Behind WaPo's Political Lie-Detector App, 'Truth Teller'
How the ambitious prototype helps readers discern when pols are fudging on the factsBy: Shareen Pathak, Published: Jan 30, 2013
On a Tuesday afternoon in June last year, Democratic congressman Gerry Connolly gave a speech about economic policy, urging the floor to think about how the nation worked its way out of previous recessions. For one, it did so using measures that resembled President Obama's proposal for the American Jobs Act, which, Rep. Connolly said, would add up to one million jobs, according to economists.
If you were watching Rep. Connolly's speech on C-Span, you probably wouldn't have blinked at that point, but watch it using the Washington Post's new "Truth Teller" program, and alarm bells would have gone off, especially on that second point about the Jobs Act, which is false -- the American Jobs Act would actually create two million jobs, according to economists.
That kind of real-time fact checking is what Cory Haik, the executive producer for digital news at Washington Post, and her team are trying to do with this innovative new app, which she describes as a "work in progress."
Produced with $700,000 in funding from the Knight Foundation's prototype fund, the "Truth Teller" is a software program that verifies facts in videos and speeches in real-time, checking them against the Post's own database of facts. Right now, the app is available via a website onto which Ms. Haik's team is uploading archived video. Eventually, says Ms. Haik, the goal is to be able to attach the program to live video or broadcasts, and also accept reader submissions.
A Shazam Moment
The idea originated when the Post's national political editor, Steven Ginsberg, was in Iowa during the GOP primaries. After a speech by then-candidate Michele Bachmann, he called Ms. Haik and told her, "I just listened to Michele Bachmann lie to people for 45 minutes. There has to be a way to do something about that."
"Initially, I thought about Shazam [an app which listens to music to tell you information about the track being played]," said Ms. Haik. "What if we could have a Shazam for the truth?"
The team is now working on getting past the issues in the project -- a number of false positives (lies that registered as truth, or truths that registered as false) were being recorded -- and plans to test it again with the State of the Union address on Feb. 12.
One of the biggest hiccups right now with "Truth Teller" is that it has to use stories filed by reporters as the feed for its database of facts. But converting what is often filed as a "mass of text," according to Ms. Haik, into a computer ready database is tough. For now, the team has to, in simple terms, copy-and-paste "facts" into a spreadsheet that a program can recognize -- not always a fool-proof method.
In the future, Ms. Haik plans a workflow adjustment where reporters can tag "facts" in their stories for the algorithm to be able to pick up. Also, since the transcription service is still full of bugs, it can become difficult for the algorithm to pick up on relevant sentences that will need to be cross-checked against the database, leading to things being either marked incorrectly, or worse, not being flagged at all.
The Truth Teller might be one of the boldest things Ms. Haik's team has done, but it's among many digital initiatives by the Washington Post. Some are simple, like getting every political reporter on Instagram to document the Election, while some are more complex: a "Post Pulse" that tracks trending Post stories across the social Web. There's also Mention Machine, which tracked social media for Presidential candidate mentions to show where the conversation was, and White House Visitors Log, which used Obama administration data of people passing through the security system to create a searchable app.
"My team and I believe in rapid prototyping," said Ms. Haik, who calls her team of designers, coders, and programmers a "disruption layer" within the Post newsroom. They generally will act on ideas quickly and are ready to scrap them if they don't work out. For example, the team had launched a new user-submissions platform on the Post for the Presidential Inauguration. When it turned out that it wasn't working on mobile devices, she deactivated it. "We do a lot of course correction," she said.
Just the Beginning
And from the looks of it, there will be more. The Post announced this week its partnership with the Knight Foundation's scholarship program, which will let computer programmers earn a degree in journalism at Northwestern University's Medill School, which will be followed by a paid internship at the Post. Programmers who understand journalism offer a unique skillset that is an essential part of building new tools and features that can benefit both readers and reporters," Editor for Strategic Projects Emilio Garcia-Ruiz said in a statement. "Two examples of this innovative work include The Post's I Voted news app and The Grid [developed by Ms. Haik's team], which enhanced our coverage of the presidential election last year."