Dispute Finder: Making the call on Web ‘facts’

New software sorts out the consensus from the contentious.

Rich Clabaugh/Staff

Journalism has become less black and white today. From healthcare reform to progress in Afghanistan, commentators on cable news and blogs have refracted “the truth” into many shades of gray.

So when someone throws out a statistic, how do you know it’s true?

“We’re seeing the end of the newspapers, and with them go many of the fact-checkers,” says Rob Ennals, a research scientist at Intel Labs in Berkeley, Calif. “We now have a far more anarchistic view of the news. You can’t know people’s biases.”

To help readers, Mr. Ennals developed an online veracity alert system. The software, called Dispute Finder, sniffs through what you are reading online. If anything smells fishy – perhaps questionable poll results or references to “death panels” – Ennals’s code blows a whistle and says, “This is disputed. Here’s the evidence.”

Dispute Finder is not a stand-alone program. Once downloaded, it inserts itself into your Web browser and constantly runs in the background. That way, the software can send its alerts as each website is loading.

Here’s how it works:

Go to the Dispute Finder website and look for the installation link. Right now, Dispute Finder works only with the Firefox browser. Installing the software is free of charge, but Ennals’s work is still considered “experimental.” (The Monitor did not encounter any problems, but there may still be kinks that need to be hammered out.)

Once installed, Dispute Finder starts to compare what you read online to its database of recognized contentions. When you stumble upon a dubious claim, the program automatically highlights that section in pink.

For example, Dispute Finder will highlight “Eskimos have many words for snow.” Curious users can click on the pink text to find out why. A little explainer appears as a pop-up bubble. It says: “ ‘Contrary to popular belief, the Eskimos do not have more words for snow than do speakers of English,’ according to linguist Steven Pinker in his book ‘The Language Instinct.’ ‘Counting generously, experts can come up with about a dozen.’ ”

This evidence also comes with a citation that links to the original website, so you can scrutinize the authority of the allegation. And, whether you agree with the statement or not, each explainer also comes with an “ignore” button, which tells the program not to highlight this dispute in the future.

Dispute Finder should not be considered the final word on any particular topic. “I’m not trying to create a consensus or show the truth,” Ennals says. “Something can be true and be disputed.” He simply wants to puncture the echo chamber and provide readers with alternative views.

This doesn’t mean picking a conservative counterpoint for every liberal point, and vice versa. Such a strategy would make Dispute Finder worthless, Ennals says – people would disregard all its evidence as partisan. Rather, he stresses that the evidence against a disputed claim should come from a neutral source, or better yet, from an organization with the same general ideology as the website that published the dubious statement.

“If you are reading something from Fox News that’s disputed, I would want to give that reader another conservative source, rather than give them evidence from The New York Times,” Ennals says. “Otherwise, if you’re a right-wing person, you’re likely to dismiss it.”

Much like Wikipedia, Dispute Finder’s database is only as good as its volunteers. Some 10,000 people have signed up to use the program, and Ennals says that they are responsible for keeping the system up to date. Anytime registered users find a questionable claim or strong corroboration online, they can select the text, right-click, and mark it as “This is disputed” or “Use as evidence.”

As users build up the database, Ennals improves the software. Before late September, Dispute Finder only blew the whistle on specific websites tagged by users. But the latest upgrade now highlights disputed phrases wherever they appear online.

Future versions may tap into social networks and eventually move to Internet-connected TVs. Closed-captioning might monitor live shows. “So, if you’re watching one of the more crazy cable news shows,” Ennals says, “a little box might appear that lets you know that The New York Times or Christian Science Monitor has disproved this."

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