Fake news stories are often extremely easy to debunk. Fact-checking "Pope Francis endorses Donald Trump" required little more than an analysis of papal interviews and an email to the Vatican press office. Some fakers don't even bother writing up an article to back up their hoax headlines.
Yet by the time fact-checkers arrive on the scene of a fake, it may be too late to correct the perceptions of thousands who saw the headline bouncing around their News Feeds.
Maarten Schenk, a Flemish developer, thinks he has built a tool that can reduce the head start that fakers enjoy over debunkers. Much like Tweetdeck, Trendolizer lets users populate columns that update automatically from selected sources. Unlike Tweetdeck, these sources are not tweets but links with many Facebook likes.
Each column on Trendolizer is populated by a source set. These can include websites, Twitter searches and Facebook pages. On a Poynter demo, we included the Twitter search for the word "Trump," the conspiracy website InfoWars and Facebook pages that had shared hoaxes about Megyn Kelly in 2016. Trendolizer also has pre-populated source sets that Schenk has put together like "fake news sources" or "left-wing clickbait."
Each link can be analyzed for its total number of likes and the rate by which it is adding them. This makes it more akin to a real-time Buzzsumo than to Tweetdeck.
Trendolizer has other potentially useful features, including a Slack integration that sends alerts when a story starts gathering steam. The web app also allows users to track all websites with the same AdSense or Google Analytics account codes.
The latter is a technique often used by BuzzFeed Media Editor Craig Silverman, who recognized that profit-driven actors make up or hide their contact details — but likely not the information that helps them cash in ad money or track traffic.
Schenk says he has been told Trendolizer is essentially an attempt to create an automated Silverman.
"I don't know that that is their best sales pitch," Silverman told me, laughing. "But I welcome any and all automation."
Silverman has tried out Trendolizer and expects to subscribe to the service soon. He thinks Trendolizer is "not just a fact-checkers' tool" and is mostly interested in the fingerprinting features that will help his team maintain a database of suspect sites.
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For users to get the most out of the tool, however, he thinks users will have to take the time to build source sets that are relevant to the areas they want to monitor. "People need to know what they are looking for," he said.
This is a key challenge of debunking fake news: You never really know where the next big viral story will come from next. Inaccurate claims by public figures come from more predictable places like speeches, TV interviews, press briefings, Twitter. Viral hoaxes, on the other hand, can come seemingly from nowhere.
The debunking site Snopes has also tested Trendolizer. Founder David Mikkelson said that "in general, fact-checkers do need tools that will help them spot misinformation faster."
Unless working fact-checkers actually deploy the tool as part of their workflow it will be hard to evaluate to what extent Trendolizer can actually deliver faster spotting of fakes and faster debunking. At $350 per month, it may also be too expensive for some smaller fact-checking organizations. Regardless, Trendolizer points to a future where fact-checkers track misinformation in a more systematic manner.