A team of Duke students and faculty is developing a technology that will offer onscreen fact checks during television broadcasts of political events—just in time for the 2020 presidential election. 

The product would first convert detected audio to text, then match the politician or political pundit’s claim to previously published fact checks drawn from a database. Finally, the fact check will be displayed onscreen for viewers, according to Bill Adair, project director and Knight professor of the practice of journalism and public policy at the Sanford School of Public Policy.

“I think live fact-checking has the potential to disrupt the political discourse in a significant way,” Adair said. “If politicians know that every word they utter is being automatically fact-checked, they will definitely be more careful.” 

As part of the Duke Tech and Check Cooperative, a $1.2 million project to automate fact-checking, the project involves a team of journalism faculty, computer scientists and undergraduate and graduate students. 

The project builds on an app called FactStream, another product developed by the Duke Tech and Check Cooperative. During the 2018 State of the Union address, FactStream users viewed live manual fact checks of the president’s claims, according to an article by the Duke Reporter’s Lab. 

Last summer through Data+, a 10-week summer research program, three undergraduate students developed the first version of an automated pipeline that matched audio-converted texts to existing fact checks, said Jun Yang, the team’s faculty co-lead and a professor of computer science.  

A Bass Connections team has taken on the development of the automated pipeline, which will be tested in the State of the Union address Tuesday, according to Yang. 

Yang said that the Tuesday test will be half-automated, half-manual. An algorithm will transcribe Trump’s words and draw relevant fact checks from a database powered by the Washington Post, FactCheck.org and Politifact, a Pultizer Prize-winning fact-checking organization founded by Adair. 

Monitoring the livestream, human fact-checkers will curate the potential matches and make corrections before submitting a summary of the fact check and a URL of the relevant source onto FactStream, Yang explained. 

In October 2018, an experiment was conducted to evaluate the user experience of onscreen fact-checking, according to an article by the Neiman Lab. 

The sample group of 15 Republicans, Democrats and Independents watched four-minute excerpts of speeches by Barack Obama and Donald Trump, which had been modified to include onscreen fact checks. 

The article stated that participants unanimously agreed that they would like live onscreen fact checks during broadcasted political events. 

Participants also provided feedback on the display of the fact checks, saying that they prefer fact checks appearing on the bottom of the screen rather than in one of the corners and that fact checks should appear one to two seconds following the statement. 

The Tech and Check Cooperative aims to offer the product on live television by the upcoming presidential election, but the team will need to overcome certain challenges before then, Yang explained. 

“From a technological standpoint, automated live fact-checking with human vetting can be done by the presidential election,” Yang said. “But from a more business standpoint, it is not clear whether networks will commit to carrying that additional signal.” 

Wary of letting an outside vendor control what appears on their screen, television networks may be concerned with the risk of an inaccurate fact check, or viewers assuming the information was a political attack, according to the Associated Press

Adair suggested that viewer demand could successfully persuade networks. 

“I hope television networks would see the value in doing this,” Adair said. “What we heard when we did the tests was that viewers really like this feature, and that many of them would choose television networks that have this feature over networks that do not.”

Nonetheless, Adair said that the goal of the project extends beyond the presidential election. 

“Our goal is to empower democracy,” Adair said. “We’re trying to give people accurate information about what their politicians are saying, so they are making wise decisions when they vote.”

Junior Ethan Holland, a member of the Data+ team last summer, said that working on the fact-checking project inspired him to pursue computer science within the journalism field. 

“There’s so much data being collected all the time. If you have the computer science skills to collect, clean and analyze it, it could allow journalists to write really good and interesting stories,” Holland said. “I think journalism does a lot of good, so if I can apply my computer science skills to journalism, I think that would be a really fulfilling career for me.”