Is 2012 the year of skeptical software tools?

I’m very excited. Since the beginning of this blog in 2008 I’ve been encouraging skeptics to get involved online and most of all to build tools for others to use. The programmability of Web 2.0 means that we no longer need to treat websites as static islands of data to be consumed as-is. With the right tools, you can mash up data from multiple sites, filter that data and do many other exciting things.

Ever since my TAM6 presentation on this topic (which was the kickoff point for this blog) I’ve been building and expecting to see others build tools that take advantage of these techniques for applied skepticism. There have been a few, but not as many as I would like to see.  (Why that is, is something I may address in another post).

But there seems to be a change coming on this front, and to a degree it is coming not from skeptics but from journalists. Read on for more details.

Newspaper Industry in Flux

As the Internet is upending the business models of traditional newspapers and other publishers, it is also upending some systems that for years have allowed us to rely on the veracity of published information. Editors and fact checkers, who would pore over press articles and make sure they were correct, are not part of the blog publishing process. So who checks anything for accuracy these days?

Add to this the rapid dissemination of news via social media, and it seems we have a booming problem of misinformation run amok. Did Jeff Goldblum fall to his death on a set in New Zealand? Did Mike Daisey actually see a man with a mangled hand at an Apple factory in China? Does homeopathy work against malaria? How do we know anything that we read online is actually true?

That last question goes right to the heart of what skeptics are about, but a new set of projects (many launched by journalists or journalism-related organizations) aims to assist in attacking this problem. Many of these projects have at their heart digital tools of the type I’ve been advocating here all along.

Skeptics would do well to familiarize themselves with these projects, support them, contribute to them and build alliances with these folks who share our interest in misinformation.

Taking Action

More than one event has been held already this year already to work on this issue. A symposium called Truthiness in Digital Media (aka #truthicon) was held at Harvard University on March 6 and 7, and this event included a hack day for prototyping digital solutions.  The event got some interesting coverage in Forbes and at the Nieman Journalism Lab. As the use of the word truthiness might imply, much of the discussion was about political and public-affairs coverage, spin and fact checking of political speech.

Last week an event was held at the University of Wisconsin called Science Writing in the Age of Denial (aka #denialconf). This was a workshop targeted at science communicators who have to deal with contentious issues familiar to skeptics such as climate change and creationism. There are some interesting blog posts about the talks at this event. (I wish I had known about this event, as I was in Madison on the day it started, but went home at the end of a different event).

There is also the Knight News Challenge.  This is a competition sponsored by the Knight Foundation, a charitable organization founded by the same people who created the newspaper chain of the same name. They intend to hand out up to $5 million in grants to interesting news-related projects to see them come to fruition. While not explicitly focused on misinformation, the theme this year is around “networks” and many misinformation-related projects have been submitted. Several have made it to the final rounds! The winners will be announced June 18.

So what are these software projects that are coming out of all this?  Well here are a few that I’ve been able to round up, I think they all could begin to be interesting tools for skeptics to use later this year, and some are already up and running now.

The Knight Finalists

Six of the projects have made it to the final round of the Knight Challenge, they are:

Hypothes.is has been mentioned on this blog a number of times, ever since its very successful Kickstarter funding campaign fall. Based in San Francisco and led by Dan Whaley it intends to create an annotation layer that will plug into your web browser and allow peer-review of any statement made anywhere on the Internet. Aside from the Kickstarter funding, they have received matching funds and alot of community support.  In February they held a Reputation Workshop to hash out plans for a reputation system within the product that hopefully will act to keep the quality of information high.  They’ve posted a number of videos from the workshop as work on the product continues.

RBUTR is also a browser plug-in and is also targeted at rebutting (hence the name) online information, but acts on a page-by-page level. I blogged about it earlier this month. It is the project of Shane Greenup and Craig O’Shannessy out of Sydney, Australia. It is already in beta, if you use the Chrome browser you can start using it today.

Truth Goggles is the thesis project of Dan Schultz of the MIT Media Lab, which he has written about on his blog. It will identify suspect statements in articles. I don’t know much about this other than what is at those links, but it did get some attention at Truthicon.

EnviroFact is a proposal by Beth Parke of the Society of Environmental Journalists to create a fact-checking system for environmental information in news stories. This may not actually involve the creation of software, but they do mention using Truth Goggles as a data source.

Truth Teller is an effort by Cory Haik at the Washington Post to build a desktop and mobile application to facilitate live, real-time fact checking of political speech as it happens. It doesn’t appear to have anything up and running yet.

Get To The Source is a project from Joanna Kao of MIT to create a tool to find the originating posts behind viral social media stories. Since so much misinformation travels virally, this could be an interesting angle for skeptics.

Other Projects

I’ve been able to identify a number of other projects as well.  Some of these were submitted to Knight and didn’t make it, others are just startups out there in the wild.  A few are a bit of a mystery.

FactLink seems similar to Hypothes.is in that it is building a reputation-based system for peer-reviewing individual facts throughout the web.  It is in beta now, and is based in San Mateo, California and in the Netherlands. They entered the Knight Challenge but did not make it past the first round.

Ch9alek.org is a Tunisian-based project billed as a “Facebook hoax buster”. It applies fact-checks to Internet based rumors in Tunisia. It was competing in the Knight challenge but did not survive the first round. (Most of the site is in French and Arabic). The site appears to be up and running.

FactSpreaders is an effort by Paul Resnick and students at the University of Michigan to respond to incorrect information being spread via Twitter and blogs and to reply with fact checks that have already been done. It was a contestant in the Knight challenge but did not survive the first round. The site only exists in mock-up form right now.

Orseis is a Firefox and Chrome plug-in now in alpha test that uses your friend network on Twitter to find content that is endorsed by people that you trust.  Seems a bit rough right now, and you have to request access.

Data Source Check is a tool to verify the reliability of a journalistic source behind an account of a social network or blog proposed by Mariano Blejman of Argentina. It applied to the Knight Challenge but did not survive the first round.

Face a Fact Check was a Knight proposal by the team at the political fact-checking site Chequeado to challenge public players to submit their statements to fact checking. It did not survive the first round, and other than the Knight proposal I can find no mention of it.

Media Literacy Troll was a project out of Bulgaria to deliberately feed false news information into Facebook to test people’s critical thinking skills. It entered the Knight Challenge but did not survive the first round.

Phoenix Unpublishing Project is an idea to build a system to allow readers and editors of newspapers to correct, retract and unpublish incorrect information. It was proposed by a non-profit in Michigan and did not survive the first round of the Knight Challenge.

Hackwatch is an idea to use social media to critique and crowd-rate articles. The idea is to create accountability for journalists and challenge them to defend their reputations. It was entered in the Knight Challenge by Jacobo Elosua of Civio in Spain, but didn’t make it past the first round.

HowTru? seems to be an effort to generate ratings as to the veracity of online articles, using crowdsourced ratings and a reputation system. I’m guessing this project is in beta now, but they are keeping things quiet while they sign up potential users.

.dBunk(r) also seems to be shrouded in a bit of secrecy, though they do a working Twitter account. But judging from the name, an obvious takeoff on “debunker” one would assume skeptics might find this project interesting.

Conclusion

The history of new media projects like the ones I’ve listed above is littered with failures, of course. Not every project gets off the ground. And crowdsourced projects must not only complete their software but they must attract and hold the attention of a healthy crowd of contributors.

But with so many interesting projects in varying stages of launch right now, I think its clear that skeptics are going to have some good tools to fight misinformation starting later this year. We need to keep an eye on these projects and support them as they launch, so they will have a good chance of success. Where crowdsourcing is required, we need to become part of those crowds.

Be sure to also take a look at the full list of Knight News Challenge finalists and see what other projects are competing for funding. Are there others you think might be interesting to skeptics?  Let us know in the comments.

And good luck to Hypothes.is, RBUTR, EnviroFact, Get to the Source, Truth Goggles and Truth Teller as the Knight Challenge proceeds to its final rounds. I know I’m hoping several of these projects will get a share of the Knight cash on June 18.

About Tim Farley
Focused on online misinformation, Tim Farley is a software engineer, computer security expert and scientific skeptic who created the site What's The Harm. He is a Past Fellow of the James Randi Educational Foundation.

9 Responses to Is 2012 the year of skeptical software tools?

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  3. Tim Farley says:

    Here’s one I accidentally left out, LazyTruth. “The LazyTruth inbox widget surfaces pre-existing nonpartisan information to debunk viral rumors when the information is needed most: in our inboxes.”

    Thanks to @bayanimills for reminding me of it.

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  6. Porter Bayne says:

    Tim — I wanted to put our tool on your radar, too. It’s called ReadrBoard — http://www.readrboard.com. It’s not explicitly focused on skeptical analysis — it’s a tool for readers to identify what grabs their attention on a page, and why. They select something on a page, and “react” — and can optionally comment in-line, too. Comments are grouped by reaction — so if I react “Agree!” and you react, say, “No way”, people can easily see your comment in the “No Way” bucket.

    A side effect we’re very excited about of this is absolutely in the realm of skeptical analysis. Seeing what content — what quotes, claims, “facts”, and also images or video — are grabbing people, and showing a variety of reactions along with their supporting comments, will hopefully help show a range of views on controversial content and help people think more skeptically.

    Would love your comments and questions on it!

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