For example, this past weekend I was at home listening to CBC Radio when I suddenly heard a familiar voice. It belonged to Dan Schultz, one of the attendees of the New York event. Schultz, whom I edited when I was managing editor of PBS MediaShift and Idea Lab, is a MIT Media Lab student working on a project called Truth Goggles. Nieman Journalism Lab wrote about the project last week, describing it as “software that flags suspicious claims in news articles and helps readers determine their truthiness.” (Note that the software doesn’t actually exist yet.)
Schultz is one of the aforementioned smart people now interested in the challenge of falsehoods and misinformation, and the promise of fact checking.
This week the fact checking news kept coming. The Nieman Watchdog Project published a story that looked at what journalists who should do when politicians lie. Here at CJR, Brendan Nyhan examined ways journalists can do a better job debunking falsehoods. (I dedicated two recent columns (1, 2) to the challenge of combating misinformation. One of those columns looks at research done by Nyhan and his colleague, Jason Reifler.)
As if that wasn’t enough, an e-mail written by Craig Newmark and sent to participants of the CUNY event was published by Jim Romenesko on his new site. Newmark laid out his vision of what a new cooperative fact checking initiative might look like. He sees it as marrying some of the work of the Center for Public Integrity with the Public Insight Network and the work being done by places like PolitiFact and FactCheck.org, among others. (He also name checked Truth Goggles and a new project, Hypothes.is.)
As if that weren’t enough, the march towards fact checking continues in a couple of weeks when I fly to Washington to take part on a one day event about checking hosted by the New America Foundation.
Yes, fact checking is on fire!
Well, hold on. I’m going to be a little more cautious than I was two years ago, and acknowledge that what we have right now is a lot of discussion and enthusiasm and new projects. But very little new checking yet.
The tools and technologies listed on slide 10 in my presentation are all new. Some have yet to launch.
Craig Newmark seems committed to helping establish new pro-am networks of fact checking, and my sense is he is willing to provide some financing to do it. This is new and important, and I hope it takes shape soon.
There are many things that make me feel positive about how we might find new ways to combat misinformation in 2012. We have more people, organizations, funders, technologies and technologists focused on the challenge. There is also a growing sentiment within in journalism that it’s time to stop allowing falseshoods to stand without challenge, or to quote people spreading lies just because they represent the ”other side”.
I feel encouraged and energized about what the next twelve months might bring.
But then I look on the other side and I see coordinated e-mail campaigns to spread lies; I see political pros investing money and expertise in creating falsehoods and injecting them into the public sphere via the Internet, TV, radio, and other mediums. I see people with a big head-start.
One of the things that blunts the effectiveness of journalistic checking is that we refuse to engage with the level of passion and determination of those who create and propagate public untruths. True progress will require a tougher attitude, a willingness to aggressively call bullshit. We also need to study the dark arts of public untruths and reverse engineer them with the same level of calculation and ferocity.
Are we up for that? I have my doubts, but I’m ready to roll up my sleeves and throw a few punches.