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Interview with Mevan Babakar of the Fast & Furious Fact Check Challenge

Aren't you sick and tired of people who can just say anything, and get away with it? Wouldn't you love some way to call people on their bull, to prove to everyone that they don't know what they're talking about?

If you're sick of being taken advantage of by liars and manipulators, an automatic fact-checking system – happening in real time, as you watch – could be the remedy you've been looking for. If you didn't know, some fact-checking systems like that already exist. But teams of dedicated cultural innovators have been hard at work making them even better in the $50,000 Fast & Furious Fact Check Challenge.

This contest is over but fact-checking will keep happening, and will only grow in importance. We spoke with Mevan Babakar of the Fast & Furious Challenge as well as Full Fact, an organization that's dedicated to spreading the truth about important political and cultural developments. They provide live fact-checking of major political events throughout Europe, and in-depth roundups later on. Check out what Mevan has to say about the Fast & Furious Challenge, what it's like to try to dig through misinformation to find the truth, and what the future holds for fact checking.

What drives you to work at Full Fact? Why do you think fact-checking is so important?

I think good information is paramount to a good and healthy democracy. If we’re making big choices which affect our country and the world, then they should be based on reality. Right now it’s too easy to be able to mislead others into believing something that isn’t true, or fair, and I think that’s harmful to us all.

As fact checkers, you probably wade through a lot of nonsense. What do you think happens when we're flooded with so much information and misinformation?

An understandable reaction to being faced with a lot of conflicting claims is that you just switch off. What we offer is a route out of that choice between blind cynicism and blind trust by giving people the information they need to make up their mind and make a choice. It’s important that there’s somewhere people can go for impartial information that can be traced back to primary sources.

What does it really mean to check a fact? How long does it take for Full Fact to check a fact right now, and what are your standards for evidence?

We have different standards for different kinds of claims. Sometimes it’s as easy as looking up a number from the definitive source (e.g. The Office of National Statistics), other times it’s doing original research and making Freedom of Information requests. The more complex the claim, the more time we spend on it. We have to be both fast enough to catch people’s interest and maintain our standards of rigor and accuracy. This is tricky to pull off, but when in doubt we’d rather take longer and be accurate.

I've been annoyed while watching political debates at speakers who can just say anything they want and keep moving along. Do you think we'll ever see live fact-checking during a spoken debate?

It’s already happening! We live fact-checked the EU referendum debates, the general election in 2015, as well as Scotland’s independence referendum debates.

Each a week we live fact-check the Prime Minister's Questions and BBC Question Time too. You can read about how we do it here.

There’s more innovation to be had though. At the Wired awards we hooked up a light to change color when a claim being made on TV was true or false for example. The guys at Politifact have hooked up an Amazon echo to answer claims with fact-checks. Live fact-checking will hopefully be in every living room in the near future.

Google News is now using a tag to designate fact-checking. How does that work, and how will that help the truth get out? In what way is Full Fact involved?

Google will determine whether an article is suitable to be tagged as 'fact-check' by looking for the schema.org ClaimReview markup in the code.

ClaimReview markup consists of a variety of tags which separate elements such as the claim being fact-checked, the conclusion being drawn, who made the statement and the actual fact-checks written.

We were the first UK organization to be invited to implement it. It’s a really great first step on the road to bigger and better things.

Why did you choose to partner up with Diane Francis for the Fast and Furious Fact Check Challenge?

It was clear that Diane really cared about advancing the state of the art in automated fact-checking. That’s what we really care about too. We were lucky to be invited to take part and help shape the competition to get the most out of the entrants.

An automated fact checker would obviously be great for politics and journalism, but where else do you think it would make an impact?

I think it would be great for trust. There’s a bit of a trust epidemic at the moment, with people not trusting governments, organizations, or each other. Trust is an important part of civil society and everyone needs to work really hard at strengthening it (as well as being careful to preserve what trust we have left).

In the far future, do you think we'll ever get an automatic fact checker for personal use, in our daily lives? What do you think that would do to our lives?

I think that’s maybe a year or two away. Not as far as you’d think! Exciting eh? Imagine if you could immediately judge the accuracy of your mobile Twitter feed - rather than dismissing claims as ‘don’t know,’ or spending hours trying to find the relevant information, you could get an idea of whether claims are right or wrong straight away. This might prompt some keen beans to check themselves before spreading misinformation.

How do you think real-time automated fact-checking will change the world?

It remains to be seen. Fact checkers generally steer clear of predicting the future! But there’s no doubt that automation will free up fact checkers to do the more difficult and nuanced tasks: we hope at the very least to save time and use our limited resources more effectively to raise the cost of promoting misinformation.

Who do you think fact-checking will be good for, and who do you think it will be bad for?

It will be bad for those who knowingly mislead others and transformative for everyone else’s ability to judge what we hear from those in power.

Thanks to Mevan for her insightful, thought-provoking comments on the rise of fact-checking and the role of the truth in our lives. For more about Mevan check out her Twitter where she often posts about fact-checking, fake news, and other interesting stuff, or take a look at Full Fact to see how they're changing the world, one lie at a time.

Fake news and misinformation can run rampant if the truth isn't held paramount. The Fast & Furious Fact Check Challenge pushed the needle forward on a nearly instant, autonomous fact-checking tool. Although no team was able to hit the 80% accuracy mark, live, automated fact-checking will still become a reality, and it could change the world. Stay tuned to the world of fact-checking for more.

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