In a world full of false claims and distorted statements, many argue that fact-checking is more important than ever. A new project by the Duke Reporters’ Lab seeks to make it easier to flag falsehoods. 

The Reporters’ Lab’s initiative—called Duke Tech and Check Cooperative—recently received a total of $1.2 million in funding from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, the Facebook Journalism Project and the Craig Newmark Foundation. The project aims to create automated fact-checking apps and expand fact-checking’s reach.

“For 10 years, people have been talking to me about the dream of automated fact-checking,” said Bill Adair, Knight Professor for the practice of journalism and public policy and director of the Reporters' Lab. “It’s been a dream, and now I think we can make it a reality.”

Adair explained that the initiative’s goals include automating the tedious work done by fact-checkers in searching for claims to check and creating instant pop-ups for live events when politicians or officials repeat claims that have previously been fact-checked. Advances in artificial intelligence technology in recent years have made automated fact-checking the next frontier to tackle, he said. 

Previous Reporters’ Lab projects give the initiative a solid base to work with. The Lab has partnered with Google News Lab and Jigsaw on a project called “Share the Facts,” which created a database of fact-checks that helps fact-checkers tag their content so it can easily be found through Google’s search results. It also involves a pop-up widget that summarizes a fact-check in a mobile-friendly format, and the widget has since expanded into a Share the Facts app for Amazon Echo. 

The Lab has also created a Google Chrome browser extension through which pop-up fact-checks appear when users are watching a livestream. Although these pop-ups are manually sent out, instead of being automated, Adair said the extension has been a step forward for fact-checking. 

“It showed that pop-up fact-checking can work even in a simple form,” he said. 

A goal of the Tech and Check Cooperative is to expand on these pop-ups through automation. Theoretically, the project could create an app that allows users to hold their phones up to a live event and when a politician says something that has been previously fact-checked, the fact-check would pop up on the phone automatically. 

The Reporters’ Lab will also work alongside journalists at the University of Texas at Arlington to help them automate a tool called ClaimBuster, which sorts through transcripts for questionable statements that fact-checkers might want to evaluate. 

“This will enable fact-checkers to ‘watch’ many more TV shows and congressional debates than they would have staff for,” Adair said. 

The new project will take place throughout the next two years and will include Duke professors and students from the computer science department. In addition, two Reporters’ Lab employees—junior Asa Royal and first-year Lucas Fagan—will write articles about the group’s progress and build apps that use ClaimBuster. 

To fund the initiative, the Knight Foundation—which works to invest in journalism and foster engaged communities—will provide $800,000, while the Facebook Journalism Project has contributed $200,000. In addition, the Newmark Foundation—started by Craigslist founder Craig Newmark to invest in organizations devoted to civic engagement—has committed $200,000.

“All three are interested in combatting misinformation, and I think it was a good fit for them to support the project,” Adair said.

Rebecca Iannucci, research and communications coordinator for the Reporters' Lab, said she thinks the initiative will succeed because it has a specific goal in mind, unlike some projects which don't focus narrowly enough. 

She noted that people have a hunger for fact-checking right now and that automated fact-checking will only enhance that.

“When the information is immediately available, it does sway people’s opinions and have an impact,” she said.