Nieman Foundation at Harvard
Should it stay or should it go: News outlets scramble to cover Britain’s decision to exit the European Union
ABOUT                    SUBSCRIBE
Nov. 13, 2012, 8:35 p.m.
Kernels of corn spelling out "truth"

FW: FW: Fw: FW: Fwd: fwd: fw: LazyTruth tackles false claims in email chain letters

Matt Stempeck’s Gmail extension aims to automatically detect bogus claims and help guide you (or your hysterical relative) back to sanity.

Kernels of corn spelling out "truth"

Your Uncle Larry from Pensacola, the one who still has a faded “Impeach Clinton” bumper sticker on his pickup, wants you to know something: Barack Hussein Obama, that socialist we just re-elected, is abolishing the national Christmas tree this year. This isn’t a rumor; this is a fact. And now you have two choices: delete this email or forward it to everyone you know.

The Internet’s oldest social network still hums with chain emails like this. calls it a zombie rumor, returning from the dead every year since Obama took office. The president is a constant target of the email rumor mill: He is a radical Muslim; he canceled the National Day of Prayer; he gave away part of Alaska to Russia; he lets his dog fly on its own jet.

We just went through a highly fact-checked election, but it’s unclear what the final score was between truth and fiction. One reason why myths persist is that fact-checking is often out-of-reach at the moment it would be most useful — like the moment where you open your inbox. Forwarding an email is a lot easier than hunting for evidence. So Matt Stempeck, a graduate student at the MIT Media Lab, is tackling the problem closer to its source.

Stempeck and developers Justin Nowell, Evan Moore, and David Kim have written a Gmail plugin called LazyTruth that quietly scans your email for chain letters, urban legends, and phishing scams. When you open a forwarded email, an “Ask LazyTruth” button invites you to investigate. The software checks the email against data pulled from PolitiFact and, and, if needed, offers a correction and a link to find out more.

Once a user clears the first (and only) hurdle — installing it as a Chrome extension — the plugin does all the work. The gap between the consumption of misinformation and the correction is reduced to nearly zero. (When it works.)

“The Washington Post has a great fact-checking column, but it’s for people who read the Post once a week, dive into a fact-check for 500 words,” Stempeck said. “There’s a much larger audience of people who would want the summary of that in one sentence if they get the email with that lie or mistruth in it. Basically, as far as journalism goes, it’s seeing if we can take the homework and the research and the knowledge that goes into an individual article and bring it out into the world and give it to people when they really want and need it.”

Take FactCheck’s fact-check of a chain letter claiming the president secretly criminalized protests against him. The deconstruction of that claim is breathtaking in precision and rigor, but it’s unlikely to reach the people who ought to read it. The people who trust the chain letter in the first place probably want to believe the claims are true. This is the essence of truthiness: “the quality of preferring concepts or facts one wishes to be true, rather than concepts or facts known to be true.”

Which gets to another problem: Are the people who install LazyTruth the people who really need it? And shouldn’t LazyTruth be an AOL plugin instead of a Chrome extension?

Stempeck said he expects LazyTruth users to be a mostly self-selecting, technically inclined audience. And that does not defeat the purpose, he said. He may not be able to reach Uncle Larry, but maybe he can empower Uncle Larry’s relatives with facts to help bring him back down to earth.

“I’ve received emails from friends of my family saying that climate change has nothing to do with mankind,” Stempeck told me. “Off the bat, I know that that’s not true, but I’m not always going to take the time out of my day to go summarize the recent science on it in two quick paragraphs for my friends. If I had a tool that surfaced that for me, I might be more likely to respond with that information.”

Stempeck wants to see if LazyTruth inspires people to push back in any number. Would 1 percent of users pushing back make a measurable impact on the spread of those emails?

If it sounds similar to Dan Schultz’s Truth Goggles, the work we wrote about last November and again in May, it is. The two have worked together at the Media Lab’s Center for Civic Media. Stempeck hopes to make use of Schultz’s work with natural-language processing to identify variations of common phrases in chain letters. For now, LazyTruth can only match exact strings against Stempeck’s huge and growing database of chain letters and their variations.

Chain letters have a lot of common features: They tend to be laced with exclamation points. They tend to be anonymous. They tend to be conservative. They tend to be riddled with spelling errors. And they always insist this is not a hoax!!!!!!!!!

To help debunk — and not reinforce — email myths, Stempeck has studied The Debunking Handbook from Australian researchers John Cook and Stephan Lewandowsky. “If your content can be expressed visually,” the guide advises, “always opt for a graphic in your debunking.” So for the zombie Christmas tree hoax (Stempeck’s favorite), LazyTruth offers a photograph of First Lady Michelle Obama and Malia Obama in front of the horse-drawn wagon conveying the national Christmas tree, the sign reading “White House Christmas Tree 2010.”

Other tips from the handbook:

  • Emphasize the facts, not the myth, to avoid an “overkill backfire effect.”
  • Don’t overload the correction with facts, because “a simple myth is more cognitively attractive than an over-complicated correction.”
  • Explain why the myth is wrong and what might have motivated the mythmakers.
  • Finish with a strong, memorable, tweetable phrase that people will want to share with their friends.

Next Stempeck wants to mine the data to learn more about the content of chain letters, how they mutate, who the primary actors are.

“Some of these emails, they’ll get updated for different nations and context,” Stempeck said. “I would also love to do some network analysis of how these things spread, how many people need to forward them for them to stay alive, and how many people actually forward them versus people that don’t? Is it like spam, where .001 percent is enough to keep it alive?”

Please forward this story to 10 people in the next five minutes.

Photo by Dave used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     Nov. 13, 2012, 8:35 p.m.
Show comments  
Show tags
Join the 15,000 who get the freshest future-of-journalism news in our daily email.
Should it stay or should it go: News outlets scramble to cover Britain’s decision to exit the European Union
Online, readers stayed up for the results: Peak traffic to BBC News, for instance, was around 4 a.m. GMT, and by 11 a.m. had received 88 million page views.
Acast wants to get new audiences “in the podcast door” with more diverse shows and better data
With a new paid subscription option and its sights set on non English-speaking countries, the Swedish podcasting startup is looking for listeners (and shows) beyond the iTunes set.
“Medium’s team did everything”: How 5 publishers transitioned their sites to Medium
What happened when Pacific Standard, The Ringer, The Awl, The Bold Italic, and Femsplain moved their sites over to Medium.
What to read next
0What does it take to be a “full-service” digital journalism organization? Ask Discourse Media
“We’ve gone down lots of experimental rabbit holes.”
0Hot Pod: New podcasts, more existential public radio talk, and progress on intern wages
Plus: New big-picture views from Pew, Malcolm Gladwell hits the promo circuit, and more growth in branded podcasts.
0Hot Pod: Is the Stitcher deal a step toward a closed podcast ecosystem?
Plus: Midroll’s CEO steps down, Malcolm Gladwell goes audio, and how voice assistants (Siri, Alexa, Cortana) could impact NPR’s drive time programs.
Encyclo is our encyclopedia of the future of news, chronicling the key players in journalism’s evolution.
Here are a few of the entries you’ll find in Encyclo.   Get the full Encyclo ➚
Seattle PostGlobe
Chicago Tribune
Associated Press
The Ann Arbor Chronicle
The Economist
The Blaze
The Daily