“Tech & Check Alerts”

Helena Merk

Meet the bot builders: How our student team is automating fact-checkers’ work

A team of Duke students is building tools that automate the most tedious task for fact-checkers: finding claims to check

By Julianna Rennie – April 30, 2018 | Print this article

In a sunny corner office at Duke University, four students are building bots to do tasks that are too tedious for humans.

The project is part of the Duke Tech & Check Cooperative, a $1.2 million project to automate fact-checking. The students spend up to 10 hours each week in the Reporters’ Lab, a room in the Sanford School of Public Policy decorated with movie posters from All the President’s Men, Spotlight and The Post.

The bots are computer programs that perform the tasks often done by college interns. The programs scour long transcripts and articles online and identify sentences that journalists might want to fact-check.

The students are an eclectic bunch: a data enthusiast who guzzles nutritional drinks; a Cameron Crazy who is spending his summer solving computer science problems; a Silicon Valley resident who writes code to help animals; and a snowboarder who helps run student businesses.

Asa Royal

Asa Royal, the data lover

Asa Royal keeps track of his life in data. He tallies everything from the music he plays to the number of times he laughs at each television episode he watches.

Royal, a junior from St. Louis, Missouri, joined the Lab in September 2016, the height of the last election cycle, and spent four months helping with research on trends in campaign ads.

After deciding to major in computer science, Royal was tasked with figuring out how to automate the use of ClaimBuster, an algorithm developed at the University of Texas at Arlington that identifies sentences to check. His goal was to write programs that combed through dense material on the internet and submitted it to ClaimBuster without anyone having to read it.

“No one should ever read the Congressional Record,” he says. “There are about 200 pages produced per day. Nobody should be watching all 15 hours of CNN. These are problems we can solve.”

Royal built a bot that extracts content from CNN transcripts and runs it through ClaimBuster. Then, it generates a daily email of 15 checkable claims that is automatically sent to journalists. Now, he also gathers content from the Congressional Record.

Royal runs on Huel, a nutritionally complete powder that contains all of the proteins, carbohydrates, fats and 27 vitamins and minerals recommended for a healthy diet. When he first heard that some coders consume meal supplements so they don’t have to leave their computers, Royal decided to try it.

“A lot of people say it tastes like cardboard oatmeal, but I politely disagree,” he says. “It’s more like liquid porridge.”

Taking journalism courses and working at the Reporters’ Lab has changed Royal’s trajectory at Duke. Last summer, he interned at the Tampa Bay Times. After graduating, he hopes to go into computational journalism. “I realized this is what I want to code for,” he says.

Lucas Fagan

Lucas Fagan, the puzzler

Lucas Fagan is a political junkie. He joined the Lab so he could have a role in fact-checking and debunking fake news, which he says are critical in politics today.

Fagan, a first-year from Morristown, New Jersey, is building a bot to identify checkable claims from Facebook. The program will gather content from posts written by politicians in close races.

Fagan is considering majoring in computer science and mathematics. He writes for Duke Political Review and competes with the debate team. When he’s in the Lab, he enjoys playing devil’s advocate with other staff members about anything from Duke basketball to the Russia probe.

Though he enjoys interacting with other Lab students, Fagan finds he is most productive in his dorm, where he has multiple monitors set up for coding. “I honestly enjoy the work that we’re doing, so when I need a break from homework, I’ll do work for the Lab,” he says.

Fagan feeds off the problem-solving involved in coding. “I enjoy trying to face the CS challenges more than anything else,” he says. That’s why he’s staying in Durham this summer for Data and Technology for Fact-Checking, a 10-week research program through which he will tackle natural language processing and machine learning problems.

Helena Merk

Helena Merk, coding for causes

Helena Merk competes in hack-a-thons across the country, so she has ample experience designing creative tech projects. Though coding has many applications, she chooses to apply her skills to social causes.

Merk, a first-year from Palo Alto, California, is writing a program that would enable the Lab to send its daily list of checkable claims through Slack, a messaging tool utilized by newsrooms.

This year, Merk helped organize Duke Blueprint, a conference aiming “to inspire disruptive innovation for future-focused global change.” She also works remotely as the lead mobile app developer for AdoptMeApp, an app that connects shelter dogs with potential owners.

Merk applied to the Pratt School of Engineering, planning to study biomedical engineering. But in her first semester she realized there were other disciplines at Duke that could combine technology and health.

Now, Merk is taking computer science and global health classes. She’s spending most of the summer in Madagascar working with Duke engineers to provide water systems for local communities. “Computer science is powerful in how versatile it is,” she says. “I want to make things that help people.”

Naman Agarwal

Naman Agarwal, the entrepreneur

Naman Agarwal started coding in high school while he was interning for a local politician’s campaign. After spending weeks entering donor information into a spreadsheet, he built an app to automate the process.

Agarwal, a first-year from Palatine, Illinois, is now building a bot for Tech & Check to identify checkable tweets from politicians in competitive races.

Agarwal works at Campus Enterprises, a student-run LLC that provides food delivery, custom apparel and other services to Duke students. He is also a drummer and producer for Duke’s student-run record label, Small Town Records. On the weekends, he travels to snowboarding competitions with the Duke Ski Team.

Agarwal studies computer science and economics. He says he hopes to find a job that emulates his experience at the Lab. “I don’t want to contribute to work that’s just throwing money around,” he says. “I want to work at a company that has a soul.” (Photos by Evan Nicole Bell)

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Tech & Check Alerts

Tech & Check Alerts aim to ease the workload of fact-checkers

Student-created tool can peruse political transcripts and find claims most likely to contain falsehoods

By Sydney McKinney – April 6, 2018 | Print this article

Students in the Duke Reporters’ Lab have built a bot that is like an intern who watches TV around the clock.

Asa Royal, a junior at Duke University, and Lucas Fagan, a freshman, have created Tech & Check Alerts, a new tool in a series of innovations the Reporters’ Lab is creating to help simplify the fact-checking process.

Using Tech & Check Alerts, the Lab can identify check-worthy claims in television news transcripts and send them to fact-checkers in daily email alerts.

“We’re going to save fact-checkers a lot of time and help them find things that they would otherwise miss,” said Mark Stencel, co-director of the Reporters’ Lab.

Though the fact-checking industry is growing worldwide, the organizations doing that work are typically small, even one-person enterprises, and the workload can be burdensome. Fact-checkers often have to sift through pages of text to find claims to check. This time-consuming process can create a substantial time gap between when statements are made and when fact-checks are available to viewers or readers.

The Tech & Check Alerts automate that process. Royal and Fagan, who are both computer science majors, created a program that scans transcripts of TV news channels, such as CNN, for claims that fact-checkers may want to investigate. It then compiles the check-worthy claims and sends them in a daily email to fact-checkers at The Washington Post, PolitiFact, the Associated Press, FactCheck.org and The New York Times, among others. Thus far, there have been seven fact-checks performed based on these alerts.

“Journalists don’t have to watch 15 hours of CNN or read the entire congressional report,” Royal said. “We’ll do it for them.”

Royal and Fagan created Tech & Check Alerts using ClaimBuster, an algorithm created by computer scientist Chengkai Li from the University of Texas at Arlington. ClaimBuster scans blocks of text and identifies “check-worthy” claims, based on indicators such as past-tense verbs, numbers, dates or statistics. It ranks statements from 0 to 1.0 based on how likely they are to be checkable; any statements that score a 0.7 or higher are typically considered check-worthy.

According to Royal, Li’s technology had yet to be used much outside of academia, so leaders of the Tech & Check Cooperative decided to utilize it for daily alerts.

“There’s already software that can find factual claims, and there are already fact-checkers who can check them,” Royal said. “We’re just solving the last-mile problem.”

The creation of Tech & Check Alerts is an important step for the Duke Tech & Check Cooperative, a two-year research project funded by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, the Facebook Journalism Project and the Craig Newmark Foundation.

The broader purpose of this initiative is to bring together journalists, academics and computer scientists from across the country to innovate and automate the fact-checking industry. Over the course of two years, the Reporters’ Lab will develop tools that ease the job of fact-checkers and make fact-checking more accessible to consumers. Another tool the Lab is currently working on is FactStream, an app that provides instant fact-checking during live events.

Alongside other student researchers, Fagan and Royal are working to improve Tech & Check Alerts to include additional sources such as daily floor speeches and debates from the Congressional Record, and social media feeds from endangered incumbents running in this year’s closest House and Senate races. Fact-checkers will have input on how these additional alerts will be deployed.

Fagan is also building a web interface that would give fact-checking partners a way to dig deeper into these feeds and perhaps even customize certain alerts. Freshman Helena Merk, another student researcher in the Lab, is building a tool that would deliver the daily alerts directly to a channel on Slack, a communication platform used in many newsrooms.

Once these improvements are completed, and Tech & Check Alerts are deployed more widely, they should help fact-checkers across the country.

“This project is a stepping stone in our process of using real-time claims and existing fact-checks to automate fact-checking in real time,” Stencel said.

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