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What Can the TruthTeller App Do for Journalism?

BY Julia Wetherell | Wednesday, February 6 2013

Two years ago, Middle East experts were confounded by the Gay Girl in Damascus hoax, when the online identity of a young Syrian lesbian blogging through the country’s civil war unraveled, revealing an American man living in Scotland.  Journalists and activists who had followed Amina Arraf throughout her ordeal were outraged; the time it took to untangle the truth about her supposed kidnapping distracted from real stories coming out of Syria. 

What if there had been an easier way to verify her posts?  Last week The Washington Post launched TruthTeller, a prototype tool for real-time fact-checking.  In beta, the platform currently works with transcripts from online videos, lining up spoken words against verified information sources. So far, it has been put to the somewhat limited provenance of analyzing political speech – like statements form Rep. Gerald Connolly, President Obama, and House Speaker John Boehner, who gets called out in a November speech for saying a tax hike on the rich will kill 700,000 jobs.  TechCrunch reported that, for the time being, TruthTeller can only speak to subjects it is knowledgeable of – exclusively American tax policy, for the moment. 

The implications are big for catching politicians and other public figures in real-time lies, but could the project – which was born out of a Knight Foundation grant – be put to use to verify other journalistic sources?

The Post’s National Political editor, Steven Ginsberg, said the idea for TruthTeller came to him after watching Michelle Bachmann speak to a group of Iowans during a Republican rally; he wondered what could have happened if everyone had whipped out their smartphones to check her facts in real time.  This may leave people wondering why the social element was left out of TruthTeller. Twitter fact verification is an increasingly essential – and social – practice for journalists. In cases where it goes wrong, like the widespread reporting of the wrong name for the Sandy Hook shooter, there are swift and significant repercussions.  NPR Senior Strategist Andy Carvin – who was implicated in spreading the wrong name – helped to expose Gay Girl in Damascus over a laborious week of following the Twitter trail.

Though a particularly complex issue, the scandal exposes the need for new and efficient processes of fact-checking in the digital age.  TruthTeller may represent that new frontier; if social media can be worked into future versions, it could find a wider reach. 

Personal Democracy Media is grateful to the Omidyar Network for its generous support of techPresident's WeGov section.

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