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'Super PAC App' knows when political ads stretch the truth

John D. Sutter, CNN
A new free app aims to fact-check political ads, something that may prove useful during this presidential campaign.
A new free app aims to fact-check political ads, something that may prove useful during this presidential campaign.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • New Super PAC App aims to fact-check campaign ads
  • The free app listens to the sound waves of a TV advertisement
  • It then links the user up with information about the commercial
  • Super PAC App partners with fact-checking groups to shed light on ads' claims

(CNN) -- What if every political ad came with a "truthiness" disclaimer?

That's essentially the goal of the Super PAC App, a new project from former students at MIT's Media Lab.

Their free iPhone app, which will be available on Wednesday, listens to political advertisements on television and matches the ad's audio waves against a database -- much like the Shazam app identifies music. It then tells the app's user who paid for the ad and how much they're spending on the campaign before pointing them to nonpartisan sources -- PolitiFact, FactCheck.org and others -- to try to verify the ad's claims.

The app is free of advertising and is funded in full by a grant from the Knight Foundation, according to Dan Siegel, one of the app's co-creators.

The fact-checking process is especially important this year, said Siegel, because Super PACs for the first time can spend unlimited funds on presidential campaign ads. In recent weeks TV airwaves in battleground states have been full of ads making negative claims about both President Obama and his rival Mitt Romney, the presumptive Republican nominee.

"The campaigns are spending a lot of money and all of that money is going into television ads," he said. "And therefore there's a need for users to be able to play through the noise a little bit."

Siegel spoke with CNN recently about how the app works and how he hopes it will change the way voters interact with television ads. The following transcript is edited for length and clarity:

CNN: Tell me about the idea for this app. Where did the idea come from?

Siegel: I was at the business school at MIT and decided to take a class at the Media Lab. I came into it with this interest in politics and a fascination with how much money is going to be spent in this election. When you look into the numbers, it's very clear that the overwhelming percentage of the money raised goes into television ads. So it's like, well, what are those ads trying to tell us?

And Jenn (Jennifer Hollett), my co-founder, came into the class from the (Harvard) Kennedy School, and has a background in broadcast journalism. And so really from day one it was kind of a perfect fit.

Jenn threw out the idea: "What about an app that can -- and I have no idea if this is possible -- but what about an app that can actually tell you what you're watching on TV as you're watching it?" I said, "Yes! What you're talking about is audio fingerprinting technology. That is a great idea. Let's go with that."

For a while, we called it a class project. And we were working on it as a class project. And there was a moment where we were about to get on the phone with a major media outlet who just had actually heard about this class project ... and they wanted to talk to us about partnering. Before that call, Jenn and I looked at each other and said, "Hey, why don't we stop calling this a class project and call it an app. That is real. That we're building. And, like, see what happens."

CNN: So you mentioned "audio fingerprinting." What does that mean exactly?

Siegel: The short answer is that we're collecting a database of all the presidential political ads. So we have that. That database grows, obviously, by the day, as the new ads are released.

The users submits to us, though the app, an audio sample of sound (from the campaign ad). And we can match that audio sample, with our partner TuneSat, against the database that we have.

With enough audio -- it's typically about 10 seconds required to make a match -- we can say, "Gotcha." We know which ad you're listening to right now.

And then the app fires up and the user can explore the information.

CNN: What information pops up on your screen?

Siegel: We think it's still important to know basic facts. So the first screen is information including: Who is this organization? What are they called? Is it Restore Our Future? Is it Obama for America? Is Crossroads GPS? Is it Priorities USA Action? Then what are they? Are they the official campaign? Are they a super PAC? Is it something else? And then it's how much money have they raised? How much money have they spent in this campaign season?

And then it's an opportunity for the user to actually rate the ad -- and rate them with fun buttons (like) "love," "fair," "fishy," "fail." Once they do that, they can see how others have rated the ad. And then from there there's an opportunity to go into another screen, which is the actual claims of the ad. So a user can click through and we're disaggregating an ad into distinct claims. For each of those claims, here are objective, nonpartisan, third-party sources that are talking about that claim.

So you can quickly get a sense of, "Is this claim based in any kind of fact or is it all noise?" And hopefully that's an opportunity for the user not to have to do a lot of homework to figure out, "Am I watching an ad that's kind of true? Not true at all? Or actually, yeah, that is telling me some really valuable information."

CNN: So it's fact checking it, in a way.

Siegel: It is fact checking it, but we as Super PAC App are not doing the fact checking. We are, you know, standing on the shoulders of some great organizations, including FactCheck.org and PolitiFact. But also, you know, major media outlets who are doing their own reporting.

CNN: I imagine this has got to be an incredible amount of data. How do you keep up with that while, as you mentioned, more and more ads keep coming in all the time?

Siegel: We have a Web crawler and we are pointing it at the right places to find these ads. Reliably, you can find many of these ads on YouTube. But that's probably not going to get us all the way there. You can imagine some organizations that don't create YouTube channels or never post (the ads) online. And you can also imagine an organization that posts it online 24 hours after it's actually run. And we want to have to not wait for that window.

We have informal partnerships with journalists. ... We're plugged in with those journalists and they're feeding us ads on a one-off basis. And then, separately, on our own, we're signed up for all the newsletters and press sheets that alert us to when new ads are put out there.

CNN: Does the app track information about its users?

Siegel: It tracks how "a user" has rated the ads. But we have absolutely no identifying information. We do know, in aggregate, how many people have rated an ad as "love" or "fishy," but we have no way of tracing that back to a user. A given user will be able to fire up his or her prior tags, so if you go on the app before and tagged five different ads, you can find those ads in a filter for "my tags." But that's all data that's stored on your phone. You're not sending that data back to us.

CNN: What have you found so far? Are most of the ads factual?

Siegel: I wouldn't necessarily even want to comment on that. That's painting with such a broad brush. What I can say is that we're really excited about what we're doing. We're not trying to say super PACs are good or bad, necessarily, but they're definitely here, and they're definitely spending lots of money. The campaigns are spending a lot of money and all of that money is going into television ads. And therefore there's a need for users to be able to play through the noise a little bit.

Some of these ads are complete distortions of the truth and you can quickly discover that if you have some trusted news source telling you so. And some of the ads are completely accurate and are telling you really valuable information that can help make you a more informed voter. And you need to know that, too.

It allows us to reach people who are like, "Yeah, this is kinda weird that my television is screaming all these ads at me, 24-7. I don't get it, but, by the same token, I've got a life. I'm going to go make dinner now and I'm going to go play catch with my kids. And that's that." Fine, great, don't get off your couch. Just hold up your phone to the TV and we can give you some very basic information that will help make you a little bit more informed.

CNN: It seems like this election cycle is unique in terms of the amount of money being spent on campaign ads, and the presence of super PACs. Can you talk about why you think this app is especially important now?

Siegel: Because of the "Citizens United" decision, that Supreme Court decision, super PACs can exist. And what it means is that anyone who's willing and able to write a check can have a voice in this election. And by anyone, that is a union, that is an individual, that is a company. And they can do so to an unlimited degree.

The amount of voice you can have is only limited by the amount of airtime you are able to buy. And that's unprecedented. That means that sometime in mid-August or late August, there's going to be, particularly in swing states, no more (nonpolitical) commercials. And I suspect that's going to feel very weird to the average person.

We're hoping people will say, at the very least, "Well, I want to understand why there are so many commercials on?" We think the Super PAC App is a way to very quickly, very easily -- and actually in a fun way -- get to that message.

CNN: What do you think the next presidential election will look like in terms of the use of technology to help get people information?

Siegel: Yeah, someone asked that question of me recently and my response, which was kind of flippant at the time but I think is honest, is that "I can't even imagine." Right? Like the advancement of technology in the next four years -- it's so exciting to think what might be possible. What I said to that person at the time is "Who knows, in 2016, we might all be flying in cars."

And I honestly do feel that way. What is applied in terms of mobile technology in the next four years? I hope it's something like the Super PAC App on 10 rounds of steroids. I don't know what it is, but I'm really excited to see it and I'm really excited to use it. And, potentially, even be the one developing it.

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