Meet Truth Teller, An Automated Political Fact-Checking App

Move over PolitiFact, there's a new fact checker in town.

This week, The Washington Post debuted a news app that can fact check speeches, virtually in real time. It's called Truth Teller, and for countless journalists and citizens looking to determine the accuracy and legitimacy of political statements, it's a step towards toward a brighter, more truthful future. 

Cory Haik, The Post's executive producer for digital news describes the app as a "speech-to-text technology to search a database of facts and fact checks. We are effectively taking in video, converting the audio to text (the rough transcript below the video), matching that text to our database, and then displaying, in real time, what’s true and what’s false."  

Released in partnership with the Knight Foundation Prototype Fund, and still in prototype stage, the app is currently focusing on the looming debate over tax reform. But Haik thinks it can one day be applied to streaming video, or even someone "holding up a phone to record a politician in the middle of a field in Iowa."

Yuri Victor, The Post's UX (user experience) Director, and the project lead in design, says the goal is to "hold politicians accountable and squash mistruths from spreading... to push the discussion forward on what's possible with real-time fact checking."

Here's a video of how the app works: 

Washington Post Truth Teller from The Washington Post on Vimeo.

The app works by transcribing videos with Microsoft Audio Video Indexing Service (MAVIS), which uses speech recognition technology that converts audio signals into words. Extracts of audio and video are then saved as a transcript, and the facts in that document are scrutinized for errors. To make it easy to search, the program focuses on patterns instead of specific phrases. This program is called a fuzzy string search algorithm. 

Not Replacing Humans

In today's cash strapped journalism environment, fact checkers have largely gone the way of the dinosaur. While there's still a few dedicated fact checkers here and there, the role has largely merged into the job of the reporter and the editor. Some publications, like The Tampa Bay Times' Pulitzer winning PolitiFact, still do it the old-fashioned way, with human being dedciated to the task.

Does this prototype of an automated fact checker threaten their livelihoods? 

Probably not, says Mark Glaser, the executive editor of PBS Media Shift

"I don't think that machines will be able to do all the work on fact-checking yet, but they can be a help and aid to human fact-checkers who might not be able to fact-check everything they hear instantly," Glaser said. "My guess is that this tool will take some time before it can threaten PolitiFact. More likely it will just be another weapon in the arsenal of fact-checkers."

The Post’s national political editor Steven Ginsberg agrees. "I dont think it's going to cost anyone a job. I don't think it replaces anything. I think it expands and broadens what you can do and who you can fact check - and correct a conversation before it gets too far on the wrong path."

Speed Matters

Ginsberg characterizes fact checking as a surprisingly difficult task that only a limited number of people are able to accomplish efficiently. And even for them, the process can take anywhere from an hour to an entire day or more.

And when an error is found, it's difficult to quantify how many people see the corrected fact compared to the number who saw the original mis-statement. When the two are so separated, it can complicate the perception of of what's true and what's not.

The beauty of this innovation, he says, is that it dramatically shortens the time between the falsehood and the truth: "People would get the truth a lot quicker," Ginsberg says. But the real value of the app won't be seen until it's in peoples' hands in town and city halls across the country, where they can use it for themselves to vet the thing that they are told.

"If you're a regular citizen and you want to hear a politician talk and see if he's telling the truth or not, you need something in your hand to go on," Ginsberg said. That's the ultimate goal for the Truth Teller app.

Photo courtesy of TruthTeller.com.