What is a Factoid?
A Factoid is a brief piece of information that appears to be true, but isn’t necessarily factual or verified, yet is typically repeated as fact anyway.
Broadly speaking, it is any information presented in a way that it can’t be confirmed as truth, half-truth, or lie. We don’t know if it is information or counterfeit information, we don’t know if it is misinformation, disinformation, propaganda, or pure information. It is a talking point, sound bite, headline, etc. It is a term one can’t define without spouting off factoids (oh the irony!).
A factoid can be a simple saying like “starve a fever feed a cold“, or it can be a sensational headline like “Marilyn has affair with President” (how Norman Mailer used it when he coined the term), or it can be the thesis of a book like “all action is human action“, or it can be a “fun little true did-ya-know factlet” like “a banana is a berry“.
To Mailer it was “something that looks like a fact, could be a fact, but in fact is not a fact”… to me I think the term is much more useful if we change Mailer’s definition to “something that looks like a fact, could be a fact, but we can’t confirm to be true or false without further research”. It is that second definition I offer that equates it to the memes, talking points, headlines, and Facebook comments and Tweets that permeate our real everyday lives here in the modern information age.
With the above in mind, this isn’t a term where the definition needs to be given by a person, it is a term that describes a the real phenomena, that we all know from using the internet to communicate, where one reads only the headline or comments by parroting back citation-less talking points and then playing telephone with the information.
These are the brief bits of information we hear on the news or see on the cover of the rag at the checkout counter at the grocery story and then repeat. They are bits of information, unverified, often meant to convey exciting gists rather than pure information.
If it sounds true, but isn’t confirmed as true, it is a factoid…. and technically, that factoid about factoids is a factoid.
Thus, a factoid can be BS, or not. It can be a truth, half-truth, or lie. It can be a common belief, an urban legend, a statistic, a quote, a well intentioned misquote, a manipulative talking point, or any other tidbit of information. If there is no verification for the claim, then the statement is a factoid, regardless of if it is true or not. 
The rest is a matter of semantics, as sometimes today we use factoid to mean “a neat little ‘did you know‘” like “did you know neither hundred years’ war was 100 years long?“.
On this page we cover the history of the term factoid, discuss some of the ways it is used in every day life, and then describe the different ways we use it for our own fact-checking website FactMyth.com.
TIP: The Oxford English Dictionary defines factoid as “1. A brief or trivial item of news or information” and “1.1 an item of unreliable information that is repeated so often that it becomes accepted as fact”.
Different Ideas on What a Factoid is
Some assert that a factoid describes information that seems factual, but isn’t. Some offer definitions that consider truth secondary (implying that a factoid can be true, or not). Some use the term to describe tabloid fluff (facts which have no existence before appearing in a magazine or newspaper), some any fact, myth, or urban legend, and some use it to describe little snippets of information that are “fun and true”. The list goes on.
Some of the above are probably better definitions than others, but that said, this new addition to the lexicon likely escapes ridged definition due to its elusive and modern creation.
Understanding Factoids, By Understanding Where the Term Factoid Came From
The term factoid was coined by Norman Mailer in his 1973 biography of Marilyn Monroe. Mailer said factoids were, “facts which have no existence before appearing in a magazine or newspaper“.
… but hold on…
If you just believe the above quote, you are… believing a “factoid” passed around the internet. Seriously, Google “facts which have no existence before appearing in a magazine or newspaper”. A quick glance confirms this quote is simply repeated over and over without additional fact-checking or verification!
If you were to go around repeating that above claim, you would be spreading an unverified talking point, “a factoid”. To verify the claim, we have to at least break out a copy of Marilyn: A Biography and verify a page number for our audience.
Looking through a Google Books copy of Marilyn, I find lots of mentions of “factoid”, but not the aforementioned line. Time for more research.
Digging a little deeper I found another definition passed around the internet (this one from a TIME article “The Origins of Writerly Words“), also said to be from Mailer’s book (supposedly), describing a factoid as a, “piece of information that becomes accepted as a fact even though it’s not actually true, or an invented fact believed to be true because it appears in print.”… “Factoids…that is, facts which have no existence before appearing in a magazine or newspaper, creations which are not so much lies as a product to manipulate emotion in the Silent Majority.”
I couldn’t verify that quote either, although it seems Merriam-webster.com backs this up. So we have TIME and a dictionary, that is a little more solid than “random internet sites”. Lets keep digging.
The Washington Times described Mailer’s new word as referring to “something that looks like a fact, could be a fact, but in fact is not a fact”. It says, he created the word by combining the word fact and the ending -oid to mean “similar but not the same”.
The 1983 book Silverless Mirrors: Book, Self & Postmodern American Fiction, does a great job cluing me into Philip Stevick’s concept of a “mock-fact” and presents the quote TIME gave me in full. The author Charles Caramello has done some great research, we now know this “factoid” is at least from the 80’s.
Finally, i’ve found the passage! It is on page 18, Mailer says he is coining a term and then defines “factoid”, which he continues to use throughout his book. Through example, Mailer gives a number of clear definitions of exactly what he means when he says factoid. Great! We no longer have to just fish around in the dark based on re-quotes.
Of course, this doesn’t prove Mailer coined the term, nor is it the final word on its use, but it does verify the above claims for our audience (for what may be the first time since this was written about in 1973).
Now that we have some basis for our claim that “a factoid is a brief piece of information that appears true”, we can move on to our definitions of the term here in 2016.
TIP: Notice how we fact-checked a widely believed claim to verify it. That is what our website does. This is the effort and logic we put into every page here.
How We Use the Term Factoid on Our Site
On our site we fact-check factoids passed around culture by any form. For our purposes:
- Factoids are bits of information that appear true. They can be commonly held beliefs, maxims, axioms, folk lore, “he said, she saids”, the headlines of the day, logical conclusions to data, misconceptions of data, pseudo science, or bits of information passed around by any form of communication.
If it sounds true, but hasn’t been fact-checked, it’s a factoid (even if others have proved it true, it’s a factoid to you). FactMyth.com uses the word “factoid” to mean any argument that sounds true that can be fact-checked to be confirmed as a fact or myth using citations. Learn more about FactMyth.com.
Statistic Based Factoids and Their Underlying Belief
Sometimes a factoid can be a statistical claim, rather than a general bit of information. One factoid, for example, may say 1 in 2 people in Switzerland own a gun, while another factoid may say 47.5% of Swiss people own a gun. Instead of taking each of these factoids at face value, we can break them all down to a commonly held belief that “Gun Ownership is Relatively High in Switzerland” or “all Swiss own guns“.
The Difference Between a Factoid and a Fact and a Myth
- A fact is something that is proved to be undoubtedly true.
- A myth is something that is proved to be undoubtedly untrue.
- A factoid is something that appears true but is unverified.
TIP: A factoid can be a fact, a half-truth, or a myth. The factoid is always true or not true, but it can’t be properly labeled a fact or a myth until all parts of the statement have been proved true or untrue. Learn more about the nature of truth.