A report that there is now a computer programme being used by the Washington Post to expose the lying liars of United States politics will be a cause for celebration among supporters of journalism’s cardinal principle of truth-telling. But we should hold the champagne.
The Truth Teller system developed by the Post has some way to go before it becomes the dream machine of fact-checkers everywhere. The programme automatically transcribes speeches of politicians and then checks the claims against a database of established facts. It can expose unadulterated and bare-faced lies.
But In a sophisticated and politically charged environment, when every statement of fact can be set in a nuanced context, there is so much scope for interpretation that any electronic system will be challenged to come up with simple “True” and “False” labels for every occasion.
Nevertheless, it can bring down over-enthusiastic politicians when they over-state their case. The Republican leader John Boehner, for example, speaking in the recent “fiscal cliff” debate in the US Congress claimed that raising taxes for America’s highest earners as proposed by President Obama would kill 700,000 jobs.
He hardly finishes the sentence before the The Truth Teller programme pops up with a big red sign “FALSE”, after cross-checking his statement with The Washington Post‘s own factual database. The traditional fact-checkers also took him to task.
One can see why the digital zealots at the Post hope Truth Teller will eventually be transformed into a must-have application for telephones so that anyone, by drawing on the global wisdom of the Internet, will be able to fact-check politicians during election periods.
It’s not just in the United States where such a smart device could prove useful. There are dozens of elections being held at local and national level around the world in 2013. Using such tools to force politicians to abandon the routine of lies, misinformation and overblown rhetoric that tend to dominate the election period could be an important step forward for independent reporting.
The political discourse is often scarred by factual claims that are embellished to suit party interests, so any programme that will help keep politicians honest is welcome.
However, given the capacity of media-savvy politicians to spin their interpretation of facts to suit themselves it may not be enough just to expose lies.
People often like to think that the facts speak for themselves, but they plainly don’t. Without context, background and sound analysis provided by independent journalists, the impact of events and facts cannot be properly understood. The only way to challenge conspiracy theories, speculation and rumour is to put the facts in context.
Nevertheless, the Washington Post‘s project could see an end to the most malicious and reckless abuse of the truth which often surrounds the politics of democratic pluralism. Politicians, being what they are, will find their way around Truth Teller, but they are on notice, for as more sophisticated checking systems are developed the news business will be less prone to accept seductive political lies at face value.
Photo Credit: Washington Post