At just 24, Lyric Jain is trying to stem the flow of online misinformation and conspiracy theories. He has his work cut out for him.
Jain is the founder of Logically, a UK-based fact-checking app which hopes to transform the way we consume news. Combining AI technology and human researchers, Logically integrates fact-checking into an RSS-style news feed. Articles pulled from major publishers are marked as “true” or “false” on the app, unifying what had previously been two processes — the act of reading news articles, and then fact-checking their content — into one experience. Users can also upload forwarded text or WhatsApp messages into the app to have them fact-checked.
Founded in 2017, Logically has around 20,000 regular users, the majority of them in India, where Jain’s family is from, and the UK. Although the app has been soft-launched in the UK, a full roll-out is planned for the end of 2020, together with Logically’s arrival to the US. “2020 was supposed to be all about the US election,” Jain sighs. “And then Covid came along and it’s become the year of Covid. Suddenly the US election is just a footnote.”
Jain founded Logically after the 2016 Brexit referendum. “My home-town of Stone, in Staffordshire, voted strongly to leave the EU, but where I was living at the time of the vote, Cambridge, was almost totally Remain,” Jain explains. “Within my friends from both areas I could see how much misinformation was being spread by both sides online.”
Another, more personal motivator: in 2014, Jain’s grandmother died from pancreatic cancer, following years of refusing conventional treatment in favour of alternative therapies. “It showed me how health misinformation can have a deadly impact,” he says.
Logically hopes to differentiate itself from other fact-checking offeringsthrough its use of AI. Typically, fact-checking platforms rely on human moderators to sift through claims and determine what is accurate. Instead, Logically is using AI to run claims through a database of previously checked facts, and assign a score of how likely that claim is to be accurate, based on past claims and the credibility of its source. (Logically has scored all media outlets for truthfulness: claims made by independent news organisations are given a high rating, while conspiracy theory sites such as InfoWars score poorly. Jain says that WIRED would be labelled as “fairly reliable”.)
After this automated matching process, human moderators take over, using the AI-generated research together with their own judgement to assess the claim’s veracity. Jain is hopeful that in time, the fact-checking process will become fully automated. Jain initially started Logically with a £8,250 start-up grant from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology: he has subsequently funded the startup with a mixture of personal and investment (including from XTX Ventures and Mercia Technologies) to the tune of £8m. Eventually, he plans for the app to be a for-profit social enterprise, with a £5 monthly subscription giving consumers full access, although the subscription model will not be rolled out until 2021.
Already the platform has made waves in the UK. In April, Logically partnered with The Guardian on an investigation into a self-styled former Vodafone executive who’d been spreading conspiracy theories falsely linking coronavirus to 5G. Jonathon James, an evangelical pastor from Luton, was behind a widely-disseminated voice recording that also suggested that Microsoft founder Bill Gates was planning to smuggle microchips into a Covid-19 vaccine.
“We’d been following the 5G narrative for about a year,” says Jain. “It was really interesting seeing how Covid started getting jumbled into the 5G conspiracy theories from around December, although people really got carried away when [conspiracy theorist] David Icke started talking about 5G and Covid in March.” After becoming concerned about the abundance of fake news linking coronavirus to 5G, Logically’s investigation team was able to manually identify James using audio recordings that had been shared on Facebook, as well as tagged Facebook photos, and his LinkedIn page.
“Covid has been strange for a lot of reasons,” Jain says. “A lot of fringe communities have coalesced around mutually beneficial narratives: whether it’s coronavirus as a form of biowarfare, 5G, or the anti-vaxxers. You have these different groups coming together to promote each other’s Covid conspiracies.”
As a result, people who hadn’t previously been exposed to conspiracy theories are being sucked into a coronavirus disinformation slipstream. “What’s surprised me is how coronavirus theories have spread amongst people who wouldn’t normally be disposed to conspiracy theories,” says Dr. Gordon Pennycook of the University of Regina. “A lot of this has to do with the fact that people are concerned about the coronavirus pandemic, and tired of being at home. Additionally the fact that coronavirus is such an unknown quantity means there’s more room to come up with conspiracies — saying 5G causes coronavirus doesn’t seem so ridiculous if you don’t know so much about 5G or coronavirus.”
Jain hopes that tools such as Logically would help counteract misinformation at its source. “One of the main criticisms of fact-checking historically has been that the people who need to see the fact check the most don’t tend to see it,” says Jain. “That’s a particular problem in peer-to-peer messaging — WhatsApp in particular has been a huge pain-point in the misinformation space.”
Someone concerned about their friends or family falling for an inaccurate claim might turn to Logically to have it fact-checked, and then forward the fact-check to their contacts. “We know that when we share a fact-check back to one of our users on WhatsApp, that tends to get shared to around 100 people,” Jain goes on. “Many of those people will have seen the original piece of misinformation, so you’re then reaching the people who most need to be reached.” Of course, whether the same people who believed in 5G misinformation will then accept Logically’s fact-checks is another question entirely.
Logically is still relatively new, and it shows. The app can be glitchy, and responses from fact-checkers slow. But its potential to counteract the spread of misinformation is promising — even if stemming the tide of fake news online seems at times a Sisyphean endeavour.
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