Last year the Washington Post received funding from the Knight Foundation for its Truth Teller platform – a program intended to fact-check political speeches and debates in real time.
At present it can still take 20 minutes or more to verify claims in video or audio, but the mixture of technologies that makes up Truth Teller – video to text translation, an algorithm to find claims in text, a database of facts to test those claims against – is evolving.
Last month it was used to fact-check the second debate in the Virgina gubernatorial race, the first half of its test in public beta, and the final debate on Thursday will see the process develop further. Next year it will be used publicly in the congressional mid-term elections, before the ultimate aim of getting as close to real time as possible for the 2016 presidential race.
"The reason we built this to begin with is there's more information than ever and so many lies," Cory Haik, the Post's executive producer and senior editor of digital news, told Journalism.co.uk, "and you just can't get to it fast enough. So how can we use technology to aid that process?"
During the most recent gubernatorial debate in September, for example, where candidates McAuliffe and Cuccinelli sought to undermine each other, Truth Teller worked by recognising a claim made in the speech, cross-referencing it with the growing database of established facts, and then giving a result, albeit not yet in real time. But the process of manually checking the facts is still what makes the platform tick, however.
"Whenever we hear one of the candidates making a claim we don't have a fact-check for, we do the work on the fact-check and put that in our database," Haik said, explaining how, in time, the database of facts will grow to allow quicker and easier automatic verification of politicians claims. Although the ultimate aim is to get as close to real time as possible, Truth Teller also serves as an audiovisual record of political verification, holding leaders to account for what they say in an accessible format.
When it comes to 2014, an important part of the process will be in partnering with other organisations and "independent fact-checkers" to make sure as much as possible is being reported and giving Truth Teller a rich resource to draw on when looking to verify a speech.
"We're really interested in figuring out how we do the best kind of fact-checking," Haik said, "as this product is only as strong as the data we have in the database."
The more "eyes and ears" the Post has on the ground, said Haik, the better prepared the platform is to cover future speeches and debates. So from next year, the Post will start testing an app for the public to submit video or audio, meaning Truth Teller could grow into a "Shazam for truth" in politics, Haik said.
"We think the process will work where a video comes in from a user, and it's put in a queue" explained Haik, "We have a producer that looks at it and sees the video came from this place in Iowa where so-and-so is speaking, there's a three minute clip, they send it over to Truth Teller to extract some text, see if we can find a claim, see if it matches and see if we can send it back."
Any submitted material could then be added to the database and the Truth Teller site to check more facts in the future, but also document untruths told in the public sphere.
"The ethos of the entire project is to tell the truth as quickly as we possibly can," Haik said. "Call politicians on lies. In the service of that, it makes sense to share it around. All you have to do is fact-check and put it in this database and run your video through it.
"It's just a matter of structuring your journalism in the right way and getting the kind of video that you need. So sharing it around would only bolster the product. We'll be looking for ways to do that as we move through it."
Partnering with regional and local organisations or the American audience makes editorial sense in terms of building the Post's own database, but Haik said the ethical basis of showing up politicians could take it international in the future.
"There's huge opportunity to expand internationally," she said. "The UK is an easy fit as there's a lot of similarities and we talked early on about white-labelling this."
Haik admitted that the Post is "aiming high" with such a large, complex technical innovation and that having a fully automated, real-time fact-checker may not even be possible. But with the continued pace of technological advance nothing should be ruled out, and the main aim is to keep working on journalism that has an impact.
"Fundamentally alter what leaders say to the free world," she said. "Profoundly change the political discourse. Those are the goals."
Update: Video footage from the final debate of the Virginia gubernatorial race, run through the Truth Teller platform, is now available on the Washington Post website. This article has been updated to show that Cory Haik's title at the Washington Post is executive producer and senior editor of digital news, not executive director of digital news, as originally reported.
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