Truth-Teller App from Washington Post Could Alter Nature of Political Dialog

Several weeks ago, I posted a tongue-in-cheek wish list for Web 2.0 improvements that helped tell truth from lies.

It turns out the Washington Post had already been working on a Truth-Teller Application under a grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. The prototype of the app made its debut in late January.

According to the Washington Post, the goal of Truth Teller is to fact check speeches in as close to real time as possible. The inspiration for the idea came during the last Republican primary election. Steven Ginsberg, the Post’s national political editor, was attending a rally for Michelle Bachman in an Iowa parking lot. Claims Ginsberg:

”For about 45 minutes she said a lot of things that I knew to not be true, and nobody else there knew that.”

Ginsberg thought there must be a way to offer people in the crowd a real-time accounting of politicians’ misstatements. He consulted with Cory Haik and others [1] at the Post. The  Truth Teller App is their attempt to offer such a service.

They based the prototype on a combination of several technologies. It generates a transcript from video using speech-to-text technology, matches the text to a database, and then displays, in real time, what’s true and what’s false.

For the prototype, the Post focused on the looming debate over tax reform, but hopes to expand their database to incorporate more issues in the future.

“It’s a proof of concept, a prototype in the truest sense,” says Cory Haik, Executive Producer for Digital News at the Post.

To test Truth Teller from The Washington Post, visit truthteller.washingtonpost.com. You  can play videos from President Barack Obama, Speaker of the House John Boehner and other politicians and instantly see which statements are true, false or misleading.

Kaila Stein, writing in the American Journalism Review, “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.”

Fact checking is hardly a new concept for news organizations, but doing it in real time is new. It could fundamentally change the nature of political dialog. As I pointed out in another post on February 18, misinformation can be difficult to correct once the rumor mill of the Internet begins and search engines dutifully record millions of comments on it. Hearing or seeing something repeated so often and in such volume can make people think something is true when it, in fact, is not.

“Cognitively, it is much easier for people to accept a given piece of information than to evaluate its truthfulness. This stacks the deck in favor of accepting misinformation rather than properly rejecting it. … Researchers have found that misinformation is “sticky” and is often resistant to correction. Retractions are often ineffective and can sometimes backfire, strengthening incorrect beliefs.”

From Misinformation and Its Correction: Continued Influence and Successful Debiasing
By Stephan Lewandowsky, Ullrich K. H. Ecker, Colleen M. Seifert, Norbert Schwarz and John Cook

The Post hopes to release a functional version of the app by the end of this year and  continue refining it after that. According to Stein, Haik and Ginsberg see their innovation as a game-changer. “My hope,” Ginsberg says, “is that, in its realized form, it fundamentally alters the political discourse in America.”

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[1] The Washington Post Truth Teller team:
Cory Haik, Executive Producer for Digital News
Steven Ginsberg, National Political Editor
Joey Marburger, Mobile Design Director
Yuri Victor, UX Director
Siva Ghatti, Director, Application Development
Ravi Bhaskar, Principal Software Engineer
Gaurang Sathaye, Principal software engineer
Julia Beizer, Mobile Projects Editor
Sara Carothers, Producer
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