November 22, 2016

The Republican primaries are heating up. A populist right-winger is jockeying to snatch the presidency from the center-left. Media outlets are devoting additional resources to fact-checking political claims, even as some wonder whether that even matters in a “post-truth” era.

France’s presidential campaign — and the related coverage — has clear echoes of its U.S. counterpart. Regardless of how the French election unfolds, however, the projects its fact-checkers are working on hint at the future of the field worldwide.

On the night of the first center-right primary debate, Les Décodeurs, the verification and fact-checking unit at Le Monde, unveiled its “decoding machine.” Developed in-house, the widget facilitates a reader’s search through previously fact-checked assertions. As with politicians everywhere, France’s primary contenders are wont to repeating their talking points, debunked or not.

“Each time we have a debate, they make the same mistakes and repeat the same hoaxes,” says Décodeurs coordinator Samuel Laurent.

The goal of the machine was to provide readers a fast way to consult the previously fact-checked claims — while avoiding the need for fact-checkers to duplicate their work.

This is just the start: After all, the machine is currently a tailored search engine with a cute mascot. It fits, however, into a broader vision to automatize fact-checking at Le Monde.

About a year ago, Décodeurs entered into a partnership with a consortium of French data scientists on an automated fact-checking project dubbed Contentcheck; In February of this year, the unit obtained funding through the Google Digital News Initiative for a hoaxbusting database.

These two projects, Laurent hopes, will ultimately result in a single search engine that not only surfaces all fact checks on a specific topic, but also queries relevant databases to provide context and spots hoax news.

If someone is searching for fact checks on unemployment, for instance, the tool would automatically extract the latest figures and plot a graph showing whether the indicator is rising or falling.

Having gained global acclaim for their debunking work in the wake of the Bataclan terrorist attacks, the Décodeurs team also wants the search engine to help spot hoaxes and flag fake news sites. Laurent hopes to build a reliability index for news sites which will warn readers that an article they are looking for comes from a dubious source, regardless of whether Décodeurs have debunked it yet or not.

Décodeurs’ plans mirror trends seen in fact-checking worldwide.

The proliferation of election-related “fake news” that placed Facebook under enormous scrutiny over the past two weeks has led some in the United States to compile lists of questionable news sites. While Décodeurs’ index will initially be focused on France, Laurent says in the long run he would like to open it up to international partners as well as suggestions from readers.

The automation aspect of Décodeurs future “machine” also fit into a global trend. Across the Channel, British fact-checkers at Full Fact published in August their automation roadmap, and were awarded $50,000 by Google in the second round of the DNI Fund announced last week.

Laurent is conscious of the challenges inherent to these projects, but hopes a first iteration of the hoaxbusting database will be released in January 2017 and a more complete product will be ready by the end of next year.

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Alexios Mantzarlis joined Poynter to lead the International Fact-Checking Network in September of 2015. In this capacity he writes about and advocates for fact-checking. He…
Alexios Mantzarlis

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