Geppetto To The Rescue: Automated Fact-Checkers Are The Antidote For Liars

The 2106 election will be the most fact-checked in history, but will people believe the truth even when it’s verified?

Much like an army of truth-telling Geppettos, fact-checking journalists are battling the global pandemic of false and misleading claims so easily spread by the ubiquitous use of smart phones and sophisticated social media apps.

While it may feel that liars are prevailing, there is reason to be optimistic:  the same tools that are being used to rapidly spread misinformation are also being used to share the truth. Fact-checking is up 50 percent in the last year, according to Duke’s Reporters Lab. Their researchers  located 96 projects in 37 countries supported by news organizations in the U.S., and non-governmental, non-profit and activists groups in other countries.

Active-bar-graphThe scope and mission of fact-checkers is expanding, too. The U.S.-based Poynter Institute is now working with Politifact and Africa Check to verify claims about global health and development and draw much needed attention to vastly underreported stories.  “As we’ve seen with the Ebola outbreak in 2014, the stories or soundbites that do get reported or relayed are often inaccurate or misleading,” said Aaron Sharockman, executive director of PolitiFact.  ” We believe that fact-checkers can hold these bogus claims up to scrutiny and offer context about complex issues to citizens and policymakers.” And in Africa, and indeed anywhere where people make decisions based on the best information they have, false claims cost lives.

Automation is the ‘Holy Grail’ of Fact-Checking

While a completely automated platform that detects claims in real time and instantly provides rating about accuracy is years away,  affordable artificial intelligence tools such as IBM’s Watson are fueling development. University of Texas at Arlington Associate Professor Chengkai Li launched ClaimBuster, one of the first tools to help journalists fact-check statements made by politicians in real time by flagging possibly erroneous claims that need a second look. Recognizing new fact-checkable claims is a step along the way to entirely automated fact-checking of arbitrary claims, according to Will Moy, director of the UK’s Full-Fact, which looks for patterns in claims and corrects them.  (Try fact-checking your own text with their live demo.)

Reimagining What News Could Be

“Fact-checking is one of the most significant innovations in journalistic practice in recent years,” according to the academic team of  Lucas Graves, Brendan Nyhan, and Jason Reifler. They  found  “randomized exposure to fact-checks helps people become better informed, substantially increasing knowledge of the issue under discussion.” 

images1One of the oldest and most prestigious projects is Politifact. Their reporters and editors: fact-check statements from the White House, Congress, candidates, advocacy and other groups; rate  claims for accuracy; and publish them on a popular Truth-O-Meter. Every fact-check includes analysis of the claim, an explanation of our reasoning, and a list of links to all our sources, according to Politifact.

Since its 2007 launch by the Tampa Bay Times, Politifact has much more competition notably, and  the Washington Post Fact-Checker,  which awards pinnochios for lies or the much-coveted Geppetto checkmark to truth-tellers. 2016 U.S. Presidential candidate, Donald Trump,  earned four “pinnochios” for claiming that he “… watched thousands and thousands of Muslims in New Jersey cheer as the World Trade Center fell.” When Bernie Sanders said  that the African-American community ‘lost half of their wealth’ in the Wall Street collapse, he earned the  much coveted Geppetto Checkmark from the Post’s fact-checkers.

Pioneering New Business Models 

In addition to being good journalism, a technology-enhanced  verification process can not only improve reporting, it can also provide much needed revenue for struggling news outlets.   Storyful, a digital newswire that sources breaking news on the social web, “has taken a very important aspect of journalism and found that as a stand-alone it had a business model,” says David Clinch, global news editor at Storyful. As journalism and publishing are being broken up into smaller parts (aggregation, viral videos, business intelligence), each has or is finding its own business model, according to Clinch.

images2It’s still early in the fact-checking revolution, but the real challenge to the dissemination  of truthful news and information many not be the limitations of technology  and journalists but the public’s close-mindedness.   In a 2010 paper,  Nyhan and Reifler discovered a ‘backfire effect’ and showed that “corrective information in news reports may fail to reduce misperceptions and can sometimes increase them for the ideological group most likely to hold those misperceptions.” The political scientist found that some individuals when confronted with evidence that conflicts with their beliefs come to hold their original position even more strongly.

Changing The Public’s News Palate 

According to, Nyhan and Reifler found a backfire effect in a study of conservatives: the Bush administration claimed that tax cuts would increase federal revenue (the cuts didn’t have the promised effect). One group was offered a refutation of this claim by prominent economists that included current and former Bush administration officials. About 35 percent of conservatives told about the Bush claim believed it. The percentage of believers jumped to 67 when the conservatives were provided with the refutation of the idea that tax cuts increase revenue.

Another political scientist, Emily Thorson of George Washington University, warns of the dangers of misinformed versus informed voters. “A misinformed citizen may use incorrect factual beliefs to inform his opinion, spread these beliefs to others, and resist any correction of these beliefs,” writes Thorson.

One solution posed by Duke’s Bill Adair, the founder of Politfact, is to dismantle the polarizing ‘he said-she said’ form of journalism that too often dominates the newsphere.  “Many journalists are afraid to say something is false for fear they will be called biased,” says Adair. “We sometimes get criticized by people who say that our work is opinion and belongs on the op-ed page. But I disagree. I call it ‘reported conclusion’ journalism. We are doing thorough reporting and then drawing a conclusion on whether something is true, false, or somwhere in between.”

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