me the evidence of my suspicion was literally right in front of me. The danger we face these days may not be shark infested hurricanes, but it may be assuming we are incapable of being duped. When you assume you know better, you might fail to see the lie right in front of you.