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.

Carrie Brown-Smith   Transparency finally takes off

Ariana Tobin   Too tired to tap

Matt Carlson   Attacks on the press will get worse

Burt Herman   Things get real

Molly de Aguiar   Good journalism won’t be enough

Alfred Hermida   Going beyond mobile-first

Debra Adams Simmons   And a woman shall lead them

Tanya Cordrey   Finally, the seeds of radical reinvention

Michelle Garcia   Navigating journalistic transparency

Michelle Ferrier   The year of the great reckoning

Daniel Trielli   The rich get richer, the poor scramble

Mira Lowe   The year of the local watchdog

Andrew Ramsammy   The year ownership mattered

Nathalie Malinarich   Peak push

Joanne McNeil   Gatekeeping the gatekeepers

Sydette Harry   Listen to your corner and watch for the hook

Manoush Zomorodi   Self-help as a publishing strategy

Adam Thomas   Sharing is caring: The year of the mentor

Tracie Powell   The muting of underserved voices

Monique Judge   Letting black women tell their own stories

Valérie Bélair-Gagnon   Seeking trust in fragmented spaces

Christopher Meighan   Passive partnership is in the rearview

Nikki Usher   The year of The Washington Post

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

Caitlin Thompson   Podcasting models mature and diversify

P. Kim Bui   The reckoning is only beginning

Raney Aronson-Rath   Transparency is the antidote to fake news

Paul Ford   Go global

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

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

Vanessa K. DeLuca   Women’s voices take center stage

Sue Schardt   Jump the niche

Marie Gilot   No assholes allowed

Luke O'Neil   The end is already here

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

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

Rachel Davis Mersey   AI, with real smarts

Raju Narisetti   Mirror, mirror on the wall

Zizi Papacharissi   Women come back

Cindy Royal   Your journalism curriculum is obsolete

Jim Brady   With the people, not just of the people

Jassim Ahmad   Thriving on change

Mariana Moura Santos   Think local, act global

Matt DeRienzo   A recession, then a collapse

Jared Newman   Venture funding and digital news don’t mix

Renée Kaplan   The year of quiet adjustments (shhh)

Amie Ferris-Rotman   More female reporters abroad (please)

Damon Krukowski   Reviving the alt-weekly soul

Rachel Schallom   Better design helps differentiate opinion and news

Laura E. Davis   Writing answers before you know the question

Emily Goligoski   Looking beyond news for inspiration

Nicholas Quah   Stop talking trash about young people

Jessica Parker Gilbert   Design connects storytelling and strategy

Francesco Marconi   The year of machine-to-machine journalism

Sam Ford   The year of investing in processes

Kawandeep Virdee   Zines had it right all along

Emma Carew Grovum   Newsroom culture becomes a priority

Andrew Haeg   The year journalists become relationship builders

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

Pete Brown   Push alerts, personalized

Juliette De Maeyer   A responsible press criticism

Kathleen McElroy   Building a news video experience native to mobile

Jarrod Dicker   Honesty in advertising

Jennifer Coogan   The future is female

Frédéric Filloux   External forces

Usha Sahay   Wallets get opened

Sarah Marshall   Loyalty as the key performance indicator

Rodney Benson   Better, less read, and less trusted

S. Mitra Kalita   The arc of news and audience

Amy King   Let’s amplify visual voice

John Keefe   Scooped by AI

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

Justin Kosslyn   The year journalists become digital security experts

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

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

Kinsey Wilson   Facebook and Google: Help out or pay up

Rubina Madan Fillion   Unlocking the potential of AI

Kelsey Proud   No, no, no

Nancy Watzman   Know thy TV

Umbreen Bhatti   The trust problem isn’t new

Alexios Mantzarlis   Moving fake news research out of the lab

Borja Echevarría   TV goes digital, digital goes TV

Nicholas Diakopoulos   Fortifying social media from automated inauthenticity

Niketa Patel   Live journalism comes of age

Rodney Gibbs   Tech workers turn to journalism

Miguel Castro   The arrival of the impact producer

Mary Meehan   Real lives are at stake in rural areas

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

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

C.W. Anderson   The social media apocalypse

Monika Bauerlein   The firehose of falsehood

Julia Beizer   A longer view on the pivot

Trushar Barot   The Jio-fication of India

Jennifer Brandel and Mónica Guzmán   The editorial meeting of the future

Doris Truong   Computer vision vs. the Internet vigilantes

Mike Caulfield   Refactoring media literacy for the networked age

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

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

Pablo Boczkowski   The rise of skeptical reading

Hossein Derakhshan   Television has won

Steve Grove   The midterms are an opportunity

Lucas Graves   From algorithms to institutions

Felix Salmon   Covering bitcoin while owning bitcoin

Betsy O'Donovan and Melody Kramer   Skepticism and narcissism

Corey Ford   The empire strikes back

Matt Boggie   The intellectual equivalent of the Dead Sea

Amy Webb   Listen to weak signals

Kyle Ellis   Let’s build our way out of this

Feli Sánchez   The year for guerrilla user research

Andrew Losowsky   The year of resilience

Kristen Muller   The year of the voter

David Skok   Finding an information-life balance

Matt Thompson   Here come the attention managers

Almar Latour   Conquering calm

Corey Johnson   The pro-fact resistance

Brian Lam   Sketchy ethics around product reviews

Michael Kuntz   The only pivot that might work

Jake Levine   The return to now

Tim Carmody   Watch out for Spotify

Cristina Wilson   The year of the Instagram Story

Mario García   Storytelling finally adapts to mobile

Sally Lehrman   Trust comes first

Ernst-Jan Pfauth   Publishing less to give readers more

Vivian Schiller   Pivot to tomorrow

Mi-Ai Parrish   Blockchain and trust

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

Bill Keller   A growing turn to philanthropy

Ruth Palmer   Risks will grow for news subjects — especially minorities

Evie Nagy   Pivot to mobile video frustration

Sam Sanders   Shine the light on ourselves

Dannagal G. Young   Stop covering politics as a game

Taylor Lorenz   Social and media will split

Imaeyen Ibanga   Longform video leads the way

Ståle Grut   Reclaiming audience interaction from social networks

Charo Henríquez   Training is an investment, not an expense

Hannah Cassius   The year of the echo-chamber escapists

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

Tamar Charney   We get serious about algorithms

Edward Roussel   Eyes, ears, and brains

Pia Frey   Address users as individuals

Jacqui Cheng   Retailers move into content

Lanre Akinola   Making noise is not a strategy

Lam Thuy Vo   Breaking free from the tyranny of the loudest

Joyce Barnathan   It will be harder to bury the news

Caitria O'Neill   The new court of public opinion

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

Basile Simon   We need better career paths for news nerds

Cory Haik   Suffering from realness, pivoting to impact

Craig Newmark   Working together toward sustainable solutions

Neha Gandhi   Filler killers

Alice Antheaume   Are you fluent in AI?

An Xiao Mina   Memes and visuals come to the fore

Mandy Velez   texting is lit rn, fam

José Zamora   Revenue-first journalism

Carlos Martínez de la Serna   The new journalism commons

Jennifer Choi   Standing up for us and for each other

Federica Cherubini   The rise of bridge roles in news organizations

Heather Bryant   Building the ecosystems for collaboration

Nushin Rashidian   Publishers seek ad dollar alternatives

Will Sommer   The year local media gets conservative

Dheerja Kaur   Fun with subscription products

Kim Fox   Audience teams diversify their approach

Alastair Coote   The year of self-improvement

Eric Nuzum   Beyond the narrative arc

Yvonne Leow   The rise of video messaging

Mary Walter-Brown   Show a little vulnerability

Elizabeth Jensen   Show your work

Mariano Blejman   News games rule

Ray Soto   VR reaches the next level

Claire Wardle   Disinformation gets worse

Jamie Mottram   From pageviews to t-shirts

L. Gordon Crovitz   Serving readers over advertisers

Rick Berke   Value is the watchword

Joanne Lipman   Journalists inventing revenue streams

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

Dan Newman   A return to trust