December 7, 2017

Instead of pool days and part-time jobs, Sreya Guha spends her summers with lines and lines of code.

A senior at the Castilleja high school in Palo Alto, California, Guha has spent the past two summers creating software. Her most recent project, Related Fact Checks, lets internet users paste article links and search to see if that topic has been already debunked by a fact-checking organization. 

The platform isn’t your typical class project — it’s one of the best uses of existing technology to combat online misinformation, several fact-checking experts told Poynter.

“It's a fun exploration,” said Justin Kosslyn, product manager of Jigsaw at Google, in an email. “I haven't seen anything quite like it, and it shows the breadth of ways that fact checks might be organized and presented to curious users.”

“Google is very excited by the work,” said Cong Yu, a research scientist at Google, in another email. “I have personally been very impressed by the efforts of this very talented high schooler.”

But Guha, 17, didn’t initially set out to impress one of the world’s biggest technology companies. She told Poynter in an interview that she had the idea to create Related Fact Checks following the vitriolic 2016 U.S. presidential election, which piqued her interest in — where else? — history class.

With the help of her history teacher, Christy Story, Guha created a National History Day project that functioned as a search tool for presidential speeches. Then, she applied those computational methods to fact-checking.

“When you look at most news articles today, you find a row of social sharing buttons,” she said. “It would be great if, along with these buttons, when clicked, (one) would give users fact checks related to that article. The goal is to just illustrate that concept.”

And given the acclaim she’s earned for her website, it looks like Guha has largely achieved that goal.

Drawing upon the ClaimReview schema, basically a few lines of code that help search engine algorithms recognize and surface fact checks, Guha has created an interface that helps users as they seek to verify claims online. Bill Adair, Knight Professor of Journalism & Public Policy at Duke University and director of the Duke Reporters’ Lab — which worked with to create the ClaimReview markup — told Poynter in an email that he was impressed by Guha’s work.

“She has a really sophisticated understanding of misinformation and how we can combat it using our ClaimReview schema,” he said.

And Kosslyn agreed. He said the entire service is really well thought-out, from the Google Chrome extension to the website’s transparent about page and privacy policy (Serbian fact-checker Istinomer has a similar extension). Guha even outlined the functionality for Related Fact Checks, as well as the problems it seeks to solve, in an academic paper.

“…  the ecosystem is still missing an important piece of functionality — not surprisingly,
articles with fake or controversial news do not link to fact checks that discuss their veracity,” it reads. “Without an easy way of going from a news article to a fact check that investigates it, fake news gains traction.”

In late October, Guha took that paper all the way to Vienna, where she presented it to the International Semantic Web Conference. Since the conference fell on a long weekend, she was able to go without missing school.

“After I did my research, I was looking for a bigger forum. While talking to family and friends, I heard about this conference,” she said. “I got to present my work to a group of computer scientists, which was a really nice experience.”

Her family has been a key source of support in helping her pursue web projects outside of school, Guha said. Although she did all the coding for her projects by herself, having parents that are well-educated in both politics and computer science has helped.

Guha said her mother, Asha, has a background in political science and nonprofits. Her father, Ramanathan — a computer scientist who is responsible for creating popular web features like RSS, RDF, and Google Custom Search — told Poynter that Sreya has always been naturally curious and favored serious discussions. She regularly texts her parents in the middle of the day with big ideas she wants to try, and she often can’t go through breakfast without reading The Atlantic.

“To give balance, she throws in The Economist,” he laughed. 

Guha was raised that way, he said. The family regularly has challenging discussions, often around the dinner table, that center on anything from the regulation of net neutrality to the end of the Obama-era Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. Guha is a huge fan of Kamala Harris and loves the book “Talent is Overrated” by Geoff Colvin.

“She’s been exposed to this kind of stuff. We have discussions in our house all the time about the mix of technology and society,” Ramanathan said. “To me, one of the main things she got from this is her intellectual growth — you understand that it’s not a straight path that you follow, but a path of exploration.”

Growing up in Palo Alto, Guha has had the opportunity to become a wunderkind. She goes to a private school in Silicon Valley that regularly supports students’ endeavors outside of class. Students at Castilleja start learning how to code around seventh grade.

“It’s just in the water here,” Ramanathan said.

At school, Story has served as one of Guha’s closest mentors both in and out of history class, helping her with both the fact-checking and presidential statement projects. She said that while Castilleja attracts a lot of talented kids, Guha, who also serves as one of eight peer advisers, is particularly gifted.

“She’s seen for being a leader on campus,” she said. “In a classroom, she is able to collaborate, she’s able to be empathetic with her fellow students — which I have often found surprising given the high level of output she can produce.”

“She didn’t only create a tool that thinks for us, she created a tool the helps us think better.”

Guha is months away from graduating high school, and while she isn’t sure where she wants to go to college yet, she said she wants to meld her interests in journalism and technology. As for the future of Related Fact Checks, she hopes to keep making improvements to the service. 

Making a profit by selling it to a tech company doesn’t interest her.

“She’s trying to figure out ways to convince these people to change the ecosystem,” Ramanathan said. “Part of me is like, ‘Wow, you’re a high school student and you’re trying to change the behavior of all the people?’ but who am I to say no? Go for it.”

That early ambition is remarkable. And Adair said it’s part of a growing trend.

“Students no longer have to wait until they’re in college to begin building apps and browser extensions,” he said. “They can do that before their senior prom.”

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Daniel Funke is a staff writer covering online misinformation for PolitiFact. He previously reported for Poynter as a fact-checking reporter and a Google News Lab…
Daniel Funke

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