A Look at PolitiFact’s Lie of the Year

From The Poynter Report with Tom Jones:

What was the biggest lie of 2022?

In today’s world where many politicians, some cable news pundits and millions on social media lie like they breathe, coming up with the lie of the year is a daunting task.

For the past 14 years, Poynter’s PolitiFact has taken on the challenge of selecting the lie of the year. And explaining why it’s so important to call it out.

Sadly, the lies are more than just words. They lead to real-life consequences and deadly results. Past lies of the year, as selected by the PolitiFact team, include misinformation about the COVID-19 pandemic and vaccinations, as well as the lies that led to the fatal Jan. 6 insurrection.

This year’s Lie of the Year has led to the deaths of hundreds of thousands.

Published this morning, the 2022 PolitiFact “Lie of the Year” is Vladimir Putin’s lies about Ukraine.

In their piece for PolitiFact, Deputy Editor Rebecca Catalanello and Senior Correspondent Louis Jacobson wrote that Putin and Russia launched a war against Ukraine that was “built on a foundation of lies.”

Catalanello and Jacobson wrote:

“Putin joined history’s most brutal authoritarians, deploying a well-worn and highly sophisticated propaganda machine to wage an unprovoked war.

More than political rhetoric, spin or occasional lying, this playbook uses coordinated networks — hundreds of websites, state-run media, social media channels, fake fact-checking and oppressive censorship laws — to disseminate ruthless falsehoods. The aim is to justify brutality, blindfold its citizens and persuade potential allies.

Ukraine wasn’t being led by neo-Nazis and it wasn’t committing genocide. Putin employed those lies to co-opt Russian citizens whose family members would be sent to fight a war, kill others and possibly die themselves.

The lies have permeated the assault. When hundreds of bodies were discovered lying in the streets and homes of Bucha after weeks of Russian occupation, horrifying the world and generating global outrage, Putin’s regime claimed the scenes were staged by Ukrainians. That was a lie.

To orchestrate his power and land grab, Putin long denied Ukraine was even a country — falsely characterizing its history and culture, suggesting the Ukranians were simply Russians who needed to be brought back in the fold. So with his war divided families, displaced millions of people, altered the global economy and disrupted the world economy.”

The toll of these lies and this war? Catalanello and Jacobson wrote, “By U.S. estimates, each side has seen 100,000 troops killed or injured. More than 40,000 Ukrainian civilians are dead. Fifteen million people have been driven from their homes.”

I reached out to PolitiFact managing editor Katie Sanders to get the lowdown on this year’s choice for “Lie of the Year.” Here’s our conversation:

Tom Jones: I’ll get into this year’s Lie of the Year in a moment, but can you give readers a little behind-the-scenes look? How do you all go about selecting what is the lie of the year? What’s the process like?

Katie Sanders: I started thinking about Lie of the Year back in early October in an effort to take stock of all we covered before the mad dash of the election. I looked through the archives for False and Pants on Fire highlights and made a long list of serious contenders, with an eye for claims that spoke to the year’s most important stories. Claims that are ridiculous but insignificant are not considered for Lie of the Year. I kept updating that list through the election, of course. Then we vetted several ideas with the full team after Election Day on Zoom. Our leadership team made the final call after reviewing the strongest arguments for three finalists.

Jones: You mention the election. How much consideration was given to lies told on the campaign trail, particularly from election deniers?

Sanders: We strongly considered election denialism. I don’t think we have ever fact-checked so many claims from potential secretaries of state as we did this year. We considered choosing election denialism in previous years, too. In 2020, we chose COVID downplay over Trump’s election claims. In 2021, we discussed the impact of the election lie as part of our report on rhetoric downplaying the significance of the Jan. 6 Capitol attack. We’re continuing to watch how this narrative evolves in 2023. Election experts told us the trend was beaten back in the midterms, but it hasn’t disappeared.

Jones: Were there any other lies that received consideration as Lie of the Year?

Sanders: There were good cases to make for each of our reader poll picks, which included election denialism, exaggerations on abortion and conspiracy theories about the attack on Paul Pelosi echoed by Trump. As the year went on, there seemed to be more legs to transphobic claims about schools implementing litter boxes to accommodate students who identify as “furries.” Our readers thought Trump deserved the award for his false whataboutism on Obama’s handling of classified documents. But Putin’s lie about genocide in Ukraine came in second, so I think our readers will understand this choice.

Jones: Ultimately, PolitFact chose Putin’s lies about Ukraine as the Lie of the Year. How did you come to that decision?

Sanders: It came down to consequence — none of the other claims we considered matched the human toll and worldwide fallout from Putin’s war, premised on lies and defended with lies. The story says it best: “Although there’s little revelatory about Putin lying — the former KGB leader is widely understood to be the sponsor of worldwide disinformation efforts and cybermeddling (including in U.S. elections) — the human toll of the invasion of Ukraine is inescapable and horrific. By U.S. estimates, each side has seen 100,000 troops killed or injured. More than 40,000 Ukrainian civilians are dead. Fifteen million people have been driven from their homes.”

Jones: In recent years, PolitiFact’s Lie of the Year included lies about COVID-19 and events that led to the Jan. 6 insurrection. Those lies were told and amplified by not just one entity. This year, however, the lie came mostly from one person — Vladimir Putin. You laid out exactly the things Putin lied about, but did he have any help? Were there those, perhaps in the media or on social media, who helped perpetuate or amplify Putin’s lies about Ukraine?

Sanders: Putin deserves the focus, without a doubt, but you’re right to say he had a lot of help. He uses a sophisticated propaganda machine built on coordinated networks of websites, state-run media and social media accounts, and even fake fact-checking. The country’s harsh censorship laws keep accurate information out of Russian hands and punish dissent. It isn’t just the Russians, though. Our story notes how American pundits amplified disinformation about U.S.-supported biolabs in Ukraine. Fox News host Tucker Carlson focused coverage on whether Ukraine was using the labs to build bioweapons. There’s no evidence this is “totally and completely true,” as he said.

Jones: What do you hope readers take from PolitiFact’s Lie of the Year?

Sanders: It’s easy to lose sight of the importance of a far-away war as it fades from TV channels and front pages, but Putin’s invasion and the campaign of lies he used to justify it still require our attention. We hope the breadth of claims covered in this story helps readers recognize disinformation from Russia and around the world and why it’s important for us all to call it out, relentlessly.

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