Journalism may get an extra boost from fact-checking algorithms. Image in Public Domain Pictures.

The Pope endorses Donald Trump! Or does he? Vaccines cause autism! No, they don’t (really, they don’t). Every day we’re bombarded with information and news, much of which is simply not true. Fake news has become a part of our life, and many such stories are compelling enough to make people believe them and often times, share them on social media. The world is still scrambling to adapt to this new situation, and a definitive way to combat fake quickly and efficiently is yet to come through.

Fact checking on steroids

With that in mind, the EU started a new project called Pheme, after a Greek goddess. The Pheme project brings together IT experts and universities to devise technologies that could help journalists find and verify online claims. It’s very difficult for artificial intelligence to detect satire, irony, and propaganda, but Pheme has reportedly been making significant advancements in this area.

Unverified content is dominant and prolific in social media messages, Pheme scientists say. While big data typically presents challenges in its information volume, variety and velocity, social media presents a fourth: establishing veracity. The Pheme project aims to analyze content in real time and determine how accurate the claims made in it are.

Fact checking is an often overlooked aspect of modern journalism. It takes a lot of time, it doesn’t add anything “spicy” to media content, and you rarely hear about the people doing it. Therefore, many media are employing something else: making stuff up. Half-truths and misinformation (or as the White House prefers to call them these days, alternative facts) have been running rampant on Facebook and Twitter, with millions of users spreading them without bothering to check if they’re real or not. Yes, users also carry a part of the blame here.

Well, researchers want to find an algorithmic solution to this human problem. They hope to do this by analyzing the language use and spread of information through the network, as well as the overall context of the information itself. Basically, they want to build a real-time lie detector for social media, flagging hoaxes and myths before they manage to become viral — much like an antibiotic taken as the symptoms start to set in. Ideally, we’d have a vaccine for this — but the vaccine, in this case, is education and convincing people to fact check things before they believe, which is either not happening, or will take a very long time. A faster solution is needed, and Pheme can just be a part of that solution.

The project is named after Pheme, the Greek goddess of fame. Image credits: Luis García.

They focus on two scenarios: lies about diseases and healthcare, which can be especially dangerous, and information used and published by journalists. Pheme addresses speculation, controversy, misinformation, and disinformation, in what can only be described as a broad, ambitious attempt. If this works out, as cliche as it sounds, it has the potential to revolutionize how we receive information and change the world forever.

Pheme will not only focus on analyzing news and stories, but it will also try to identify… memes. They coined the term phemes to designate memes which are enhanced with truthfulness information. Helping the spread of such phemes could not only make your coworkers laugh, but also help propagate truthfulness instead of misinformation.

The cool thing about this is that they will be releasing all this as an open source algorithm, to be used by journalists worldwide. The project will also reportedly develop a free-to-use platform where anybody can filter and verify media claims with an interactive and intuitive dashboard.

Of course, Pheme is not the only project of this type. Facebook and Google are working on their fake news detectors, as are several other tech giants and research institutes. The acuteness of the problem of fake is impossible to ignore, and its impact on the world should not underestimate it. The stakes have never been higher.

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