From algorithms to institutions

“Fact-checkers and computer scientists have worked together on a string of projects that aim to automate different part of the fact-checking process. One thing these efforts have in common is using automation as an enhancement, rather than a replacement, for journalistic work.”

Here’s an easy prediction: 2018 will bring mounting pressure to develop large-scale, automated responses to online misinformation. And here’s a hopeful one: That pressure will spark an increasingly frank discussion among journalists, policymakers, and platform companies about how to bolster the fact-building institutions that anchor public truth claims.

The quest to automate online fact-checking began well before the furor over so-called “fake news.” Fact-checks have a consistent structure built around discrete data elements — a claim, a claimant, a verdict — that lends itself to marrying human and machine intelligence in interesting ways. One of the first attempts to do this was Truth Goggles, an MIT project that (as initially conceived in 2011) tried to harness the work of professional fact-checkers to build a “magical button” that would instantly flag false claims on any web page.

Since then, fact-checkers and computer scientists have worked together on a string of projects that aim to automate different part of the fact-checking process. One thing these efforts have in common is using automation as an enhancement, rather than a replacement, for journalistic work — as what Bill Adair, writing in these pages past year, called a “force multiplier” to help human fact-checkers keep up with a growing tide of online misinformation.

For example, the most tedious part of a fact-checker’s job is hunting for interesting and important claims to check; a lot of what politicians say in speeches and debates turns out to be vague rhetoric or statements of opinion. ClaimBuster, developed by computer scientists at the University of Texas at Arlington, pores over transcripts to identify and rank factual statements that fact-checkers might want to investigate. (It also retweets checkable claims here.)

Another promising tool, being developed by the U.K.-based Full Fact, scans media feeds to track which politicians and news outlets are repeating claims that have already been debunked. Called Trends, the project is designed to give the fact-checkers a strategic view of the misinformation landscape, so they can target their corrections more effectively. Political journalists will also be able to use it to guide their reporting.

The most powerful automation technology deployed so far is in some ways the simplest: Since 2016, growing numbers of fact-checkers around the world have been using a new tagging scheme, called ClaimReview, that makes their work legible to algorithms. This means that when Google recognizes the claim being searched for — try “the Russia investigation is a made-up story” — it can preview the verdict in a “snippet” at the top of the search results. (The same tagging system lets the Amazon Echo look up answers to factual queries.)

The research involved in efforts like these has started to bring into view the “holy grail” of an end-to-end fact-checking engine that can check at least some kinds of claims in real time. ClaimBuster and Full Fact have trials in the works (see videos here and here) which operate by matching new claims against fact-checkers’ databases — or, in certain cases, by consulting original data sources such as economic statistics or voting records. As Full Fact noted in a 2016 report, the key to these efforts “is to make sure the kinds of resources fact-checkers can rely on are available as structured data that computers can use.”

And that’s what’s most exciting about these initiatives: Designing the systems to automate verification will draw focus back to the public, institutionally sanctioned data sources that human fact-checkers depend on to certify facts about everything from hurricane strength to inflation rates. These include agencies at every level of government — the U.K.’s Office of National Statistics is an ideal-typical example — as well as countless scientific and civil institutions that set standards and produce benchmark data in different areas of research or policy.

Political fact-checkers couldn’t do what they do without these kinds of institutional resources. Of course, neither could Google’s search algorithms, which depend both directly and indirectly on institutional authority reflected in our patterns of clicking and linking online. In fact, professional fact-checking groups act as a kind of social engine — one of many — for translating institutional knowledge into data that computers can work with.

Reflections on the rise of “algorithmic authority” have tended to oppose it to the institutional kind, based on old-world mechanisms like formal credentialing and peer review. The push for “automated” fact-checking may help us to come to terms with a reality that has always been messier than that, making explicit the institutional subsidy that algorithmic intelligence depends on.

Lucas Graves is senior research fellow at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism and an assistant professor at the University of Wisconsin.

Manoush Zomorodi   Self-help as a publishing strategy

Kawandeep Virdee   Zines had it right all along

Matt DeRienzo   A recession, then a collapse

Richard J. Tofel   The platforms’ power demands more reporters’ attention

Nikki Usher   The year of The Washington Post

Joanne McNeil   Gatekeeping the gatekeepers

Eric Ulken   The year local publishers get smart(er) about change

Emily Goligoski   Looking beyond news for inspiration

Renée Kaplan   The year of quiet adjustments (shhh)

Jared Newman   Venture funding and digital news don’t mix

Sam Sanders   Shine the light on ourselves

Joanne Lipman   Journalists inventing revenue streams

Mi-Ai Parrish   Blockchain and trust

Sara M. Watson   Feeds will open up to new user-determined filters

Juleyka Lantigua-Williams   Women of color will reclaim and monetize our time

Claire Wardle   Disinformation gets worse

Niketa Patel   Live journalism comes of age

Juliette De Maeyer   A responsible press criticism

Cindy Royal   Your journalism curriculum is obsolete

Taylor Lorenz   Social and media will split

John Keefe   Scooped by AI

Nancy Watzman   Know thy TV

Justin Kosslyn   The year journalists become digital security experts

Alan Soon   The rise of start of psychographic, micro-targeted media

Alice Antheaume   Are you fluent in AI?

Ariana Tobin   Too tired to tap

Debra Adams Simmons   And a woman shall lead them

Julia Beizer   A longer view on the pivot

Monique Judge   Letting black women tell their own stories

Ruth Palmer   Risks will grow for news subjects — especially minorities

Jesse Holcomb   Information disorder, coming to a congressional district near you

Charo Henríquez   Training is an investment, not an expense

Nicholas Quah   Stop talking trash about young people

Rick Berke   Value is the watchword

Hossein Derakhshan   Television has won

Jim Brady   With the people, not just of the people

Joyce Barnathan   It will be harder to bury the news

Aron Pilhofer   We can’t leave the business to the business side any more

Tamar Charney   We get serious about algorithms

Kinsey Wilson   Facebook and Google: Help out or pay up

Alfred Hermida   Going beyond mobile-first

Usha Sahay   Wallets get opened

Molly de Aguiar   Good journalism won’t be enough

Daniel Trielli   The rich get richer, the poor scramble

Corey Ford   The empire strikes back

Mira Lowe   The year of the local watchdog

Cory Haik   Suffering from realness, pivoting to impact

Millie Tran and Stine Bauer Dahlberg   (Hint: It’s about your brand)

Tracie Powell   The muting of underserved voices

Kathleen McElroy   Building a news video experience native to mobile

Alastair Coote   The year of self-improvement

Marie Gilot   No assholes allowed

Andrew Haeg   The year journalists become relationship builders

Vanessa K. DeLuca   Women’s voices take center stage

Kim Fox   Audience teams diversify their approach

Pia Frey   Address users as individuals

Dan Newman   A return to trust

Jennifer Brandel and Mónica Guzmán   The editorial meeting of the future

Sydette Harry   Listen to your corner and watch for the hook

An Xiao Mina   Memes and visuals come to the fore

Frédéric Filloux   External forces

Yvonne Leow   The rise of video messaging

Jessica Parker Gilbert   Design connects storytelling and strategy

Susie Banikarim   R.I.P. Pivot to Video (2017–2017)

Cristina Wilson   The year of the Instagram Story

Jake Levine   The return to now

Dan Shanoff   You down with OTT? (Yeah, DTC)

Carlos Martínez de la Serna   The new journalism commons

Matt Boggie   The intellectual equivalent of the Dead Sea

Rubina Madan Fillion   Unlocking the potential of AI

Michelle Garcia   Navigating journalistic transparency

Luke O'Neil   The end is already here

Emma Carew Grovum   Newsroom culture becomes a priority

Mario García   Storytelling finally adapts to mobile

Caitria O'Neill   The new court of public opinion

Adam Thomas   Sharing is caring: The year of the mentor

Lanre Akinola   Making noise is not a strategy

Zizi Papacharissi   Women come back

Imaeyen Ibanga   Longform video leads the way

Jamie Mottram   From pageviews to t-shirts

S. Mitra Kalita   The arc of news and audience

Neha Gandhi   Filler killers

Raju Narisetti   Mirror, mirror on the wall

Doris Truong   Computer vision vs. the Internet vigilantes

Pete Brown   Push alerts, personalized

Amy Webb   Listen to weak signals

Sue Schardt   Jump the niche

Valérie Bélair-Gagnon   Seeking trust in fragmented spaces

David Skok   Finding an information-life balance

Ernst-Jan Pfauth   Publishing less to give readers more

Marcela Donini and Thiago Herdy   Collaboration is the way forward for Brazilian journalism

Andrew Losowsky   The year of resilience

Monika Bauerlein   The firehose of falsehood

Nathalie Malinarich   Peak push

Jennifer Choi   Standing up for us and for each other

Craig Newmark   Working together toward sustainable solutions

Elizabeth Jensen   Show your work

Eric Nuzum   Beyond the narrative arc

Tanzina Vega   It’s time for media companies to #PassTheMic

Jassim Ahmad   Thriving on change

Dannagal G. Young   Stop covering politics as a game

Andrew Ramsammy   The year ownership mattered

Amy King   Let’s amplify visual voice

Nushin Rashidian   Publishers seek ad dollar alternatives

Jacqui Cheng   Retailers move into content

Michelle Ferrier   The year of the great reckoning

Dheerja Kaur   Fun with subscription products

Paul Ford   Go global

Jim Moroney   Newspapers have to be good enough for readers to pay for

Rachel Schallom   Better design helps differentiate opinion and news

Tim Carmody   Watch out for Spotify

Almar Latour   Conquering calm

Pablo Boczkowski   The rise of skeptical reading

Sam Ford   The year of investing in processes

José Zamora   Revenue-first journalism

Jennifer Coogan   The future is female

Mariana Moura Santos   Think local, act global

Edward Roussel   Eyes, ears, and brains

Borja Echevarría   TV goes digital, digital goes TV

Rodney Gibbs   Tech workers turn to journalism

Ståle Grut   Reclaiming audience interaction from social networks

Hannah Cassius   The year of the echo-chamber escapists

Burt Herman   Things get real

Evie Nagy   Pivot to mobile video frustration

Mike Caulfield   Refactoring media literacy for the networked age

Basile Simon   We need better career paths for news nerds

Matt Carlson   Attacks on the press will get worse

Heather Bryant   Building the ecosystems for collaboration

Trushar Barot   The Jio-fication of India

Tanya Cordrey   Finally, the seeds of radical reinvention

Kristen Muller   The year of the voter

Federica Cherubini   The rise of bridge roles in news organizations

Rachel Davis Mersey   AI, with real smarts

Alexios Mantzarlis   Moving fake news research out of the lab

Brian Lam   Sketchy ethics around product reviews

Ray Soto   VR reaches the next level

Rodney Benson   Better, less read, and less trusted

Mariano Blejman   News games rule

Christopher Meighan   Passive partnership is in the rearview

Mary Walter-Brown   Show a little vulnerability

Kyle Ellis   Let’s build our way out of this

Damon Krukowski   Reviving the alt-weekly soul

Laura E. Davis   Writing answers before you know the question

Felix Salmon   Covering bitcoin while owning bitcoin

Raney Aronson-Rath   Transparency is the antidote to fake news

Sarah Marshall   Loyalty as the key performance indicator

Steve Grove   The midterms are an opportunity

Betsy O'Donovan and Melody Kramer   Skepticism and narcissism

Kelsey Proud   No, no, no

Carrie Brown-Smith   Transparency finally takes off

Caitlin Thompson   Podcasting models mature and diversify

Will Sommer   The year local media gets conservative

Helen Havlak   Keywords, not publishers, power the world’s biggest feeds

Corey Johnson   The pro-fact resistance

Matt Thompson   Here come the attention managers

Umbreen Bhatti   The trust problem isn’t new

Feli Sánchez   The year for guerrilla user research

Francesco Marconi   The year of machine-to-machine journalism

Mandy Velez   texting is lit rn, fam

Lucas Graves   From algorithms to institutions

C.W. Anderson   The social media apocalypse

P. Kim Bui   The reckoning is only beginning

Julia B. Chan   Looking for loyalty in all the right places

Mary Meehan   Real lives are at stake in rural areas

Lam Thuy Vo   Breaking free from the tyranny of the loudest

Nicholas Diakopoulos   Fortifying social media from automated inauthenticity

L. Gordon Crovitz   Serving readers over advertisers

Miguel Castro   The arrival of the impact producer

Michael Kuntz   The only pivot that might work

Jarrod Dicker   Honesty in advertising

Rasmus Kleis Nielsen   The Snapchat scenario and the risk of more closed platforms

Amie Ferris-Rotman   More female reporters abroad (please)

Errin Haines Whack   At the ballot, it’s time to count black women

Sally Lehrman   Trust comes first

Vivian Schiller   Pivot to tomorrow

Bill Keller   A growing turn to philanthropy