Authored by John Hirschauer & Chandler Lasch via RealClearPolitics (emphasis ours),
In the internet age, articles can be revised after publication almost without a trace. “Stealth editing,” the practice of revising a published piece without disclosing that is has been edited, poses an interesting challenge to fact-checking outlets and the integrity of their investigations. Last month, fact-checkers relied on an op-ed in USA Today written by Georgia Democrat Stacey Abrams to evaluate critics’ claims about Abrams’ position on recent Georgia boycotts. However, they didn’t know the piece had been stealth-edited after a key development in the story.
On March 31, USA Today published Abrams’ op-ed assessing the merits of business boycotts after Gov. Brian Kemp signed what she described as a “racist, classist [election] bill” into law. While Abrams cautioned that she did not think a boycott was necessary “yet,” she added that until “we hear clear, unequivocal statements that show Georgia-based companies get what’s at stake, I can’t argue with an individual’s choice to opt for their competition.”
Three days later, Major League Baseball announced that it would be pulling the All-Star Game out of Atlanta due to Georgia’s alleged infringement on its citizens’ voting rights. USA Today allowed Abrams to update the op-ed on April 6 in the aftermath of MLB’s decision. The resulting op-ed was substantially different from the March 31 version. For example, the paragraph in which Abrams originally declared that she couldn’t “argue with an individual’s choice to opt for” certain Georgia-based companies’ competitors had been revised to appear much less sympathetic to boycotts. It now read this way:
The impassioned (and understandable) response to the racist, classist bill that is now the law of Georgia is to boycott in order to achieve change. Events that can bring millions of dollars to struggling families hang in the balance. Major League Baseball pulled both its All-Star Game and its draft from Georgia, which could cost our state nearly $100 million in lost revenue.
Abrams also added a paragraph emphasizing that boycotts “cost jobs” and that the costs of a boycott “must be shared rather than borne by those who are least resilient.” For more than two weeks after the piece was revised, USA Today let the op-ed sit on its website without an editor’s note. An archived version of the op-ed from April 21 does not show the editor’s note, which only appeared a day or two later. A version from April 23 included a note that read, “This column was originally published before the MLB moved the All-Star Game out of Atlanta. It was updated after that decision.”
On April 27, a spokesperson for Gannett, USA Today’s parent company, issued a statement that said, “We regret the oversight in updating the Stacey Abrams column. As soon as we recognized there was no editor’s note, we added it to the page to reflect her changes. We have reviewed our procedures to ensure this does not occur again.”
The next day, following criticism of USA Today by numerous outlets, the op-ed was again updated with a new editor’s note and a link to the archived version. The note currently states, “This column originally published online on March 31. On April 2, the MLB announced it was moving the 2021 All-Star Game out of Atlanta. In advance of running the column in print editions, USA TODAY asked Stacey Abrams to update her piece to reflect that news.”
The stealth edits went unnoticed by some fact-checkers, who cited the USA Today piece prior to the addition of the editor’s note. In an April 21 essay called “What Joe Biden, Stacey Abrams and Georgia senators said about a MLB boycott,” PolitiFact’s Amy Sherman criticized Kemp and conservative commentator Ben Shapiro for claiming that Abrams initially supported boycotts in Georgia and later changed her mind. “But Abrams repeatedly spoke against boycotts before and after Major League Baseball’s decision to pull the All-Star Game from Georgia,” Sherman wrote.
As evidence, PolitiFact cited Abrams’ USA Today op-ed, and quoted her revised assertions in the stealth version: “Boycotts invariably also cost jobs. To be sustainable, the pain of deprivation must be shared rather than borne by those who are least resilient. They also require a long-term commitment to action.”
Sherman initially failed to recognize that these comments did not exist in the original op-ed. On April 27, after a RealClearPolitics reporter reached out for comment, PolitiFact added an editor’s note and a disclaimer following the above quote, noting, “Abrams originally wrote the op-ed March 31, but it was updated to include those comments days after MLB’s announcement. Her initial op-ed also raised concerns about boycotts.”
Twitter also used the revised version of Abrams’s op-ed to dismiss claims that she had supported the Georgia boycotts. In a curated item that ran on the site on April 22, Twitter asserted that Abrams had “expressed opposition to a financial boycott of” Georgia “according to journalists and fact-checkers.” Twitter included a quote from Abrams’ altered USA Today column that did not appear in the original version without noting the revision. It also included a tweet from PolitiFact linking to Sherman’s fact check, which, at that point, still did not have an editor’s note appended to it acknowledging that USA Today had revised the piece.
Both PolitiFact and Twitter cited claims made by Abrams after the MLB’s decision and presented them as though they had occurred before the league pulled the All-Star Game out of Atlanta. The moral of this story is that stealth-editing represents a whole new degree of difficulty for fact-checkers, who have now been put on notice that they must be on guard against such deceptive practices as they pursue their mission of holding politicians accountable to the truth.