Technology November 24, 2011
You CAN Handle The Truth: What If Fact-Checking Were As Easy As Spell-Checking?

"Just the facts, please." It seems like a simple demand, but it has never been a particularly easy one to fulfill. Even the most professional and respected news organizations, those that have built reputations based on a commitment to thorough and objective standards of journalism, are constantly accused of one bias or another by those who don't care for the content of their stories. (The fact that outlets as esteemed as the New York Times have been caught publishing falsehoods - remember Jayson Blair? - hasn't helped.)

That was true in the days when just a few networks and newspapers dominated North America's media , but the advent of cable news and the world wide web has opened up entirely new avenues of disputation, second-guessing and squabbling over who can be trusted to tell the truth.

(And that's to say nothing of professional politicians, whose reputation for playing fast and loose with the facts seems to have only increased with the current U.S. election campaign.)

What if you could check facts in news reports the same way you check spelling? That's the idea behind Truth Goggles, a project being developed by an MIT student in which questions of verity would be flagged in much the same way as those of grammar: by highlighting matters of contention.

As demonstrated on the Truth Goggles demo page, the tool simply highlights any given phrase to which it is applied in one of four colours: red for false, yellow for mostly false, blue for mostly true, and green for true.


How does it know? The application works by running phrases against a database of previously verified statements. Dan Schultz, the graduate student at MIT's Media Lab who is developing Truth Goggles as his thesis, tells Harvard University's Nieman Journalism Lab the idea is to decide what has been already been judged: "In other words, it's picking out things that somebody identified as being potentially dubious." [Link 5]

So far that means that truth, as far as the Goggles are concerned, consists of anything already verified by PolitiFact, a project started by the St. Petersburg Times newspaper in which public statements by public figures are rigorously fact-checked.

That alone may disappoint anyone who would hope that something such as Truth Goggles could bridge the political divide in U.S. political discourse: While PolitiFact presents itself as an objective and non-partisan project, there are plenty who already accuse it of an unreliable liberal bias.

But Schultz hopes to diversify the sources he can draw upon, so that any phrases red-flagged by Truth Goggles can be safely assumed to be a real whopper of a statement.

Having more sources "would help people break away from their filter bubble. They would be exposed to opinions they hadn't seen before," he said. "The ultimate goal is to enable intelligent conversations about contentious issues."



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