In a recent question, the questioner, the answerer and a commenter all used variants of a new coinage: "alternative fact-ing", "altfacting", "alt-facting".

That posed a challenge.

If they had said the person was "wrong" or was saying things that were "wrong", I would leave it untouched. The evidence should demonstrate that.

If they said the person was "presenting the other side of the argument", I would leave it untouched.

If they had said the person was "lying", I would take action to change it. Calling someone a liar implies not only what they are saying is incorrect, but that they know it, and they are deliberately misleading people. That is not something we can demonstrate with evidence - it is about motives.

I consider it defamatory, but more importantly, I consider it beyond what the evidence demonstrates.

So, where in the spectrum does this new expression lie?

  • How is it declamatory if Conway said that Spicer is "giving alternative facts" while she was defending him on CNN? Can I use that instead of the contraction? – ventsyv Feb 4 '17 at 14:20
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    @ventsyv See DavePhD's answer for the usage Conway was most likely intending. – reirab Feb 5 '17 at 22:50

I believe it is being used as a politically-charged way of calling someone a deliberate liar, so I am going to take action to edit it out, but I acknowledge I could be misreading a new word, so I have posted this to give people a chance to counter my position.

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    It's also bad English. – Sklivvz Feb 1 '17 at 21:17
  • I guess you missed the "what is an alternative fact" question on ELU; the top scoring answer basically says an alternative facts are lies. It was on the HNQ, too. – Laurel Feb 2 '17 at 3:00
  • Yes, I thought all the same things. – fredsbend Feb 2 '17 at 16:20
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    Given that this site is about fact checking, I am disturbed that you are against calling people out for spreading untrue 'facts'. If someone is spreading 'alt facts' they should be called out for it. – bon Feb 5 '17 at 15:26
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    @non You attack the "facts", not the person spreading them. Proper discourse should be carried out with some measure of decorum. Calling people liars is not within that measure. – fredsbend Feb 5 '17 at 20:00
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    You are correct as I see it: "alt-facting" is always being used as a synonym for "lying", and I agree that it's political. – user34418 Feb 6 '17 at 15:31
  • @Sklivvz It's a long-standing feature of English that any noun can be verbed. I guess that also means that any adjective-noun can be adverb-verbed. :-) – David Richerby Feb 12 '17 at 2:17
  • @Laurel not the accepted answer though :) – DavePhD Feb 21 '17 at 22:54

I agree that this is a politically-charged way of saying someone is deliberately lying. It's no less defamatory than saying that the person is lying.

The only part of the question that I disagree with is that we cannot demonstrate with evidence that someone is lying. If someone makes a claim and we can both provide evidence that what the person said is false and evidence that the person knew it was false when making the claim, then I think it's fair to assert that the person is not only wrong, but also lying. However, I completely agree that merely having evidence that the statement is wrong is not evidence of lying and accusations of lying should be removed in that case.

As an example of where lying could be shown, if a person makes an assertion about something that they've done in the past that isn't reasonably likely to have been misremembered, then evidence that the claim is false is also evidence that the person is lying. Other examples of evidence showing lying would be quotes from the person prior to the claim being examined showing that they knew the claim was false prior to making it.

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    Note that there is such a thing as "reckless disregard for the truth". If you know something is false but you claim it's true anyway, my understanding is that it's only lying if you wouldn't have said it in the case where it was actually true. If you would've said it either way, it'd be reckless disregard for the truth. Not sure if that matters in terms of consequences though. – user541686 Feb 5 '17 at 22:05
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    @Mehrdad Personally, as a native speaker of American English, I would still consider that to be lying. Perhaps the usage is different elsewhere, though. I would consider any situation in which the speaker asserts that a statement is true while knowing it's false to be lying. I'd additionally consider a speaker asserting that they know something is true when in fact they have no evidence either way to be lying (even if the statement ultimately turned out to be true.) – reirab Feb 5 '17 at 22:44
  • I meant it in a more legal context, but I'm definitely talking about American English. I can't quite find a legal definition for lying, but if you see here, it says "The public figure must show that the defendant acted with “actual malice,” which requires proof of an intent to lie, or at least a reckless disregard for the truth." But I guess in everyday life most people would call it lying either way, yeah. – user541686 Feb 5 '17 at 23:36
  • @Mehrdad That definition would include demonstrating that the defendant had a reckless disregard for the truth as sufficient to consider that defendant as lying. – KRyan Feb 6 '17 at 0:03

In reality alt-fact is just a politer way of saying bullshit.

By the Harry Frankfurt definition bullshit isn't lying. A bullshitter (and the same seems to apply to alt-facters) is someone who is unconcerned with the distinction between truth and falsity. Hence the frequent use of weasily language to obscure the actual issues of fact at hand. Frankfurt argues that bullshit is much more dangerous than lies because it obscures the importance of the distinction between truth and lie:

It is impossible for someone to lie unless he thinks he knows the truth. Producing bullshit requires no such conviction. A person who lies is thereby responding to the truth, and he is to that extent respectful of it. When an honest man speaks, he says only what he believes to be true; and for the liar, it is correspondingly indispensable that he considers his statements to be false. For the bullshitter, however, all these bets are off: he is neither on the side of the true nor on the side of the false. His eye is not on the facts at all, as the eyes of the honest man and of the liar are, except insofar as they may be pertinent to his interest in getting away with what he says. He does not care whether the things he says describe reality correctly. He just picks them out, or makes them up, to suit his purpose.

I think alt-facting must be challenged as it is worse than downright lies: it obscures the clarity of language required for truth and falsehood to be distinguished. We should ruthlessly dissect the circumlocutions and weasel terms used by those who try to argue for a position without bothering much to check the facts.

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    I understand the difference between "wrong", "bullshit" and "lies", as used here. I question our ability to definitively say which is the case. I have edited away claims of "bullshit" too - generally replacing them with "nonsense". – Oddthinking Feb 3 '17 at 15:26
  • I think it's deeper than that, but close enough. It's a bit pejorative, and if it catches on I believe would be even more so. @Odd Whereas bullshit is pejorative and charged. "Thems fightin' words". – fredsbend Feb 4 '17 at 13:58

The phrase "alternative facts" is not really new.

It is a US law practice phrase.

For example:

From Family Law in Practice:

Provided the alternative facts or the alternative interpretation you put is reasonable, an expert who resists such a suggestion looks less credible.

From Guide to Computer Forensics and Investigations (2014):

You might want to address alternative facts, however, if they allow your opinion to remain the same. The expression “alternative facts” might seem contradictory, but it simply means competing facts. In a civil case, if there weren't alternative possible facts, the case wouldn't be at trial; it would have been decided at summary judgment.

From The Art of Lawyering (2010):

The proof will be in the experts' ability and willingness to handle alternative facts in their own theories or to apply alternative methods than the ones upon which they rely.

And even over 100 years ago The Lawyers Reports Annotated, Volume 51

There is no effort in this pleading to allege alternative facts.

So alterative facting should mean providing a competing theory of what the events actually were, based upon true evidence.

However, "alt-facting" is new and alludes to Alt-right.

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    Thank you. I suspected when I first heard about Conway's use of the phrase, that she was using it in a different way to the way people were interpreting it. – Oddthinking Feb 3 '17 at 15:24
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    @Oddthinking yes, she was a lawyer, so it should be interpreted for a lawyer point of view – DavePhD Feb 3 '17 at 15:31
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    This is not how the term "alt-fact" is used. Lawyer's jargon is hardly common. – fredsbend Feb 4 '17 at 14:04
  • @fredsbend isn't that what I'm saying in the last sentence of the answer, that alt-facting is different from presenting alternative facts. – DavePhD Feb 4 '17 at 14:47
  • @Dave Nobody here said it means "presenting alternative facts". – fredsbend Feb 4 '17 at 18:11
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    Here it would seem that "alternative facts" means something rather different than how it is being used now -- "alternative facts" in this sense are actual facts but ones that support a different version of the story. In post-Trumpian discourse the term means something more like either assertions, or statements claimed to be "facts" used to contradict other statements claimed to be "facts" with no regard at all to whether they are, in fact, facts. – The_Sympathizer Feb 9 '17 at 8:09

So, where in the spectrum does this new expression lie?

I would say it's significantly more defamatory then to say someone is lying. While the term "lying" is implicating some deliberation, "alt-facting" is implicating deliberate lying with malicious intent, or at least that's how it's widely used.


You say,

Calling someone a liar implies not only what they are saying is incorrect, but that they know it, and they are deliberately misleading people. That is not something we can demonstrate with evidence - it is about motives.

However, Fred Clark says,

The idea that intent is wholly unknowable is an excuse for jumping away from conclusions. The refusal to recognize lies as lies becomes, itself, another form of dishonesty.

and adds,

In 2015, candidate [Donald] Trump claimed that when the World Trade Center was attacked on Sept. 11, “I watched in Jersey City, N.J., where thousands and thousands of people were cheering as that building was coming down.”

The claim was never substantiated and NPR said so. But we didn’t call him a liar.

Trump made a claim — a large, substantial and outrageous claim. The substance of that claim matters. It matters because of what it may tell us about Trump’s character, and it matters because of how NPR and other journalists ought to receive and perceive other statements made by Trump. But it matters most of all — as the commandment reminds us — because of its effect on the neighbors against whom he is bearing false witness.

NPR is, in effect, saying that since they are unable to initially state, with certainty, that the prosecution’s witness is lying, they have no choice but to allow the accused to be convicted. The presumption of good faith and civility and benefit of the doubt extended to the man making an unsubstantiated statement is not also being extended to the neighbors he is attacking and accusing with that false statement. That’s pretty gross and cruel.

There is a difference between a mistake and a lie. And it is possible to discern the difference — this does not actually require mind-reading. Admittedly, to call someone a liar is a serious accusation, and it should not be done without evidence, but when the accusation can be substantiated, it should be made.

Where do “alt-facts” fall in this? The phrase is too new to have a settled meaning as of yet. I agree that it is mainly a synonym for lie, though it does also have some connotations of bullshit. Either way, it's a strong accusation, but not necessarily one which should be edited out.

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    Trump's claim about thousands cheering is an excellent example. I suspect, with very little evidence, that Trump genuinely does remember this, but has false memories. This is a classic reason not to accuse someone of being a liar, but to accuse them of being wrong and/or not careful with the facts. – Oddthinking Feb 3 '17 at 15:32
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    It's impolite to call someone a liar unless you know they are trying to deceive. Insisting a falsity is also a lie by definition is a dishonest attempt to disparage the character of your opponent. – fredsbend Feb 4 '17 at 13:48
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    @fredsbend Does that still apply if the person you're talking about has a long and documented history of being wildly uninterested in the actual truth and just doubling down on whatever wild claim he makes? – Shadur Feb 8 '17 at 11:52
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    @Shadur Yes, unless you also have evidence that they're intentionally lying in the specific case being referred to. – reirab Feb 9 '17 at 16:55

Is “alt-facting” less defamatory than “lying”?

This question is badly posed.

You are asking about two literal words: "lying" and "alt-facting", but your own answer is about their usage. There is nothing inherently insulting with either, but in the example provided by you the intentions of the author seem clear.

I believe it is being used as a politically-charged way of calling someone a deliberate liar

Therefore, I do not want us to have a general rule about the word "alt-facts", similarly to not having a general rule about "lies". The intention in using the words counts. Here are a few examples of different possible usages of the word.

If "alt-facts" is meant as an alternative to "facts", in other words non-facts presented as facts, then of course as skeptics we have to have a problem. There could be different different shades of non-facts, and not all of them are lies.

For example, consider the following conversation:

  • A: the number of violent deaths in the world has been increasing since 1948
  • B: here's an alternative fact: love will eventually prevail!

As long as we are talking about "facts", and this is an objectively verifiable thing, then we should not be concerned on whether they are "alternative". Facts are facts, there is no rules that says they should all point in the same direction really.

For example:

  • A: the number of violent deaths in the world has been increasing since 1948
  • B: here's an alternative fact: the per-capita number of violent deaths has actually been decreasing since then

Of course, they could be also lies!

  • I'm not sure this addresses the question. Should we treat the term as inappropriate for Skeptics.SE? – Oddthinking Feb 4 '17 at 13:39
  • I don't think you're familiar with the phrase. – fredsbend Feb 4 '17 at 13:56
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    @odd there are no inappropriate terms. Only inappropriate behaviors. – Sklivvz Feb 4 '17 at 18:12
  • @Sklivvz You're disregarding the racism implications of "alt". en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alt-right "alt-facting" is being used with the meaning "lying by white supremacists". – DavePhD Feb 5 '17 at 7:56
  • @DavePhD I fully understand what you are saying. I am trying to convey that words are not what is offensive here. In the OP's example, and answer, it is the subjective, specific interpretation of intent that matters: "I believe it is being used as...". We need to distinguish the politically charged, deliberately insulting usages from potentially non charged ways. – Sklivvz Feb 5 '17 at 11:01
  • I take your point. It puts an even greater subjective burden on us to interpret the intent - especially when faced with those words all the kids are using these days, and words which have different strengths in different countries. – Oddthinking Feb 5 '17 at 23:33
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    I could be mistaken but isn't the Meta question about "alt-facting" as a verb and not "alternative fact" as a noun? The latter is clearly possible as a valid expression but wasn't what was being asked about; question is; is the former - which is a recent neologism - always a pejorative or not. – user5341 Feb 6 '17 at 21:37
  • @user5341 the title just says "alt-facting", but the body says "alternative fact-ing, altfacting, alt-facting". – DavePhD Feb 7 '17 at 14:04
  • @dave all verbs, so same thing – user5341 Feb 7 '17 at 17:25

It's indisputable that a large portion of the population in the US does not trust the "mainstream media" and the political and scientific establishment and prefers to get their facts from sources that agree with their beliefs.

I define alt-facting as the act of presenting or consuming information by cherry picking only the evidence that agrees with your personal beliefs and dismissing everything else as untrue, mud slinging, or even full blown conspiracy.

While alt-facting could be lying, the two are not always the same. Sometimes the party engaged in the act of alt-facting truly believes what they are saying and are not trying to deceive.

I think the pres conference Spencer Spicer gave, in which he promised honesty, was very telling. He basically said that Donald Trump has been frustrated because the media has been critical towards him. I think that's exactly it. Some people are frustrated that things are not going their way, they find someone to blame and tune everything else out.

Kelly Conway's "bowling green massacre" is a prime example. I suspect she overheard something about the incident without fully understanding it and without knowing the facts jumped to a conclusion that jived with her preconceived notions.

Same with the inauguration attendance. From the podium the crowed probably looked huge, probably the biggest crowed they've ever seen so when it was reported that the attendance was lower that previous inaugurations, the administration perceived it as an attack on their legitimacy, dismissed the evidence as fake and lashed out angrily.

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    Ironically, I find this answer is itself biased against Conway. The definition you give of alt-facting may well be how people are using it, but it is probably not the way that Conway intended when she used it recently - see DavePHD's answer. Similarly, I think your assumption of Conway's mindspace is harsh - more likely she simply misspoke about some real live convicted terrorists living in Bowling Green when giving a germane example to support her argument. – Oddthinking Feb 4 '17 at 13:38
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    You just made all this up. – fredsbend Feb 4 '17 at 13:54
  • It also doesn't help decide if the phrase has a place on this site. – fredsbend Feb 4 '17 at 13:56
  • Biased against her? No it's biased towards her in that I give her the benefit of the doubt and not an outright liar. – ventsyv Feb 4 '17 at 14:17
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    @ventsyv: Not if the alternative is she understood the facts, and intended to share them, but she merely misspoke one word (that was quickly corrected). – Oddthinking Feb 4 '17 at 14:34
  • Presisly my point. It's not deflematory it's just what they believe due to their complete mistrust to mainstream anything. That's why they keep accusing the media of lying and fake news. – ventsyv Feb 4 '17 at 14:59
  • Ironically, I think the last two comments, unfortunately and unintentionally, support my argument. – Oddthinking Feb 10 '17 at 6:58

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