June 30, 2014

When Dan Schultz first described Truth Goggles close to three years go, he deemed it a “magic button” that could tell you “what is true and what is false on the web site you are viewing.”

That concept – which Schultz refers to as the “fact-check the Internet approach” – attracted a decent amount of press and enthusiasm at the time. Schultz shipped some related code as a result of him developing the project while at the MIT Media Lab.

Today, nearly three years later, he’s released the first Truth Goggles product — and it’s a departure from that original vision.

The Truth Goggles launching today is a tool to enable anyone to annotate an existing piece of online content to raise and answer questions about what’s been reported/written. It can also be used to offer a layer of personalized commentary.

“It’s still a credibility layer and it’s still very much about challenging the user and prompting the user to think in the moment,” Schultz said.

Schultz said journalists can use it to add more context, and to prompt readers to think more critically about information in an article.

“I think of it more as a storytelling tool being given to the journalist,” Schultz said. “Just like they can embed a YouTube video, they can embed a credibility layer. Or as a media critic or reader [you can highlight] an article that has red flags and can share your layer with your friends by giving a URL.”

Truth Goggles is by no means the only annotation tool out there. There is Scrible, MarkUp.io (which says it will be relaunching), and a plethora of tools to help web designers, educators and others markup websites with notes and feedback. There are also efforts like Hypothes.is, which aims to create a fact-based annotation layer for the web. Earlier this month, it received a grant of just over $750,000 from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation to “investigate the use of annotation in humanities and social science scholarship over a two year period.”

Schultz said his project is different in that it enables content creators like journalists to embed their own annotations on their work for all to see, and because it’s oriented to creating public annotations that are “about getting people to ask better questions and be more critical.”

It was after spending this academic year working part-time on Truth Goggles as a non-residential fellow with the Reynolds Journalism Institute that Schultz came to the conclusion that a personalized annotation layer was the best place to start with Truth Goggles.

As for how it connects to his original project goals, he said, “The goal still is to help people cut through their biases and walk away with a more informed sense of what they believe to be true  The point of this iteration on that vision really is to see whether or not a journalist would be willing (and able) to use annotation layers to get them there.”

Two ways to annotate

Truth Goggles annotations can be made visible in two ways. One option is for the author of the content to create annotations and then paste an embed code into the post to automatically display the annotations to all readers. (I’ve done that with this post; look for the yellow highights.)

Another option enables anyone to create annotations for an existing piece of content, and to generate a custom URL that can be shared with others to show your annotations.

Schultz said his inspiration is “to allow the journalist to be the voice inside their readers’ heads.” For others, it can be a way to “call out bullshit without needing to write a full blog post.”

If journalists are at least initially the primary user group, one obvious question is why they would need to annotate their own work? Shouldn’t important information be contained in the original article?

“My thinking is that interrupting the reader [with additional information/sourcing] every time you say something or make a claim interrupts the flow of the article in a physical sense,” Schultz said.

One example of this approach is ProPublica’s Explore Sources, a tool it developed to enable journalists to easily incorporate snippets of source material into a story. Click here to see it in action in a story. (Be sure to click the ON button at the top of the story to enable Explore Sources.)

Schultz said the Boston Globe plans to test out Truth Goggles to annotate health articles with additional information. (In 2012, Schultz spent a year in the Globe newsroom as a Knight-Mozilla Fellow.)

Why the pivot?

This version of Truth Goggles is being launched to see if it proves valuable to users, and to help Schultz identify how he should evolve the project.

“Maybe it’s not going to be a useful tool, maybe it will be … but I can see if it has legs or not,” he said.

My personal feeling is that journalists are more likely to use the tool to add context to their own work, or to call out notable passages elsewhere.

I asked Schultz what made him realize he had to move away from his original plans. He talked about the challenge of  “needing to have a database that has hundreds of thousands of [facts] before you can get off the ground” with a product that aims to fact check web content in real-time.

I detailed that very challenge in my recent post about Trooclick, a French startup that is aiming to execute on the “fact-check the Internet” vision.

Even with a big database of checked facts in hand, you also have to have enough computational and natural language processing power to analyze web content in real-time and surface the correct, relevant facts for any given piece of content. (Trooclick’s engineering team includes NLP experts.)

“Unrealistic is not a word want to use, but it was frankly a lot harder to gain traction and get to the point where traction was just a feasible thing,” Schultz said.

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Craig Silverman (craig@craigsilverman.ca) is an award-winning journalist and the founder of Regret the Error, a blog that reports on media errors and corrections, and trends…
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