The fact-checking army waging war on ‘fake news’

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By Bianca Fortis

If journalists must wage war against fake news and misinformation, Bill Adair is the general leading the charge.

Adair, who created PolitiFact in 2007 and is now the Knight Professor of the Practice of Journalism and Public Policy at Duke University, is leading the Tech & Check Cooperative, a project working to develop new automated fact-checking efforts.

“The same things that make fact-checking possible at a large scale also make it possible to spread falsehoods at an even larger scale,” Adair said.

The Cooperative recently received US$1.2 million in grants from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, the Facebook Journalism Project and the Craig Newmark Foundation.

The origins of fact-checking technology

When Adair started PolitiFact, the concentrated fact-checking effort at the Tampa Bay Times (then called the St. Petersburg Times) 10 years ago, he never anticipated the proliferation of fake news the way we know it today.

Misinformation spreads because it appeals to people’s “political sweet tooth,” Adair said. But the speed at which it spreads is largely due to advances in technology.

“What we’ve seen is that the same things that make fact-checking possible at a large scale also make it possible to spread falsehoods at an even larger scale,” Adair explained. “[Fake news] lends itself to bots in ways I don’t think any of us anticipated.”

PolitiFact, at first, wasn’t very popular. Adair recalls how when the site first launched, he would spend his weekends at home refreshing the PolitiFact homepage because the site’s traffic was so low. However, those early fact-checking efforts helped lay the groundwork to make new projects, including those by the Cooperative, possible.

PolitiFact structures its content in a way that allows and encourages user interaction, making it easier for search engines and apps to access the content. That framework is useful for the news apps and projects being built in 2017.

The projects

Adair said the overall goal of Tech & Check is to get fact-checking to more people.

There are three parts to the Cooperative: a suite of fact-checking apps; a series of tools that will automate the most repetitive aspects of fact-checking; and convening and collaboration with organizations around the world to learn from each other’s work.

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