When fact-checking technologists and journalists gather in Durham for the 2019 Tech & Check Conference this month, they will share new tools intended to optimize and automate fact-checking.
For Dan Schultz, one founder of the Bad Idea Factory software development collective, this will be a chance to debut a “mannequin” version of the Talking Point Tracker. Created in collaboration with the Duke Tech & Check Cooperative, the tracker is intended to “capture the zeitgeist” of television news by identifying trending topics.
Duke journalism professor Bill Adair, who runs Tech & Check, launched the project by asking Schultz how fact-checkers could capture hot topics on TV news as quickly as possible. That is a simple but powerful idea. TV news is a place of vast discourse, where millions of viewers watch traditional, nonpartisan newscasts and partisan broadcasters such as Sean Hannity and Rachel Maddow. Listening in would give insight into what Schultz calls a “driver or predictor of collective consciousness.”
But executing even simple ideas can be difficult. In this case, TV news programs broadcast dense flows of media: audio, video, text and images that are not simple to track. Luckily, network and cable news outlets produce closed-caption subtitles for news shows. Talking Pointer Tracker scans those subtitles to identify keywords used most frequently within blocks of time. It also puts the keywords in context by showing sentences and longer passages where the keywords were found. To deepen the context, the tracker shows related keywords that often appear with the trending words.
The eventual goal is to group keywords into clusters that better capture emerging conversations. “Our hope is that it will be a useful tool for journalists who want to write in the context of what’s being discussed,“ said Schultz, who is collaborating with Justin Reese, a front-end developer with the Bad Idea Factory, on the project.
More technically, Talking Point Tracker runs closed-caption transcripts through a natural language processing pipeline that cleans the text as well as it can. An application programming interface, an API, uses separate language processing algorithm to find the most common keywords. These are “named entities” — usually proper nouns that can be sorted into different categories such as places, organizations and locations.
Talking Point Tracker’s prototype, to be unveiled at Tech & Check, is dense with information. But the design Reese created for viewing on a computer screen makes it readable. There’s enough white space to be easy on the eyes and a color scheme of red, blue, black and yellow that organizes text.
A list of the most frequent keywords over a specified time period are listed in a column on the left. Next to that is a line graph highlights their frequency. Sentences from which the keywords are listed on the right. If you click there, the tool points you to longer passages of transcripts. On the bottom are related keywords that often appear in the same sentences as a given word.
Moving from a mannequin stage to a living stage for this project will be challenging, Schultz said. As much as natural language processing has evolved over the past decade, algorithms still have trouble understanding aspects of human language. One free, open-source system the Tracker relies on is an API called spaCy. But programs like spaCy don’t always recognize the same thing when they’re stated differently — say, the “Virginia legislature” and the “Virginia General Assembly.”
Another challenge is coping with the quality of news show transcripts, Schultz said. The transcripts can contain many typos, in addition to sometimes being either all caps or all lowercase, which the API can have trouble reading.
And the API doesn’t always know where sentences break. Too often, the system will return sentences that contain just “Mr.” because it concludes that a period signifies the end of the sentence. To get around this, Schultz is using another NLP technology to clean the transcripts he obtains.
To prepare for the Tech & Check Conference, Schultz is building better searching tools and further cleaning up the Tracker’s design. “It’s always good to have your feet close to the fire,” Schultz said.
The biggest question he hopes to get answered before leaving is whether Talking Point Tracker could be useful for journalists, he said.
“There’s a lot things we can gain from feedback. If we have the capacity and interest from whoever, we will continue to iterate and build on top of that,” Schultz said.
We tested two fact-checking products during the State of the Union address. One failed, the other showed great promise.
The failure was FactStream, our iPhone app. It worked fine for the first 10 minutes of the speech. Users received two timely “quick takes” from Washington Post Fact Checker Glenn Kessler, but then the app crashed under an unusual surge of heavy traffic that we’re still investigating. We never recovered.
The other product is a previously secret project we’ve code-named Squash. It’s our first attempt at fully automated fact-checking. It converts speech to text and then searches our database of fact-checks from the Post, FactCheck.org and PolitiFact. When it finds a match, a summary of the fact-check pops onto the screen.
We’ve been testing Squash for the last few weeks with mixed results. Sometimes it finds exactly the right fact-checks. Other times the results are hilariously bad. But that’s what progress looks like.
We went into last night’s speech with very modest expectations. I said before the speech I’d be happy if the speech simply triggered fact-checks to pop up, even if it was a poor match.
But Squash actually performed pretty well. It had 20 pop-ups and six of them were in the ballpark.
Overall, the results were stunning. It gave us a glimpse of how good automated fact-checking can be.
We’ll have more to share once we’ve reviewed the results, so stay tuned.
As for FactStream, it now has lots of timely fact-checks from the State of the Union on the main home screen, which continues to function well. We will fix any problems we identify with the live event feature and plan to be back in action for real-time coverage for campaign events later this year.
UPDATE, Feb. 5, 11 p.m.: Our FactStream app failed during the State of the Union address. We apologize for the problems. We are still sorting out what happened, but it appears we got hit with an unexpected surge of traffic that overwhelmed our servers and our architecture.
As we noted at the bottom of this post, this was a test – only our second of the app. We’ll fix the problems and be better next time.
The Reporters’ Lab is teaming up with the Washington Post, PolitiFact and FactCheck.org to offer live fact-checking of the State of the Union address on Tuesday night on our new FactStream app.
Journalists from the Post, PolitiFact, and FactCheck.org will provide real-time updates throughout the speech in two forms:
Ratings – Links to previously published fact-checks with ratings when the president repeats a claim that has been checked before.
Quick takes – Instant updates about a statement’s accuracy. They will be labeled red, yellow and green to indicate their truthfulness.
Tuesday’s speech will be the second test of FactStream. The first test, conducted during last year’s State of the Union address, provided users with 32 updates. We got valuable feedback and have made several improvements to the app.
FactStream is part of the Duke Tech & Check Cooperative, a project to automate fact-checking that is funded by Knight Foundation, the Facebook Journalism Project and the Craig Newmark Foundation. Additional support has been provided by Google.
FactStream is available for iPhone and iPad (sorry, no Android version yet!) and is a free download from the App Store.
The app has two streams. One, shown by the home symbol in the lower left of the screen, provides a constant stream of the latest fact-checks published every day throughout the year. The live event feature for the State of the Union address is marked by an icon of a calendar with a check mark.
Because this is a test, users could encounter a few glitches. We’d love to hear about any bugs you encounter and get your feedback at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Same ad, different name, over and over again. Cookie-cutter ads, generic political ads used to promote or criticize multiple campaigns and candidates, were widely deployed during the 2018 North Carolina midterm elections.
As student journalists working on the North Carolina Fact-Checking Project, we spent months sifting through thousands of campaign ads looking for political claims to fact-check. It didn’t take long to notice that many were nearly identical.
The copy-cat ads we encountered typically targeted groups of candidates, such as state House candidates from one party, and added their names to the same attack ad. That allowed the opposing political party and their boosters to widely circulate messages about topics important to their base.
One reason for this is state political campaigns have become increasingly centralized in recent years, often run by political caucuses rather than individual candidates, said Gary Pearce, co-publisher of Talking About Politics, a blog about North Carolina and national politics.
Congressional campaign committees in Washington, D.C. as well as North Carolina legislative caucus committees conduct voter research and use the data to pinpoint issues that matter most to target voters during election season, he said.
“Consistency amplifies the message,” Pearce said. “It makes sense for the caucuses to take on a specific set of issues that are important in this election and will rile the voters up.”
The North Carolina Democratic Party employed this technique often this year, producing ads that claimed Republicans would eliminate insurance coverage for pre-existing medical conditions, ignore polluted drinking water, even tolerate corruption within the state Republican Party.
Political Action Committees, such as the conservative North Carolina Values Coalition, employed a different strategy, also based on focused messaging. They published a series of same-design ads endorsing 13 North Carolina House and Senate candidates. They cited the same reasoning every time: the candidates supported “pro-life, pro-religious liberty, and pro-family public policy.”
“We aim to use a language that appeals to our coalition members, and creates brand familiarity,” said Jim Quick, the group’s media and communications director. “We want to show that we are laser focused on certain issues through repetition.”
Angie Holan, editor of the national fact-checking website PolitiFact, said such ads remain an inexpensive way to disseminate information. Despite this age of targeting marketing on the web and elsewhere, the persistence of this sort of marketing could be linked to U.S. voters’ increasing partisanship, she said.
“We’re not seeing a lot of crossover or, frankly, a lot of complexity or nuance in most of the public policy positions politicians are taking. So that makes it very easy to do cookie cutter ads,” Holan said.
For Democrats to win rural districts and Republicans to win urban districts, candidates need to switch their focus to local issues that people from all parties care about, Campbell argued. He pointed to State Rep. Ken Goodman, a Democrat who this fall won re-election in District 66, west of Fayetteville.
Goodman’s ads focused on increasing the amount of lottery money that goes towards public education, not an issue on the national or statewide Democratic agenda, Campbell noted. The moderate Democrat won re-election in a rural district, which required him to gain wide support.
Which way will political campaigns lean in the presidential election year 2020? Unknown. But student journalists in the Duke Reporters’ Lab will be watching.
Duke Reporters’ Lab students expanded vital political journalism during a historic midterm campaign season this fall with the North Carolina Fact-Checking Project.
Five student journalists reviewed thousands of statements that hundreds of North Carolina candidates vying for state and federal offices made online and during public appearances. They collected newsy and checkable claims from what amounted to a firehose of political claims presented as fact.
Duke computer science undergraduates with the Duke Tech & Check Cooperative applied custom-made bots and the ClaimBuster algorithm to scrape and sort checkable political claims from hundreds of political Twitter feeds.
Editors and reporters then selected claims the students had logged for most of the project’s 30 plus fact-checks and six summary articles that the News and Observer and PolitiFact North Carolina published between August and November.
Duke senior Bill McCarthy was part of the four-reporter team on the project, which the North Carolina Local News Lab Fund supported to expand local fact-checking during the 2018 midterms and beyond in a large, politically divided and politically active state.
“Publishing content in any which way is exciting when you know it has some value to voters, to democracy,” said McCarthy, who interned at PolitiFact in Washington, D.C. last summer. “It was especially exciting to get so many fact-checks published in so little time.”
“NC GOP falsely ties dozens of Democrats to single-payer health care plan,” read one project fact-check headline. “Democrat falsely links newly-appointed Republican to health care bill,” noted another. The fact-check “Ad misleads about NC governors opposing constitutional amendments” set the record straight about some Democratic-leaning claims about six proposed amendments to the state constitution.
Work in the lab was painstaking. Five sophomores filled weekday shifts to scour hundreds of campaign websites, social media feeds, Facebook and Google political ads, televised debates, campaign mailers and whatever else they could put their eyes on. Often they recorded one politician’s attacks on an opponent that might, or might not, be true.
Students scanned political chatter from all over the state, tracking competitive state and congressional races most closely. The resulting journalism was news that people could use as they were assessing candidates for the General Assembly and U.S. Congress as well as six proposed amendments to the state constitution.
The Reporters’ Lab launched a mini news service to share each fact-checking article with hundreds of newsrooms across the state for free.
The Charlotte Observer, a McClatchy newspaper like the N&O, published several checks. So did smaller publications such as Asheville’s Citizen-Timesand theGreensboro News and Record. Newsweek cited a fact-check report by the N&O’s Rashaan Ayesh and Andy Specht about a fake photo of Justice Kavanaugh’s accuser, Christine Blasey Ford, shared by the chairman of the Cabarrus County GOP, which WRAL referenced in a roundup.
Project fact-checks influenced political discourse directly too. Candidates referred to project fact-checks in campaign messaging on social media and even in campaign ads. Democrat Dan McCready, who lost a close race against Republican Mark Marris in District 9, used project fact-checks in two campaignads promoted on Facebook and in multiple posts on his Facebook campaign page, for instance.
While N&O reporter Andy Specht was reporting a deceptive ad from the Stop Deceptive Amendments political committee, the group announced plans to change it.
The fact-checking project will restart in January, when North Carolina’s reconfigured General Assembly opens its first 2019 session.
Five Duke undergraduates monitored thousands of political claims this semester during a heated midterm campaign season for the N.C. Fact-Checking Project.
That work helped expand nonpartisan political coverage in a politically divided state with lots of contested races for state and federal seats this fall. The effort resumes in January when the project turns its attention to a newly configured North Carolina General Assembly.
Three student journalists who tackled this work with fellow sophomores Alex Johnson and Sydney McKinney reflect on what they’ve learned so far.
Lizzie Bond: After spending the summer working in two congressional offices on Capitol Hill, I began my work in the Reporters’ Lab and on the N.C. Fact-Checking Project with first-hand knowledge of how carefully elected officials and their staff craft statements in press releases and on social media. This practice derives from a fear of distorting the meaning or connotation of their words. And in this social media age where so many outlets are available for sharing information and for people to consume it, this fear runs deep.
Yet, it took me discovering one candidate for my perspective to shift on the value of our work with the N.C. Fact-Checking Project. That candidate, Peter Boykin, proved to be a much more complicated figure than any other politician whose social media we monitored. The Republican running to represent Greensboro’s District 58 in the General Assembly, Boykin is the founder of “Gays for Trump,” a former online pornography actor, a Pro-Trump radio show host, and an already controversial, far-right online figure with tens of thousands of followers. Pouring through Boykin’s nearly dozen social media accounts, I came across everything from innocuous self-recorded music video covers to contentious content, like hostile characterizations of liberals and advocacy of conspiracy theories, like one regarding the Las Vegas mass shooting which he pushed with little to no corroborating evidence.
When contrasting Boykin’s posts on both his personal and campaign social media accounts with the more cautious and mild statements from other North Carolina candidates, I realized that catching untruthful claims has a more ambitious goal that simply detecting and reporting falsehoods. By reminding politicians that they should be accountable to the facts in the first place, fact-checking strives to improve their commitment to truth-telling. The push away from truth and decency in our politics and toward sharp antagonism and even alternate realities becomes normalized when Republican leaders support candidates like Boykin as simply another GOP candidate. The N.C. Fact-Checking Project is helping to revive truth and decency in North Carolina’s politics and to challenge the conspiracy theories and pants-on-fire campaign claims that threaten the self-regulating, healthy political society we seek.
Ryan Williams: I came into the Reporters’ Lab with relatively little journalism experience. I spent the past summer working on social media outreach & strategy at a non-profit where I drafted tweets and wrote the occasional blog post. But I’d never tuned into writing with the immense brevity of political messages during an election season. The N.C. Fact-Checking Project showed me the importance of people who not only find the facts are but who report them in a nonpartisan, objective manner that is accessible to an average person.
Following the 2016 election, some people blamed journalists and pollsters for creating false expectations about who would win the presidency. I was one of those critics. In the two and a half months I spent fact-checking North Carolina’s midterm races, I learned how hard fact-checkers and reporters work. My fellow fact-checkers and I compiled a litany of checkable claims made by politicians this midterm cycle. Those claims, along with claims found by the automated claim-finding algorithmClaimBuster were raw material for many fact-checks of some of North Carolina hottestraces. Those checks were made available for voters ahead of polling.
Now that election day has come and gone, I am more than grateful for this experience in fact-finding and truth-reporting. Not only was I able to hone research skills, I gained a deeper understanding of the intricacies of political journalism. I can’t wait to see what claims come out of the next two years leading up to, what could be, the presidential race of my lifetime.
Jake Sheridan: I’m a Carolina boy who has grown up on the state’s politics. I’ve worked on campaigns, went to the 2012 Democratic National Committee in my hometown of Charlotte and am the son of a long-time news reporter. I thought I knew North Carolina politics before working in the Reporter’s Lab. I was wrong.
While trying to wrap my head around the 300-plus N.C. races, I came to better understand the politics of this state. What matters in the foothills of the Piedmont, I found out, is different than what matters on the Outer Banks and in Asheville. I discovered that campaigns publiclyrelease b-roll so that PACs can create ads for them and saw just how brutal attack ads can be. I got familiar with flooding and hog farms, strange politicians and bold campaign claims.
There was no shortage of checkable claims. That was good for me. But it’s bad for us. I trust politicians less now. The ease with which some N.C. politicians make up facts troubles me. Throughout this campaign season in North Carolina, many politicians lied, misled and told half truths. If we want democracy to work — if we want people to vote based on what is real so that they can pursue what is best for themselves and our country — we must give them truth. Fact-checking is essential to creating that truth. It has the potential to place an expectation of explanation upon politicians making claims. That’s critical for America if we want to live in a country in which our government represents our true best interests and not our best interests in an alternate reality.
My remarks for the Simón Bolívar National Journalism Awards, Bogota, Colombia, Nov. 15, 2018.
This is a critical moment for journalism around the world, when the path ahead seems uncertain. We lived through the dawn of the Information Age and saw the great promise of the internet; but it now seems like we are in a darker time.
When I started PolitiFact in 2007, I was filled with hope about what the digital revolution would bring. There was a belief the internet could make information more widely available, bring people together and help us hold power accountable. Like many of you, I am wondering if those hopes were misplaced. But we can’t get despondent about how things have turned out. We need to reimagine our roles as journalists and harness the power of technology to combat misinformation.
A little history: I started PolitiFact out of my own guilt. I had been covering the White House and Congress for the St. Petersburg Times, a Florida newspaper that is now called the Tampa Bay Times. I had grown tired of hearing politicians’ false claims and felt I had been complicit by publishing them in my news articles without scrutiny. The internet offered a new way for us to hold politicians accountable for what they said. I went to my editors with a crazy idea: instead of having me cover the 2008 campaign like all the other political journalists, how about if I started a fact-checking website?
Sure, they said.
In fact, they liked the crazy idea so much, they let me start a team with some of the most talented reporters and editors at the paper. They also let us break the rules. We built our own content management system and took some bold steps that most newspaper editors would never allow. We invented the Truth-O-Meter, which rated politicians’ claims from True to “Pants on Fire.” It made substantive articles about policy accessible to a wider audience.
We created a unique form of journalism. Instead of publishing traditional articles, we published fact-checks of politicians’ statements in a new structured form that could be collected on report card pages and tallied to tell people how many true, half true or Pants on Fire statements a politician had earned. PolitiFact was truly new journalism in the internet age.
A key to PolitiFact’s success was the culture of my newspaper. My editors were not only willing to let me try my unusual idea, they encouraged that kind of creative approach in everything we did. They also had a deep commitment to accountability reporting. They believed – they still believe – that holding power accountable is one of the fundamental missions of journalism.
PolitiFact became part of a growing community that included FactCheck.org and the Washington Post Fact-Checker in the United States, Full Fact in Britain and Chequeado in Argentina.
The digital revolution made it all possible. I remember those early years as an exciting time filled with promise. It was the honeymoon for journalism on the internet, as reporters and editors around the world discovered we could use the web to do powerful, important things.
News stories became interactive, enabling readers to engage with content. Data could be presented as vivid graphics that made numbers come alive. And design was transformed: I remember when we first saw Snowfall, the New York Times story about an avalanche, and we saw how the web could be used for powerful storytelling.
Then came smartphones, which enabled our readers and viewers to get the news all the time, wherever they were, and use thousands of apps to read articles and watch videos. It seemed like the future was infinitely bright and there were lots more great things ahead.
But the honeymoon ended.
The internet got loud and crowded. Partisan voices began to dominate the discussions and people began shouting at each other in ALL CAPITAL LETTERS. Twitter became a thing, but we realized that some of the “people” on Twitter weren’t really human — they were bots. And they were programmed to pump up the partisan propaganda to drive apart the real people.
Partisans took advantage of the internet to build digital fortresses where they could isolate themselves from opinions they disliked. They hid behind the walls and lobbed attacks against their enemies. These fortresses are home to more propaganda than discourse and they provide refuge for extremists. If you’re inside one, your side is always right.
The iPhone had changed the landscape when it was introduced in 2007. It created a whole a new platform for apps, which offered promising new ways that people could connect. I remember when a friend in Chile showed me WhatsApp and how he used it to communicate with his friends and family.
But it didn’t take long for people who want to spread misinformation to discover they could use WhatsApp without getting much scrutiny from journalists. I know that here in Colombia, you saw lots of misinformation spread through WhatsApp about the peace deal in the 2016 election.
Pablo Medina Uribe, the editor of the fact-checking site Colombia Check, reminded me recently how WhatsApp is a fertile ground for falsehoods. People are more likely to believe WhatsApp messages because they’re sent by people they trust. But the nature of many mobile data plans here give people unlimited data on WhatsApp and Facebook but not for their internet browser or other apps.
So, on a broad scale, what can we do? More specifically, what can journalists and the tech community do?
We need to find new ways to harness technology to get accurate information to people when they need it. We need to be as aggressive and cunning as the people and groups who are spreading the misinformation. And we need to change our thinking.
First, the technology part. At Duke University, we’ve launched a project called the Tech & Check Cooperative that has an ambitious goal: to use automation to monitor politicians’ speeches and debates and provide live fact-checking sourced from existing fact-checks.
Five or six years ago, I thought this kind of automated fact-checking was a long time away. But advances in technology and the dividends from a partnership we started with Google have created remarkable momentum. So we have already created the first fact-checking app for the Amazon Echo called Share the Facts. It lets you query Alexa and get an instant fact-check.
It’s impressive: you can ask Alexa a question and, if the fact-checkers have published something on it, she will reply telling you that the Washington Post or FactCheck.org or PolitiFact checked it and what they concluded.
We are now building a similar product for TV and the web. It’s a much harder product to develop than the Amazon Echo, but the idea is that when our app hears someone say a statement that fact-checkers have examined, the app will pop up a related fact-check right on the screen of your smartphone or TV.
We’ve made significant progress in the last six months. Over the summer, our students created a rough framework for our app that converts a live speech to text, then filters out sentences that aren’t checkable using our ClaimBuster tool, and then uses an algorithm to look for matches from our database of previously published articles. We are still some months away from a finished product, but we are getting closer every day.
We also just completed the first user testing of instant fact-checking on TV. We had people watch specially modified videos of State of the Union speeches that had pop-up fact-checks. The viewers had helpful feedback for us about what they wanted on the screen, and they were unanimous about the concept: They all want real-time fact-checking on their TV.
And you don’t need an army of computer science students to create something valuable. We need more projects like the “lie detector” developed by La Silla Vacia here in Colombia, which pioneered fact-checking on WhatsApp. People send a screenshot of a message they would like checked and then the journalists check it and encourage people to share it back through WhatsApp.
But regardless of whether we’re building big projects for a television screen, or smaller ones for WhatsApp, it requires that we think differently about the role of a journalist.
Most political reporters – and nearly all fact-checkers – have traditionally thought of themselves as neutral players in the political discourse. We published the information in the daily paper and left it on your doorstep. Or we just put it on our website or on the nightly news.
We were passive. We left it up to you to seek out the information that you needed and draw any connections or conclusions about the information on your own. I’ve been asked many times if it bothered me that politicians kept lying after we fact-checked them, and I would say, “Our job is just to provide the information.”
That strategy worked fine 10 years ago. But now, politicians and propagandists have learned how to spread misinformation at light speed. We can no longer sit back and wait for readers to come to us. We must become more aggressive and take the facts to the people. We need to disrupt the lies.
We can no longer be passive when our readers and viewers are being swamped with misinformation. We need to be more energetic and inventive in getting the information to people at the moment they first hear the claim.
Some of these solutions will be high-tech, like the automated fact-checking apps we’re building at Duke. Others can take more of a grass-roots approach, like the WhatsApp “lie detector” developed by La Silla Vacia.
But we need all kinds of these efforts, big and small, simple and complex, to adapt how we provide information in these fast-changing times. We need to build new apps for your phone and create new ways to provide the facts while you’re watching a speech on TV. And while print is still around, we should put the truth in ink and paper.
Yes, the honeymoon for the internet is over and sometimes it seems like we’re in a dark time. But I’m encouraged by the progress we’re making. I see promising efforts all around the world. And through it all I see great spirit and creativity.
The mission of the journalist remains the same: to give people the vital information they need to make sense of their world and hold their government accountable. We’ll continue to do that. We’ll just do it in new and creative ways.
Boykin said he decided to run in Greensboro because the area “felt like home” and that he “owed it to the community” to “represent every single person” in Guilford County’s District 58. But he has not campaigned with the intensity of many other Republican candidates.
He also said he hopes that his candidacy will help him gain even broader recognition that could help him run for national office one day.
“I wanted to have some kind of legitimacy in what I was doing,” Boykin said. “People are like, ‘Oh, you’re just trying to get famous,’ or ‘Oh, you’re just trying to make money.’ ”
Who is Peter Boykin?
Boykin regularly flips on a video camera to record himself for segments he posts across his Facebook accounts, often while donning a modified red MAGA cap, a plaid shirt in need of an iron, and a headset reminiscent of that worn by a NASA flight controller.
But instead of “Make America Great Again,” Boykin’s Trump-red cap reads “MAGA for Everyone” and “Boykin for House.”
In 2016, Boykin founded Gays for Trump. The group gained national attention as it solicited support from gay Americans for then-dark horse candidate Trump through widespread social media messaging and outreach.
Gays for Trump has also organized events, like the “WAKE UP!” party at the 2016 Republican National Convention to celebrate President Trump’s nomination as the Republican candidate. In attendance were prominent far-right figures, such as white supremacist Richard Spencer and former Breitbart News editor and right-wing provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos.
In the early days of the Trump administration, Boykin began hosting the MAGAFirst Radio Show on the partisan news and commentary website, MAGA One Radio. The Pro-Trump radio network self-describes as the “new home for InfoWars,” referring to the far-right media platform known for pushing contentious conspiracy theories. In September, Twitter permanently suspended InfoWars and its founder Alex Jones for violating policies forbidding abuse.
After having amassed his tens of thousands of online followers with his distinctive online personality, Boykin filed as a Republican to run to represent his home District 58 in Guilford County in February 2018.
Even after Facebook disabled his primary personal account days before the Nov. 6 election, Boykin managed multiple Facebook accounts and pages promoting his points of view. That included at least four public pages for himself, a “Gays for Trump” page and group, one campaign page and three pages related to his online radio show.
Across accounts, he shares everything from karaoke covers of himself singing top hits like Céline Dion’s “My Heart Will Go On,” to self-recorded videos expounding on hot-button political issues of the day filmed while driving and wearing his red cap.
In an August Facebook video that tallied nearly a thousand views, Boykin voiced support for InfoWars and Jones, who Sandy Hook Elementary School parents are suing after he pushed spurious claims that a 2012 mass shooting at the school was staged by the U.S. government, as the New York Times reported. Jones has insisted it was part of a plan to repossess Americans’ guns.
In that same Facebook video, Boykin asserted that commentators like himself and Jones must stand unified against “the Left, those large corporations [that] are attacking us” by “trying to take our first amendment away.”
He then went on to embrace a conspiracy theory regarding the 2017 Las Vegas mass shooting promoted by far-right internet personality, Laura Loomer, and endorsed by InfoWars.
During a recent interview, Boykin noted that he finds it unreasonable and impossible that the Las Vegas shooter, an “old man,” as he calls him, was “able to basically just wipe out all these people with this gun” without help.
Instead, Boykin said he suspects the shooter was a “runner of weapons…probably left over from the Obama days,” who was once recruited to run guns to Mexico during Barack Obama’s presidency.
Days before the Nov. 6 election, Facebook disabled Boykin’s primary personal account. But for most of his campaign, he managed multiple Facebook accounts and pages promoting his points of view, including at least four public pages for himself, a “Gays for Trump” page and group, one campaign page and three pages related to his online radio show.
After contending that “the left” is “systematically shutting down ANY social media means for people who lean right to communicate” to sway voters before election day, Boykin speculated that Facebook may have disabled his account because of previous contact with the far-right, men-only organization, Proud Boys, whose accounts were also disabled by Facebook and Instagram on October 31, according to the Associated Press.
The Southern Poverty Law Center defines Proud Boys as a general hate group that promotes white nationalist, misogynistic, and Islamophobic rhetoric and whose members regularly appear at extremist gatherings like the violent 2017 “Unite the Right Rally” in Charlottesville, Virginia that resulted in three deaths.
Boykin said he is not affiliated with Proud Boys but has described the group as “the only organization that protects people who peacefully protest” and that “the left [has] turn[ed] into the enemy.”
A Nontraditional Candidate Boykin said he is not concerned that some of his far-out comments would affect his General Assembly candidacy. Instead, he expressed frustration over what he called “fake news” propagated on “liberal websites…that made it seem like I hate transsexual people and how I can’t stand them.”
The North Carolina House candidate was referring to a March 2018 Daily Beast article where he was quoted as saying transgender individuals are “mentally challenged” and should thus be disqualified from serving in the military.
“I have a lot of right-leaning transsexual friends who admit it is a mental issue,” Boykin said in an October phone interview. “Although transsexual rights are valid, they are different from gay rights, and we can’t let the transsexual rights drag down our gay rights.”
In March 2018, the Richmond, Virginia LGBT online news source, GayRVA, labeled Boykin a “drop the T” advocate who founded the sketchiest right-wing organization ever to come out of the gay community,” adding that his election to the NCGA would “be an extraordinarily bad thing” for the LGBT community.
His unusual past and brazen online presence stand out in an era in which many politicians carefully craft every word out of fear what they say will spread out of context or with unintended connotations.
Boykin said he considers his work in online pornography years ago is “irrelevant” to his campaign. “I didn’t do any movies. I didn’t do any hardcore anything. I took basically pictures of myself behind a protected wall to make sure that people who were underaged would not see it and it was supposed to be private,” he added.
And he often blurs the lines between his campaign and non-campaign social media accounts.
On his primary campaign Facebook page, Boykin mostly shares his daily radio show segments and reposts far-right Breitbart articles—upwards of 15 in a day. Meanwhile, on his personal account, he broadcasts his candidacy and implores his many followers to donate to his campaign.
When asked why the North Carolina Republican Party supports Boykin, Executive Director Dallas Woodhouse said via email that the party supports “a long diverse list of Republican candidates across the state.” Woodhouse, who declined a phone interview, did not respond to inquiries about Boykin’s porn-acting history and endorsement of controversial conspiracy theories like those about the Las Vegas shooting.
Guilford County GOP chairman Troy Lawson, who is running for NC House District 57, did not reply to multiple requests for comment about how Boykin’s candidacy reflects on his county’s Republican brand.
Since he filed and automatically became the Republican candidate for District 58 with no primary challenger, Boykin held an October “Boykin for House” fundraiser event at the GOP’s county headquarters. He said that turnout was lower than hoped and his campaign actually suffered a loss in funds after paying to bring speaker Juanita Broaddrick, who is known for alleging that former President Bill Clinton raped her during his bid for governor in 1978, which Clinton has denied.
Guilford County Democratic Party Chair Nicole Quick said she views Boykin’s candidacy as another platform for him to promote his personal brand.
“Given the way he’s chosen to run his campaign it really is more of a publicity stunt for his Gays for Trump network,” she said. “He’s not been out in the community campaigning or making connections.”
Quick added that she has not seen Boykin engage in typical campaign activities in Greensboro, like canvassing door-to-door, while his Democratic opponent, incumbent Amos Quick has. Representative Quick, a Pastor of Calvary Baptist Church in High Point, was a Guilford County School Board member for over a decade before his 2016 election to the General Assembly.
Boykin said he has placed 100 “Boykin for House” yard signs across District 58, although without the help of campaign volunteers.
Despite Boykin’s hopes for campaign legitimacy, Quick, who is not related to the District 58 incumbent, said the Guilford County Democrats don’t take Boykin’s candidacy very seriously.
While his chances of winning in heavily Democratic District 58 are slim, Boykin noted that he sees himself as reaching heights beyond his forty-thousand-plus Twitter followers and beyond a state house seat.
“My goal for the future would be U.S. House or Senate,” he said.
For now, though, his following comes from being an unusual online character, sporting his “Boykin for House” red cap and singing to Toby Keith’s “I Just Wanna Talk About Me” with lyrics of his own.
They go like this: “I just wanna talk about Trump, I just wanna talk about MAGA, I just wanna talk about America’s Number One.”
Lizzie Bond is a Duke sophomore and student journalist at the Reporters’ Lab. Since August, students working at the lab have reviewed thousands of political claims on social media for the NC Fact-Checking Project.
We rate this true: The DeWitt Wallace Center will offer a new course in the spring titled “Fact-Checking American Politics.”
The course, taught by Bill Adair and Mark Stencel, will examine the growth of political fact-checking by organizations such as the Washington Post, PolitiFact and FactCheck.org, along with dozens more across the United States and around the world. Students will learn advanced techniques for researching political claims by candidates and elected officials and will write fact-check articles.
Adair, the Knight Professor of the Practice of Journalism and Public Policy, is the founder of PolitiFact and the International Fact-Checking Network. He worked 24 years for the St. Petersburg Times (now Tampa Bay Times) and covered the White House, Congress and the U.S. Supreme Court. Adair and the PolitiFact team won the Pulitzer Prize for National Reporting in 2009.
Mark Stencel is co-director of the Reporters’ Lab at Duke, where he tracks the spread and impact of fact-checking and teaches courses in political journalism. His introduction to fact-checking was working as a political researcher at The Washington Post during the 1992 presidential campaign. He has been a senior editor and media executive at The Post, Congressional Quarterly (now CQ-Roll Call) and National Public Radio.
The course will focus on independent analysis and advanced research techniques, including the importance of obtaining original documents and relying on multiple sources. Students will learn how to analyze claims and determine ratings. They also will learn how to identify, track and rate campaign promises.
Adair and Stencel will emphasize clear, well-argued, persuasive writing and well-supported fact-check ratings. They also will examine the impact of fact-checking on politicians and political discourse.
The course is listed PJMS 390S – Special Topics in Journalism. It is cross-listed as PUBPOL 290S.