The article posted on Facebook seemed incredible: “Marijuana cures cancer!” The claim was eventually debunked, but not before the story spread through social media news feeds.
This and other examples of “fake news” are what inspired Illinois computer science students Mark Craft and Qinglin Chen to create an extension for the Chrome web browser to verify articles and pictures posted to Facebook. Even more impressive? They did it in less than 36 hours, as part of a student hackathon event hosted by Princeton University in November.
Together with teammates Nabanita De, a graduate student at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, and Anant Goel, a freshman at Purdue University, Craft and Chen received the hackathon’s Moonshot Prize for the most ambitious project, sponsored by Google.
“We could see, during and after the election, that people were unhappy with what was posted online. Fake news is a hot topic, so we thought it was a good idea to create a Chrome extension that could identify it,” said Craft, a sophomore from West Bloomfield, Michigan.
Fake news can take many forms: altered images, satirical writings or fictional accounts made to look like legitimate news articles.
“For example, if a public figure posts a tweet, people can take a screenshot of it, change it and repost it. That’s fake news,” said Chen, a sophomore from Shanghai. “Another type of fake news is the story about weed curing cancer. It looks so true! It was put on a website, it has pictures, it has a writer and sources. But if you search it on Google or Bing, you find that it’s not true.”
The Chrome extension, named FiB, works to verify posts in real time as a Facebook user scrolls through their news feed. It has two verification algorithms – one for Twitter snapshots and one for articles. The Twitter verification algorithm checks to see if an alleged tweet was actually posted on the user’s Twitter feed. The article verification feature uses multiple cross-checks with Google and Bing to evaluate an article’s reliability. FiB displays its verification status in a blue box in the upper left corner of the Facebook post.
The students made FiB open-source and available on GitHub so that others could use or improve it. Initial traffic was so voluminous that it overwhelmed the server.
The hackathon experience was grueling for the students. They had to quickly form a team, learn new programming languages and build and test the extension – plus study for their midterm exams, which fell immediately after the hackathon. But, they say, it was worthwhile.
“I think it’s a good way to be exposed to more real-life applications,” Craft said. “In class, you’ll be told to do certain projects, but you don’t always get the chance to do what you want to do. The hackathon allowed us to have our own idea and gave us a time constraint to do it in, so it pushed us to work really hard.”
“We want to refine FiB and make it available to everyone, whichever browser they use,” Craft said. “For now, if you see or share an article on Facebook, make sure to check the source. Check other sources, too. Make sure you know all the information, not just one article or image.”
After the competition, the students also learned about the process of making the news, as their project was featured worldwide in news stories – the nonfake kind.