The Walkley Media Incubator and Innovation Fund

Here is my application to the Walkley Media Incubator and Innovation Fund.

Project title:

Critical thinking for everyone! A systematic global approach to fixing fake news and misinformation.

Your project summarised in one sentence:

We promote critical thinking and skepticism globally by building a centralised open system which makes it easy for people and organisations to get the best available critique of any given webpage.

What problem are you solving? (150 words max)

This project is the long term solution to the problem of misinformation and false beliefs.

Specifically, we have the key to solving the problems that no other solutions to misinformation and fake news have yet been able to address:

  • that misinformation can go viral and spread into the minds of millions before the first rebuttal can be written
  • that corrections and fact checks are rarely present when people are discovering (or sharing) misinformation
  • that confirmation bias can cause corrections to backfire and increase their false beliefs
  • that conspiratorial thinking can drive people away from authoritative attempts to correct misinformation (eg: criticisms of snopes as biased, and wikipedia as unreliable)

A simple centralised database of claim-rebuttal connections (at the webpage level), widely integrated into web platforms, browsers, etc,  can achieve all of this by normalising skeptical thinking and demonstrating critical thinking skills through the content it provides.

Who is this project for? Who benefits? (100 words max)

This project is for everyone in the most true sense of the word.

Individuals don’t like being corrected. Few people believe they are gullible and need protecting from fake news and scams. Most people have no interest in taking personal steps to reduce the spread of fake news, misinformation or the false beliefs they may hold.

This project aims to improve the very nature of the web, and change the way we all interact with information on it. A small change, applied universally, which will improve global skepticism, and actively demonstrate good critical thinking skills.

Why is your project special? What makes it unique and exciting? (150 words max)

Firstly, we are tackling the problem of misinformation without ever taking any positions on what is or is not true.

Secondly, we are primarily concerned with page level relationships. Most efforts in this space work on sentence level annotation, or idea level argumentation. Our unique approach drastically simplifies the problem.

Thirdly, our simple constraint of “PageX critiques PageY” provides a robust resistance to gaming and abuse of the platform.

Fourthly, our crowdsourced rankings of rebuttals simply asks users to vote up rebuttals which make them doubt the claims on the page the rebuttal is arguing against. The goal is to identify which rebuttal is the strongest rebuttal of that specific page, and nothing more. Users aren’t voting for the ‘side’ they most agree with, they are voting up strong rebuttals and compelling arguments within a specific context.

The impact this project will have is incredibly exciting.

What does success look like for your project? What are the three most important metrics you will be aiming for? (200 words max)

Ultimate success would involve the W3C or similar body working to standardise and regulate this system in a way which ensures all websites, platforms, applications and browsers could easily integrate the data into their interfaces, while all writers, journalists, bloggers, vloggers etc could easily submit their rebuttals, critiques and corrections to the system for immediate display against/alongside/following the pages they are critiquing.

Our most important metrics are the number of rebuttals being added to the platform, the number of people delivered relevant rebuttals from our system, and the number of people volunteering to help build and improve this open source system.

The targets for each of these metrics will be constantly evolving, but as a starting point, we are working to build a group of at least 10 active open source developers working on the project. With improvements to the system rolling out, we will be looking for 1000 rebuttals submitted each week (through a mix of plugin submissions, and semi-automated submissions from rebuttal authors, fact checking networks, and other external systems), followed by 1 million people delivered rebuttals (primarily through third party platforms like Facebook).

Why are you the right team to do this? (150 words max)

Craig O’Shannessy and I originally started working on this problem five years ago. We developed our first prototype in one month, then built an active community of 20,000 users over the following 2 years.

In the 3 years that followed, unable to fully commit our time to the project due to family and financial commitments, I had time to reflect on what we learned from our efforts and to reconsider the problem from different perspectives.

When “fake news” became a mainstream term at the end of 2016, I watched with intense interest as numerous solutions were suggested and created. I found that, despite global attention on this well understood problem, none of these new solutions actually offered anything which hadn’t already been tried (and failed).

So, basically, we’re the right team to do this because, despite all of the opportunity, no one else is going to do it.

What specifically are you seeking funding for? What would it go towards? (200 words max)

The funding would be used to hire a back end developer and to cover conference and travel expenses.

For example, I have been invited to a workshop on misinformation at the 17th International Conference on Web and Social Media, in Montreal Canada. I am about to spend almost $2000 to attend this conference in order to have a chance to meet and get to know key people from Facebook, Google, Snopes, Politifact, and many other organisations. These sorts of relationships can be the thing which makes or breaks a project like this.  

I have also been invited to attend Global Fact in Madrid in July, but with no savings left, I am unable to purchase the flights, accommodation and tickets personally. No doubt, many more conferences will follow, and money to cover travel expenses to attend these conferences will be well used.

The bulk of the money would be used to pay a back end developer to take rbutr’s code open source, and help manage our open source volunteers who will be modifying the code to meet the needs of the new vision.

How will your project benefit journalism in Australia, either directly or downstream? (100 words)

This project will benefit journalism in Australia by exposing bad journalism (misinformation, fake news, overwhelming bias etc) wherever it is found, and also by directing people to journalists who take the time to write high quality critiques of poor journalism.

This will help inform the public’s opinion of where to get their news from. The authors and sources of bad information will be regularly shown to be manipulative, inaccurate and biased, while high quality journalism won’t suffer from the same sort of easy take downs.

In short, we will bring more readers and subscribers to quality journalists.

If you are longlisted for a grant, would you be willing to take part in three training modules (in Sydney and streamed nationally) that are designed to enhance your project and develop you/your team’s skills?


Are there particular areas/topics you would like to see covered in such a course?

I am most interested in the material that I don’t know I need. The Internet makes it so easy to look up information that I generally educate myself about anything that I know I want to learn. It is the unknown unknowns that is difficult.

Is your project designed to be for a for-profit/commercial venture or a non-profit venture? (We are seeking both for the program.)


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