Tech & society

Help shape the future of fact-checking during the State of the Union address

On January 9, 2018, less than year after being sworn in as president of the United States, Donald Trump told his 2,000th lie.

When we started this project, originally aimed at the president’s first 100 days, he averaged 4.9 claims a day… There are now nearly 70 claims that he has repeated three or more times. Indeed, he crossed the 2,000 threshold during his one-hour discussion on Jan. 9 with lawmakers about immigration…

What if you could see a real-time assessment of a politician’s speech?

That’s the premise behind FactStream, a second-screen app for fact-checking political events in real time. As PolitiFact founder Bill Adair noted last year:

Politicians don’t stop lying on Election Day.

Adair now runs the Duke Reporters’ Lab and Duke’s DeWitt Wallace Center for Media & Democracy. FactStream is product of the Duke Reporters’ Lab.

Although FactStream currently relies on a bevy of human fact-checkers, the project goal is automated detection using AI to match claims against published fact-checks.

The team is looking for beta-testers for the State of the Union address. (Here’s what could go wrong)


How does it work?

The FactStream application provides a schedule of upcoming political events slated for live fact-checks. (The State of the Union is the only scheduled event at this time.)

Interested in an event? Let FactStream send you a reminder.

reminder set
FactStream can remind you of an upcoming event, if you allow notifications.
FactStream event pane
FactStream event pane currently has only one event.


Mockup of FactStream
This mockup screen illustrates how a fact-check might appear on your screen.

During an event, FactStream will launch a pop-up to alert users of either previously published fact-checks or real-time analyses of claims.

Want to know more? Then tap the pop-up to read a fact-check, share the fact-check or opt-in to receive additional context about Trump’s statements.


The app makes it easy to share to your favorite digital network:

FactStream Share to Facebook
Share to Facebook
FactStream Share to Twitter
Share to Twitter

Beta testers wanted

The Duke Reporters’ Lab has partnered with, PolitiFact and the Washington Post to provide real-time fact-checking of President Trump’s State of the Union address on January 30.

The team needs beta testers who use either an iPhone or an iPad.

(1) Download FactStream from the App Store. Be sure to enable notifications if you want the app to remind you of tonight’s speech!

(2) During President Trump’s speech (Jan. 30 at 9 p.m. ET), test the app’s various screens and share some fact-checks.

(3) After the speech is over, send feedback through this Google Form.


It’s important to call out lies

“Repeat a lie often enough and it becomes the truth”*, is a law of propaganda often attributed to the Nazi Joseph Goebbels. Among psychologists something like this known as the “illusion of truth” effect.

In 2016, the BBC explored the power of repeated falsehoods (aka “lies”). Researchers from Vanderbilt University found that prior knowledge doesn’t prevent repetition from swaying our judgements on non-emotionally charged statements such as “The Atlantic Ocean is the largest ocean on Earth.” This falsehood has a very limited emotional component and most people learned this in geography. Nevertheless, repetition sowed doubt.

Related to the need to shine a spotlight on lies is the challenge presented by confirmation bias. In other words, after we form an opinion, “we embrace information that confirms that view while ignoring, or rejecting, information that casts doubt on it.” This is an example of fast-thinking; confirmation bias is cognitively less taxing than actively seeking out information that might challenge our beliefs.

In 2006, researchers in Colorado discovered that after being in discussion with mostly like-minded people, discussing controversial (i.e., emotional) topics, liberals became more liberal in their views and conservatives, more conservative.

The challenge is that those most inclined to believe a politician’s statements (whether liberal or conservative) are those least inclined to use a tool like FactStream. This is a systemic, long-term problem that must be addressed in K-12 with a renewed (as well as “new”) approach to civics and media literacy.


Efforts like FactStream are important for democracy

In 1846, five New York City newspapers banded together to communicate the news about the Mexican–American War. Publishers recognized a long time ago that news gathering is an expensive proposition with economic benefits from sharing costs.

In December 1892, the Associated Press incorporated in Illinois. With a checkered history like most monopolistic organizations, however, AP eventually landed in court. In 1945, the U.S. Supreme Court found that AP had been violating the Sherman Antitrust Act (Associated Press v. United States).

Although AP members exercised undue economic hardship on rivals, the economic rationale for collaborative reporting remains true today; it may be even more true today.

News organizations, especially newspapers, did not anticipate how disruptive digital technology would be to entrenched local monopolies. Consolidation of ownership (across newspapers, radio and television) and loss of traditional advertisers (department stores have disappeared/consolidated, too) have meant newsrooms are shedding reporters and as well as photographers.

Fact-checking is one of those areas where collaboration is truly valuable, both to news organizations and society. We don’t need a dozen different organizations to point out that when someone says the blue sky is, instead, orange. Or when a politician claims he has not said “xyz” … when there is a video of said politician saying “xyz.”

In December, Duke reported that the year began with 51 active U.S. fact checkers (35 local; 16 national). As 2017 came to a close, seven of the local fact checkers had closed their doors. [See a map of fact-checking sites around the world.]


Democracy thrives on transparency

“Democracies die behind closed doors. The 1st Amendment, through a free press, protects the people’s right to know that their government acts fairly, lawfully and accurately in deportation proceedings. When the government begins closing doors, it selectively controls information rightfully belonging to the people. Selective information is misinformation.”
~ Judge Damon J. Keith, 2002

In a pre-Watergate era court case, Judge Damon J. Keith, U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan, ruled “that the government couldn’t wiretap individuals without a warrant.” The case (United States v. Sinclair) would make its way to the U.S. Supreme Court. [Note: Keith does not write that “democracy dies in the dark” in this ruling, despite claims that he did so. It is possible that he uttered these words separate from the ruling, but they do not appear in the ruling.]

In what has become known as “the Keith case” (United States v. United States District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan, Southern Division), the Supreme Court concurred with Keith, ruling that “Fourth Amendment freedoms cannot properly be guaranteed if domestic security surveillance may be conducted solely within the discretion of the Executive Branch.”

President Jimmy Carter would appoint Keith to U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit in 1977.

In 2002, Judge Keith would reprise his role as judicial brake on executive over-reach. In that three-judge unanimous opinion, Keith found that the Bush administration had unlawfully held “hundreds of deportation hearings in secret based only on the government’s assertion that the people involved may have links to terrorism.”

Help the students and developers at Duke shine light on democracy tonight as they channel Judge Keith’s commitment to government transparency.



Cross-posted at The Moderate Voice.

* There is no reliable source for this claim; Wikiquote authors hypothesize that the punchy phrase is a variation of what Goebbels said about the “big lie”, a concept which originated with Adolf Hitler.

All this was inspired by the principle—which is quite true within itself—that in the big lie there is always a certain force of credibility; because the broad masses of a nation are always more easily corrupted in the deeper strata of their emotional nature than consciously or voluntarily; and thus in the primitive simplicity of their minds they more readily fall victims to the big lie than the small lie, since they themselves often tell small lies in little matters but would be ashamed to resort to large-scale falsehoods.

It would never come into their heads to fabricate colossal untruths, and they would not believe that others could have the impudence to distort the truth so infamously. Even though the facts which prove this to be so may be brought clearly to their minds, they will still doubt and waver and will continue to think that there may be some other explanation. For the grossly impudent lie always leaves traces behind it, even after it has been nailed down, a fact which is known to all expert liars in this world and to all who conspire together in the art of lying.

— Adolf Hitler, Mein Kampf, vol. I, ch. X 




By Kathy E. Gill

Digital evangelist, speaker, writer, educator. Transplanted Southerner; teach newbies to ride motorcycles! @kegill

3 replies on “Help shape the future of fact-checking during the State of the Union address”

Politicians do what politicians have always done, some are more adept than others. If fact stream would contrast O’s errors and omissions, that would add much needed context. KG being far left, in my opinion, gives fact stream less credibility than it might have if it appeared more up-the-middle. And I always love the Hitler references. Their accuracy can be spot on. But that is beside the point. We are emotional beings and invoking Hitler is a communication tool designed to build emotion (and relevance) into an emotionless exercise. It gives the verbiage a hint of hysteria and helps to justify irrational (emotion turned backward) behavior. More extreme forms being Hitlers SS or the vandalism and destruction of private property or the quelling of free speech by groups like Antifa. On the + side I really enjoy the way KG writes and the way her exercises/essays unfold. There is always much to be appreciated in perspectives opposite from our own. Looking for those perspectives and acknowledging them promotes a degree of introspection and humility so often missing from our reality, written or spoken.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.