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Other views: Learning to spot ‘fake news’

The (Eugene) Register-Guard

Published on December 27, 2017 2:34PM

Last changed on December 28, 2017 10:57AM

A student-developed online plug-in idea, Open Mind, offers some hope in the war against “fake news.”

Because one person’s definition of fake news can differ wildly with another’s, of course, don’t expect this to be a quick fix that will appease folks on both sides of the political spectrum. And because any such tool inevitably will be built with human bias of some sort, it’s bound to come with flaws.

Still, it’s an intriguing counter to the increasingly annoying — and dangerous — trend of made-up news being passed off as the real thing.

Developed recently in a 36-hour “hackathon” at Yale University, the Open Mind plug-in — a software component that adds a specific feature to an existing program — is designed to be something of a smoke alarm to alert a user if he or she enters a web site known to disseminate fake news. What’s more, it can alert readers if a story shared on social media is fake or biased.

But it doesn’t stop there. It’s designed to not only warn readers of fake-news danger, but to point them toward alternative viewpoints.

Designed as an extension for Google’s Chrome browser, it uses existing “sentiment analysis technology” — a process to discern the emotional tone behind a series of words. It can gain an understanding of the attitudes, opinions and emotions expressed — to identify subjects and political slants. If Open Mind discerns a decidedly anti-Trump piece, the software could suggest to the reader stories on the president with an alternative viewpoint.

Finally, over time, the software can build a data base that shows whether the user has been reading stories from only one side of the political spectrum.

“The solution is to develop a kind of auto-immune system,” said Alex Cui, an undergraduate at the California Institute of Technology and one of the four students on the Open Mind team.

As it is, there’s little overlap in the news sources that liberals and conservatives use regularly, and trust. Forty-seven percent of “consistent conservatives” get the bulk of their news from Fox News, according to a 2014 Pew Research Center study; half of “consistent liberals” get their news from a combination of NPR, CNN, MSNBC and The New York Times.

Among the ideas of Open Mind is to get people out of their habit of associating on social media only with people who share their viewpoints and of reading biased news skewered toward their beliefs. “Social media sites grow bubbles,” said Michael Lopez-Brau, a doctoral student at Yale and member of the Open Mind team. “They’ve allowed us to silo people off at a distance.”

Ironically, one of the biggest challenges developers will confront as they create this plug-in is not allowing their own biases to skew the program. And once it’s built, the challenge will be to get the people who need it most to use it. As with Apple’s app aimed at getting people to not text and drive, it works only for those who agree to use it. Often, pride coerces those who need broader vision to not look beyond their familiar world views.

That said, bravo to the students for their imaginative thinking — and with the 36-hour-clock ticking no less. What’s as impressive as their ability to think on their feet is their tackling two problems as serious as anything America has faced in a long time: narrow-mindedness and truth.


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