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

A new free app aims to fact-check political ads, something that may prove useful during this presidential campaign.

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."

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