Fact or Fiction? Israeli Startup Pops Fake News Conspiracy Bubbles

03/13/2017 11:52 am ET

A new, innovative startup from Israel may have the solution to an issue plaguing our political discourse these days: fake news. In its most pernicious form, fake news is intentionally manufactured in order to sway public opinion, influence policies, and even alter elections results.

We can usually identify “simple” fake news since it comes from funny-looking websites. It's often propagated by social media and has no reliable source to back it up. Usually, a simple web search will uncover the fabrication. Beyond fact checkers like Snopes and Politifact, the world's leading tech companies including Google and Facebook have begun new efforts to fight this basic type of fake news.

But what about the more “complex” and controversial cases? What do we do when we hear contradictory voices on mainstream media? Should we believe The New York Times when it chooses to relay an unscrutinized US government analysis on the 2013 chemical attack in Syria? Given their confident--and ultimately discredited--2003 reports on Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction, perhaps not. When you think about it, weren't the reports on Iraqi WMD's not just a sophisticated form of fake news?

To help us navigate through these more complex topics, Israel-based Rootclaim (video) has identified the main reasons why we fail at making sound decisions amid high uncertainty and complexity. They then set out to overcome those problems to help us reach the best conclusions possible.

The basic reason that we fail at reaching sound conclusions for complex problems is that we base our decisions on filtered information, cherry-picked evidence from biased and interested sources, which is implicitly filtered by us. On top of that, there are a slew of situations where human intuition fails us miserably--a topic extensively researched by Israeli Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman and others.

On any complex issue, intelligent people who have been exposed to the same information still reach different and even contradictory conclusions. Beyond the above mentioned Iraqi WMD fiasco we've seen questionable policy discussions about government spending, the education system, and healthcare. One such example is that more and more people question whether to vaccinate their children, as the controversy around a possible link between vaccines and autism refuses to subside.

It turns out that the human mind cannot deal with high levels of complexity and uncertainty. When we try to analyze many, often contradictory, pieces of evidence with differing levels of reliability, human conclusions often prove incredibly inaccurate.

Rootclaim’s methodology to combat this issue combines mathematical models with human knowledge to reach the most reliable conclusions amid high complexity and uncertainty. These models break down intricate issues into small questions that are answerable by humans, and then uses these answers to reach a conclusion.

The analysis is fully transparent and open to crowd-sourced scrutiny. Anyone can impact an analysis by contributing evidence, rational explanations, past examples, and statistics. Unlike polling or voting, a substantiated claim by one person can beat a weak claim believed by thousands.

Rootclaim has published a number of analyses on its site that shed new light on controversial issues. An analysis of the issue "Who carried out the 2013 chemical attack in Syria?" reached the counter-mainstream conclusion that Obama’s administration likely made the wrong call when accusing Assad of the attack. A look at the question, "What caused the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines flight 370?" suggests that it was likely pilot suicide. Those who followed the Hae Min Lee murder case (covered in the Serial podcasts), may be surprised to learn that Adnan Syed is most likely innocent.

Rootclaim’s co-founders, serial entrepreneur Saar Wilf and Aviv Cohen, who worked together at the Wilf-cofounded Fraud Sciences (acquired by the online payments giant Paypal for $169 million in 2008) hint of future directions for this technology. Enhanced modeling capabilities will be able to encompass policy-related questions, forecasting and decision making, that can be applied to many domains where today intuition and partiality rule.Beyond establishing Rootclaim as a voice of reason for controversies of public interest, they are also considering enterprise applications to address strategic decision making, which is often flawed for exactly the same reasons. After all, even presidents, CEOs, judges, and journalists are only human.

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