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'It makes them more honest': New site provides data for fact-checkers to hold politicians accountable

<p>iCheck provides users with information on legislators’ voting records.</p>

iCheck provides users with information on legislators’ voting records.

As presidential and congressional candidates sling attacks and claims at each other, fact-checking is becoming more important than ever.

iCheck—a new website created by Jun Yang, professor of computer science, and Brett Walenz, a Ph.D. student in computer science—aims to make it easier to check the context and validity of those claims. Using congressional voting records dating back to 2009, iCheck allows users to search a legislator’s name and compare his or her voting record with that of the president or other legislators. Users can also examine voting patterns within a selected time frame or search for certain key votes.

“All [iCheck] tries to do is make exploration of the data extremely easy and make it easy to expose larger contexts," Yang said. "You can look at this claim from different angles and different perspectives.” 

One example from the last election cycle involves former North Carolina Senator Kay Hagan. Her opponent unleashed a series of attack ads criticizing her for voting with President Obama 95 percent of the time. However, Yang noted that when compared to her peers, Hagan actually was not that supportive of President Obama and was in fact the fifth least supportive Democrat. Attacks such as these reveal how easy it is for campaigns to find data out of context to attack opponents, Yang explained. 

“[Numbers] can be very misleading," Yang said. "It’s actually very easy to lie with numbers.” 

The claim might be a “a cherry-picked number,” confined to only a certain time period within a legislator’s overall voting record or only a certain type of vote, he noted. 

“Those who have the data and those who know how to draw conclusions from the data just wield enormous advantage over others," Yang added.

Yang and Walenz said that they hope iCheck can serve as a preventative measure to stop cherry-picking numbers and twisting data. Yang noted the site’s potential to be useful for the public but acknowledged that it could potentially be manipulated by politicians.

“We’re in the election season, and I think there’s potential to make some impact," Yang said. "And it’s really for public interest."

The site was developed to serve more as a tool for fact-checkers, rather than as a fact-checking website, Yang noted. Fact-checkers at news organizations or other websites can use iCheck, instead of manually sifting through data. The site does not interpret or evaluate claims—instead, iCheck provides the resources to further examine the context of claims.

Bill Adair—Knight professor of the practice of journalism and public policy and founder of the fact-checking site PolitiFact—explained the importance of fact-checking politicians' statements. 

In the old days, the media could act as a filter, and the media would filter out a lot of the inaccurate claims," Adair said. "Today, fact-checking is critical because people get their information from so many different sources, including many partisan sources."

iCheck is one of many emerging sites helping to verify candidate claims, and Adair noted that the future of fact-checking is trending toward “more projects like iCheck that automate the work of fact-checkers and automate how quickly people get fact-checking information.”

Eventually, the goal would be having instant automated fact-checking, Adair added. 

“We’re trying to fill the niche of being an aide to these other sites,” Walenz said.

Still in a beta version, iCheck has more improvements needed, Yang said. He plans to make the site more sustainable in the long term and expand the data to include state legislature voting records and perhaps city council votes as well.

Yang and Walenz will pitch the site to the public at the Science Café in the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences later this month.

“Fact-checking may not be used for the general populace. They might not change their opinion based on a fact-check," Walenz said. "But it makes the politicians and the legislators be more precise and be more factually aware. It makes them more honest.”


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