The Problem With Fact Checking Whether ISIS Is 'Defeated'
Today a PolitiFact fact check caught my eye: “Mike Pence wrong that ISIS has been defeated.” Assigned a rating of “Mostly False” by the site, the assessment reminds us that as much as 20 percent of ratings by some fact checkers are actually “opinion checks” based on interpretation rather than indisputable fact.
The controversy over Pence’s remarks stems from a speech he gave earlier this week in which he said, “The caliphate has crumbled, and ISIS has been defeated” and that the U.S. would now “hand off the fight against ISIS in Syria to our coalition partners.”
Pence’s speech explicitly noted that “defeat” of ISIS would still entail a continued war against the insurgency.
Two years ago, CNN touted, “ISIS defeated in Raqqa” as “major military operations” came to an end, despite “pockets of resistance” remaining. Iraq was declared “fully liberated” from ISIS, with the organization “defeated” in the country. ISIS was “in retreat” and “on the run” and U.S. efforts to “defeat the terror group on the battlefield” were seeing “significant … victories.”
At the same time, CNN took pains to argue that the credit was former President Obama’s, not President Trump’s. As the Syrian conflict has increasingly become Trump’s war, the outlet’s stance seems to have changed, running the headline this week “Fact Check: Has ISIS been defeated?”
Just what does it mean to “defeat” a terror organization?
The term “defeat” has specific military meaning. The U.S. Army’s Field Manual 3-09 defines “defeat” as when “an enemy force has temporarily or permanently lost the physical means or the will to fight” and is embodied by “mass surrenders, abandonment of positions, equipment and supplies, or retrograde operations.”
Such a definition would certainly fit ISIS’s loss of its caliphate and its degradation from a quasi-nation-state back into a traditional federated terror organization. Indeed, the Atlantic Council has previously used the term “territorial defeat” to describe the U.S. focus in Syria and said that such “defeat” would still leave an “insurgency” on the ground.
The Council on Foreign Relations similarly clarified the “military defeat” of ISIS would still leave an insurgency that could effect and inspire attacks. The Center for Strategic and International Studies offered that “defeating’ ISIL in [Iraq and Syria] is at best likely to defeat its ability to hold any territory” and that “new forms of terrorism will emerge even if ISIL is formally disbanded.” Even the 2003 United States National Strategy for Combating Terrorism clarifies that “victory against terrorism will not occur as a single, defining moment,” but rather a point “where the threat of terrorist attacks does not define our daily lives.”
Each of these definitions of “defeat” would appear to support Pence’s claim that ISIS had been “defeated” and that post-defeat there would still be a powerful insurgency left to fight.
Indeed, the very question of what it means to entirely eradicate a terror or hate organization is fiercely debated. Such groups pose unique challenges in that even after their formal structure has been eliminated, their remnants can still inspire others from afar to commit violence. Three-quarters of a century after the Nazis were “defeated” there are many thousands of neo-Nazis who commit acts of violence in their name. In the case of ISIS, its mastery of social media means it will likely continue to inspire terror acts long after its leadership has been neutralized.
How then did PolitiFact come to its conclusion that Pence’s statement was “Mostly False”?
PolitiFact arrived at its rating exclusively through interviews with seven “experts who study terrorism and foreign policy.”
Rather than adhering to Pence’s literal statement that “defeat” of ISIS will still leave a vibrant and militant insurgency behind, the seven individuals redefined his use of the word “defeat” to mean the absolute elimination of all traces of ISIS.
This redefinition of the vice president’s words from their literal form into a straw-man argument is a common, but unfortunate, tactic adopted by fact checkers, which undermines their credibility.
Putting this all together, few would argue that ISIS no longer poses any threat. The vice president did not actually claim this and was quite explicit that there is still a vibrant insurgency remaining. Fact checkers including PolitiFact and FactCheck.org reached their verdicts by redefining Pence’s words into an argument he did not actually make.
PolitiFact notes that “in the world of speechmaking and political rhetoric, there is license for hyperbole” and that it does not review statements that are not “rooted in a fact that is verifiable.” One could easily argue Pence’s use of the word “defeat” strongly comports with the Army’s military definition and thus was a “True” statement. There is also considerable room to view it as a succinct political sound bite for a complicated story and thus not eligible for fact checking under PoltiFact’s standards.
In the end, when a fact-checking verdict relies exclusively on the opinions of a hand-picked group of experts regarding a claim that was not actually made, it raises the question once again of why we place so much power in the hands of so few with no oversight.