Against Fake News. 9 Project Funded by Google
“Is the truth dead?”. The question peremptorily stands on the last front page of the TIME. It sounds a logical question after that last November the Oxford Dictionary bade “post truth” the word of the year 2016. A term that was already circulating since 1992, but known to the general public just after the British Institution's choice. A quick search on Google Trends shows that clearly.
Of course, the fact that often between reality and his stories there is a certain distance masked on the behalf of political and economic purposes, that is not a recent discovery. The "post-truth" is but a name for a particular aspect of this phenomenon. An aspect that political facts from Brexit to Trump’s electoral success already impose to the attention of those who daily deal with news and media. In shaping the public opinion and building consensus what matter the most? Facts, their truthfulness, or the emotions aroused by their narration? Given the results, the very campaign for Brexit as well as Trump’s presidential race made the answer almost obvious, thus leading experts to quickly label our time a “post-truth era”. Though, that’s a remarkable paradox which should not leave us unconcerned.
Google searches with the query “post truth”, all the world, last 5 years (Google Trends)
Never before have so many news been so easily available. We need just an internet connection and a click. More than ever, access to information is democratic. On the other hand the huge amount of information makes it harder to distinguish between true and false news and to avoid confusion. We are surrounded by news, but we live in the suspicion that some of those news are made up, distorted or incomplete. To use the skyrocketing neologism that is marking the topic on the web and in political campaigns, those could be “fake news”.
Ricerche Google per la query “fake news”, tutto il mondo, ultimi 5 anni (Google Trends)
That’s how also the credibility of traditionally reliable sources gets questioned. It is no coincidence that the New York Times has chosen claims as “Discover the truth with us” or “Just facts. No alternatives” for its subscription campaign. As Roger Cohen wrote on the same newspaper, those concepts should sound a ridiculous tautology, “like talking about oxygen-based human life”.
To spread hoaxes and fake news today it means not just disinformation or misinformation, but to turn into shade the light of the web, that is a pluralistic competition between sources and an increased independence of thought of the citizens. Because if the perceived truth ends to be defined by emotions rather than facts themselves, there’s a growing chance that people will increasingly begin to believe exactly to what they like or stretch less to believe. This is why the challenge to verify news is that crucial nowadays.
Such an earth-shuttering threat is what the great digital player of the world have become aware about. Facebook for example has resoundingly set out a third-party tool alerting users who want to share a content that is has been marked as “disputed” by independent fact-checkers.
Google has chosen a different path. Its “Digital News Initiative (DNI)”, an innovation fund lunched with 11 founding partners in 2015 to support high-quality journalism through technology, is now including various projects aimed to rolling out fact-checking systems.
The majority of these kind of project included in the second round of fundings are from the UK, mainly ambitious start-up. Among the winners there’s an Italian too: Catchy. It will develop a clear and easy to use graphic interface that can display on-demand and real-time information about a certain topic, also offering reporters an assessment of their reliability. To do so Catchy will put together a machine learning algorithm, which will regulate a statistical semi-automatic system of analysis. The evaluation given by the users will influence the future reputation of the source and the recognition of its reliability. In the belief that the truth should also be interesting to overcome hoaxes and fake news, the application developed will provide the user with a stream of selected stories to be enjoyed with different display methods, going from traditional channels to virtual or augmented reality.
The basic idea that structure the British project Factmata it’s almost similar. Their system gives power to the user complaints and it’s based on the assumption that the false can be unmasked by listening to ordinary people. Therefore the project proposes to check articles and transcripts of political speeches.
The peculiarity of the Hungarian project Mertek is the focus both on users and journalists. Mertek’s people will create an “ecosystem” that wants to enhance critical thinking and objectivity. The result will be a critical evaluations on the news useful for verification purposes.
Similarly, people from Vivarta (UK) will provide journalists with a platform for buying verified and reliable information, quickly and sustainably. The assumption remains the same: to prevent the rise of fake news it’s necessary to give effective tools to the reporters, not just to the readers.
In addition to acting on people, other British projects propose a mostly computerized approach. Ferret Fact Check (UK) will develop a tool not just to assess the sources, but also to visualize the processes that the news have undergone, the circulating interpretations and its uses.
The Full Fact (UK) project is automatically collecting complaints of political debates and other information by sending a notification of incorrect reporting directly to the authors. Exploited at the best of its potential, the tools will be able to statistically verify the news and so to emit its verdict.
The goal of Counterpointing (UK) is quite different: it is to burst the so-called “filter bubble” with a series of devices that will show a spectrum of credible alternative perspective on the news, whenever the user needs. The first prototypes will include a browser plugin and a Facebook app that will be revealed in the course of 2017.
Another strategy to make the news more reliable and accurate is to promote the creation and the dissemination of open source database, in order to let the reporters verify contents. Among the projects that use this approach along with data from social media is the British Bellingcat. They will study conflicts around the world in real time in order to guide and to give examples to journalists, experts and organizations for human rights.
Finally, also the Spanish Europa Press works in this direction, representing the larger project among those funded by Google in the field of fact-checking.
Projects like these are inviting experts and average users not to take the question posed by the TIME as a rhetorical one. If we still don’t know what will happen to the concept of truth so strongly disputed in the digital world, we certainly know that’s the digital world itself that is trying to give an answer. The road will be long, but the ideas are so many.