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From AJR,   February/March 2013  issue

Can an App Sort out Fact from Fiction?   

That's the goal of the Washington Post, which hopes its Truth Teller can instantly uncover falsehoods on the campaign trail.Fri., February 22, 2013.


By Kaila Stein
Kaila Stein (kstein1010@gmail.com) is a student at the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland.     

Instead of just assuming that all politicians lie, people may well soon have the opportunity to find out for sure thanks to Truth Teller, a real-time fact-checking app being developed by the Washington Post.

Cory Haik, the Post's executive producer for digital news, says the idea for the app arose after the Post's national political editor, Steven Ginsberg, attended a rally for Republican presidential hopeful Michele Bachmann in Iowa in August 2011.

"He called me immediately after and said, 'Cory, Michele Bachmann has been telling lies for 45 minutes, and no one could tell. Is there any way to let these people know? How can we help them?' " Haik recalls.

Haik realized that everyone at that rally probably had a phone in their hands, and that a program capable of detecting false claims on the spot could help people sort out fact from fiction. She envisioned a product like Shazam, a popular app that can recognize a song based on its sound; however, instead of identifying song and artist, Haik's app would distinguish between political truth and lies.

For funding, Haik turned to the Knight News Challenge, an initiative of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation that funds innovative news and media projects. Her request for $700,000 was denied. "I asked for a lot of money, and they said, 'No, but what about this Prototype Fund?' and I thought, 'This is perfect.' " The Knight Foundation's Prototype Fund offers grants of up to $50,000 for ideas in media innovation.

While fact-checking is hardly a new concept for journalists, the developers hope Truth Teller can make a difference by checking those facts right away. News outlets today fact-check politicians much more aggressively than in the past, but there's often a delay in the process. "Nowadays, fact-checking happens two to three days later," Ginsberg says. "There's a lot that happens between when someone gives information and when someone fact-checks it. We wanted something that moves quickly, and you can do wherever you are."

And that speed can have a huge impact, says Ginsberg, who oversees the editorial vision of Truth Teller. "If you can really fact-check in real time, you can change how politicians speak to you," he says. "It's gotten the biggest response of anything I've ever done, and I've been at the Post for almost 20 years. Everyone recognizes there's a problem. Politicians telling lies is a big problem."

Here's how the app works, according to Haik: It extracts the audio from the video of a speech and converts it into text. The app then compares the assertions in the speech to a database of fact-checked information. For the prototype, the developers concentrated on information about tax reform.

TruthTeller is still a work in progress. But Ginsberg says he expects to release a functional version of the app by the end of this year and to continue refining it after that.

A prototype available on the Post's Web site includes a fact-checked speech about taxes by House Speaker John Boehner, showcasing the app's capabilities. Boehner received two out of five on the truthfulness scale.

"The goal is to inform people and empower people to know what's real," Ginseberg says. "If you're discussing an issue like tax reform, people can take it upon themselves to know what's true and what's not."

Haik stresses that more work needs to be done, particularly in bulking up the fact database. "At this point I am welcoming feedback if anyone has anything to say about how to improve it," she says. "We're into being transparent about it as we move the project along."

Both Haik and Ginsberg say the response to the app has been overwhelmingly positive. "We've gotten reaction from all over the world, mostly technology focused," Ginsberg says. "Blogs, magazines, news organizations contacted us. Everyone wants it to work and is fascinated by how to make it work."

And the duo hopes their innovation can be a game-changer. "My hope ," Ginsberg says, "is that, in its realized form, it fundamentally alters the political discourse in America."