Dan Schultz, a technologist building a new fact-checking app for the Reporters’ Lab, says the app should be like a drinking buddy.
“You can have a friend who you fundamentally disagree with on a lot of things, but are able to have a conversation,” Schultz says. “You’re not thinking of the other person as a spiteful jerk who’s trying to manipulate you.”
Schultz, 31, is using that approach to develop a new version of Truth Goggles, an app he first built eight years ago at the MIT Media Lab, for the Duke Tech & Check Cooperative. His goal is to get to know users and find the most effective way to show them fact-checks. While other Tech & Check apps take a traditional approach by providing Truth-O-Meter ratings or Pinocchios to all users, Schultz plans to experiment with customized formats. He hopes that personalizing the interface will attract new audiences who are put off by fact-checkers’ rating systems.
Truth Goggles is a browser plugin that automatically scans a page for content that users might want fact-checked. Schultz hopes that this unique “credibility layer” will be like a gentle nudge to get people to consider fact-checks.
“The goal is to help people think more carefully and ideally walk away with a more accurate worldview from their informational experiences,” he says.
As a graduate student at the Media Lab, Schultz examined how people interact with media. His 150-page thesis paper concluded that when people are consuming information, they are protecting their identities.
Schultz learned that a range of biases make people less likely to change their minds when exposed to new information. Most people simply are unaware of how to consume online content responsibly, he says.
He then set out to use technology to short-circuit biased behavior and help people critically engage with media. The first prototype of Truth Goggles used fact-checks from PolitiFact as a data source to screen questionable claims.
“The world will fall apart if we don’t improve the way information is consumed through technology.”
Schultz recently partnered with the Reporters’ Lab to resume working on Truth Goggles. This time, Truth Goggles will be integrated with Share the Facts, so it can access all fact-checking articles formatted using the ClaimReview schema.
Schultz also is exploring creative ways to present the information to users. He says the interface must be effective in impeding biases and enjoyable for people to use. As a graduate student, one of Schultz’s initial ideas was to highlight verified claims in green and falsehoods in red. But he quickly realized this solution was not nuanced enough.
“I don’t want people to believe something’s true because it’s green,” he says.
The new version of Truth Goggles will use information about users’ biases to craft messages that won’t trigger their defenses. But Schultz doesn’t know exactly what this will look like yet.
“Can we use interfaces to have a reader challenge their beliefs in ways that just a blunt presentation of information wouldn’t?” Schultz says. “If the medium is the message, how can we shape the way that message is received?”
Born in Cheltenham, Pennsylvania, Schultz studied information systems, computer science and math at Carnegie Mellon University. As a sophomore, he won the Knight News Challenge, which provides grants for “breakthrough ideas in news and information.”
The News Challenge put him “on the path toward eventually applying to the Media Lab and really digging in,” he says.
After graduating from MIT, Schultz worked as a Knight-Mozilla Fellow at the Boston Globe and then joined the Internet Archive, where his title is senior creative technologist. He continues to develop side projects such as Truth Goggles through the Bad Idea Factory, a company with a tongue-in-cheek name that he started with friends. He says the company’s goal is “to make people ‘thinking face’ emoji” by encouraging its technologists to try out creative ideas. With Truth Goggles, he hopes to get people who may not already consume fact-checking content to challenge their own biases.
“The world will fall apart if we don’t improve the way information is consumed through technology,” Schultz says. “It’s sort of like the future of the universe as we know it depends on solving some of these problems.”