Could ‘Truth Goggles’ Keep the Media Honest?

The truth is out there, and a new webtool from MIT may help us find it.
The Republican debates last fall were oft-ridiculed for their factual errors, but tools like "Truth Goggles" could potentially verify candidate's statements in real time. (Photo: Getty Images)
Jul 13, 2012· 2 MIN READ
Originally from Baltimore, Oliver lives and writes on a quiet, tree-lined street in Brooklyn.

It’s hard to know what to believe anymore, isn’t it? Whether it’s a politician boasting impressive growth statistics on the campaign trail, a news commentator warning of a bleak economic outlook, or a newspaper article cautiously optimistic on the housing market, lately all the numbers seem open to interpretation—or, at least, later correction.

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A new web tool may now offer hope of separating the fact from the fact-like. Originally a thesis project by Dan Schultz, a master’s candidate in MIT’s Media Lab, “Truth Goggles” checks factual claims in news articles by verifying them against a database of thousands of verified claims. As Nieman Journalism Lab’s Andrew Phelps notes, the potential implications of the tool could be huge:

One long-term problem with the prospect of finding truth through technology is that the truth itself is often subject to debate.

“Imagine if every factual claim were highlighted in news articles—true, false, or otherwise. The gap between consumption and correction of bad information effectively would be reduced to zero.”

But, as Phelps notes, the plethora of potential pluses will only be reached after dealing with the plethora of potential problems. Language processing technology is in its early stages and often fails to pick up variations in sentence structure.

The program currently draws upon Politifact’s database of approximately 5,500 verified claims; too small a base to determine universal turth. Acquiring a data base large enough to be viable will take some time. Then there’s the problem of having multicolored highlighted text all over your computer screen.

Dan Schultz’s brainchild is still in beta form, but you can try it out now by dragging the Truth Goggles link to your bookmarks bar and clicking on it when you land on a page you want surveyed.

Giving it a quick spin, I wasn’t able to bring up any highlighted material on any pages. But it was easy to imagine how empowering having a truth diviner might be. If everything from a politician’s page to Facebook messages can be checked against a database of constantly updating facts, how long could misinformation persist? And how much time would that save the political process—and all of us?

One long-term problem with the prospect of finding truth through technology is that the truth itself is often subject to debate.

Back in June 2011, Jon Stewart took Fox News to task for having the most misinformed viewership on network news, citing recent Pew polls. Shortly after, none other than Politifact called bullshit on Stewart’s claim, and Stewart issued a mea culpa.

But should he have? Last April, Salon posted an editorial by Science Progress editor Chris Mooney that argued that it was Politifact that was in the wrong, and doubly so for failing to correct its mistake.

In a way, they’re both right.

While Politifact pokes holes in the methodology of the polls and studies to knock down Stewart’s claim, Mooney draws upon specific examples of misleading information to bolster his, and Stewart’s, claim. A fair point, perhaps, but not enough to make Politifact retract its assessment.

Until we figure out who should be fact checking the fact checkers, maybe it’s best we keep working out our own conclusions.

Would you use a program like “Truth Goggles”? Let us know in the COMMENTS.

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Oliver Lee has been covering social justice and other issues for TakePart since 2009. Originally from Baltimore, he lives and writes on a quiet, tree-lined street in Brooklyn. Email Oliver | @oliverung