Late last month, The Washington Post debuted "The Truthteller," an application that it hopes will soon be able to fact-check politicians' speeches in real time using speech-to-text technology and a vast database of facts. Brooke talks to Cory Haik, The Washington Post's executive producer for digital news, about the app.
Plan B - Ill Manors
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Imagine if instead of the laborious, costly and problematic fact-checking process currently available to news consumers, you could just hold up your phone at say, a political rally, and an automated voice would tell you if what you are hearing is true or false. Well, in August of 2011, Washington Post National Political Editor Steven Ginsberg was extremely frustrated during a rally for Michele Bachmann in Indianola, Iowa.
STEVEN GINSBERG: There were maybe 30 or 40 people there. It’s leading right up to the Iowa straw poll, and Michele Bachmann is riding high. This is sort of the high moment of her run for the president. You have a small midday rally, people who took a little time off from their work, and here you had an elected member of Congress not being on the level with them. Had they known, they could have said, wait a second, that’s not exactly right. Let’s talk about what’s real and see where we go from there.
So I called Cory, and I said, is there a way that we can get the truth into people’s hands at the moment that they need it, so a politician can’t stand in front of them and just tell them things that aren’t true.
CORY HAIK: My first answer to him was yes, we can do something.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Cory Haik is the Washington Post’s executive producer for digital news. What did you guys do?
CORY HAIK: At that time, Siri for iPhone was sort of hot and I thought maybe there's something with that. You know, you’re standing in a field in Iowa, you’re – you can hold up your phone. You can record audio on your phone, you can record video on your phone. Well, I can take that back from you and then I can run that through something and tell you if it's true or not. But how can we get close to real time, because that's what we’re looking for. We’re looking to deliver back to those people right then what’s true and not.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Describe what Truth Teller looks like. Give me a general idea of how it works.
CORY HAIK: A user comes to truthteller.washingtonpost.com and you can select a video and you press Play, and what happens is the video starts to play and our software takes this video, extracts the audio, turns that audio into the transcript that you'll see, and then that transcript is then being matched in real-time fashion to our database. So you will see in real time what’s true and what's false.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: But you have a couple of problems. One is it relies on speech-to-text. It’s getting better, but it's still notoriously unreliable. But even if you have excellent speech-to-text, you still need something for the computer to read; you need facts. And right now, you probably don't have a computer powerful enough to assemble and extrapolate facts from the entire Internet. You have to feed them, right?
CORY HAIK: What we built basically is a database that we are manually, at the moment, feeding facts into.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And you’ve limited yourself, for now, to one subject, right?
CORY HAIK: We have.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Which is?
CORY HAIK: Tax debate, tax reform. We wanted to sort of direct it to the conversation that we're expecting to happen in the next couple of months, and we sort of try to test it around the speeches that these politicians will be making around this particular subject.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Also, aren’t those facts a little easier to come by, since they involve numbers?
CORY HAIK: I think that's definitely fair to say. I mean, for instance, I'm looking at one of the facts right now that we say is true. Gerry Connolly claimed, in a speech, that Ronald Reagan raised taxes in 1982, 1984, 1985, 1986 and 1987. We said that's true, and then we can actually point to our source that says that which, in this case, happens to be PolitiFact, which we cite and we link back to. But yes, it’s much more black and white than, say, you know, gun control or something like that.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You’re talking about Democratic Congressman Gerald Connolly. You know, he did correctly identify the claim that Reagan had raised taxes in those years. But let's look at this other assertion. GERRY CONNOLLY: The Recovery Act, which I proudly supported, cut taxes for 95% of all Americans, averaging $400 dollars for individuals and $800 for families.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: But your Truth Telling device misheard a word. The Truth Teller transcript says, “The Recovery Act, which I ‘probably’ supported - as opposed to ‘proudly’ supported - cut taxes ‘but’ 95% of all Americans, averaging $400 for individuals and $800 for families, which almost sounds as if the “but” is a negation of the claim that the Recovery Act, cut taxes for 95% of Americans. And so, it labeled the statement as false.
CORY HAIK: You will see in our About This post –
- in the Truth Teller [LAUGHS] - I made a note that we may be returning some false positives right now. And we're actually going by hand and looking at those, and we basically have to get better at this translation, as you point out. And then we have to tune our algorithm to do better matching. And then we’ve got to get more facts in our database. So yes, it is a prototype, in the truest sense of the word.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You mentioned Siri at the top. Were you thinking of ever giving Truth Teller a voice?
CORY HAIK: You know, when I told Steven, yes, we can do something, it’s fun to have big dreams and ideas to work towards. I think that that’s gonna be really hard to do, but you have to let people talk into it, hold it up, record things, and then you have to be able to offer them speech back: Yes, true, false! You know, we’ve – [LAUGHS] Absolutely.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: I want you to do it, Cory.
CORY HAIK: Okay, I’m on the case.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Thank you very much.
CORY HAIK: It’s been a pleasure.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Cory Haik is the Washington Post’s executive producer for digital news. And you can check out the Truth Teller yourself at truthteller.washingtonpost.com.