He’s Fighting QAnon With Sunlight
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because fighting fringe movements takes humans and machines working together.
By Nick Fouriezos
- Lyric Jain’s new app, Logically, is tracking fringe movements and fact-checking the news in real time.
- The U.K. native has already shown an ability to bust up misinformation in India. Can it work in 2020 America?
It was the third weekend of August, and an anti-sex trafficking rally was about to fill the streets of Salt Lake City. Except, late into Friday night, Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes suddenly pulled the plug on the Saturday event. While it had originally been organized by legitimate nonprofits and government groups, its mission had been hijacked by the Arizona-based “Freedom for the Children” group — an organization whose founders traffic in the QAnon conspiracy theory that an elite cabal is secretly molesting children worldwide.
While that strange confluence of events may have surprised many, it didn’t surprise Lyric Jain, a 24-year-old, Cambridge-educated engineer who lives in the United Kingdom. In fact, his company, Logically — a news curator that uses artificial intelligence and other methods to tackle the spread of misinformation — had released an investigation a week before into dozens of similar child trafficking events that had been co-opted by QAnon for that same date. Its report included an interview with a Freedom for the Children founder Tara Nicole, in which she refused to deny that her beliefs aligned with QAnon, and the report made its way to the Utah attorney general’s office.
The incident highlighted the treacherous news landscape where both reporters and policymakers now tread, one in which even protecting children can be weaponized by extremists. But it also exemplifies the way fact checkers can fight back in new and varied ways, with people like Jain leading the charge.
Logically found that 12 to 14 percent of articles about the U.K. and Indian elections were unreliable and identified tens of thousands of fake news pieces.
“This is one of a family of tools to fight real civic challenges — the polarization of the left and the right, the echo chamber phenomenon of social media,” says Joost Bonson, an MIT lecturer who co-taught the Developmental Ventures program in which Jain first developed his plan for combating misinformation with tech. “What’s even more important than his technical skills is his ability to attract and entice people to join in to this compelling mission.”
While just about everyone has been affected by misinformation in the digital age, Jain has had more of a front row view than most. He was studying in the United States at the MIT Media Lab during a 2016 election defined in part by Russian attempts to manipulate the news cycle. Previously, he watched the Brexit vote from Britain — Jain notes that he was studying at the University of Cambridge, one of the highest “Remain” districts in the country, while having grown up in the rural town of Stone, which overwhelmingly voted to “Leave” the European Union in 2016.
But the real effect of virtual distortion was personal. Because months before Brexit, Jain’s grandmother died of cancer, in his view because of medical misinformation she had found online. “She believed somebody who told her to just, ‘Drink this juice, give up on your meds, and you’ll live longer,'” he says. That experience, compounded by Brexit and America’s 2016 election, led Jain to finally accept his fate — his original plan was to go to the “dark side” of finance, he says — and start working on Logically. “I never thought I’d be an entrepreneur [this early],” he laughs, adding that “there was just too much serendipity there.”
Early on, the company was “fairly agnostic,” Jain says, waiting to see whether machines or people could better fact-check the world. Ultimately, they settled on a combination of AI (to review more than 500,000 articles a day) and fact-checkers, many with journalism backgrounds (for more specific tasks). As of last year, Logically had around 30 employees in the U.K., mostly working in data science and artificial intelligence, with plans to expand its mostly fact-checking staff members in India to 70 people after announcing a $7 million seed funding round.
Logically examined global political content in 2019, finding that 12 to 14 percent of articles about the U.K. and Indian elections were unreliable and identifying tens of thousands of fake news pieces. During India’s state elections, Logically worked with the Maharashtra Cyber police and the state’s election commission to identify online disinformation that could lead to voter suppression.
In July, Logically entered the U.S. market with a fact-checking browser extension. It was followed quickly by a news curation app of the same name, which provides detailed summaries for storylines within articles and allows users to send their own fact checks of “any fact in any story” to the Logically team, which may then adopt the check broadly. “It’s been an ambition to be in the States right now — this election is like our cricket World Cup,” Jain says.
Of course, all the fact checking in the world can’t stop the spread of misinformation if people simply don’t want to change their views. “You can take the horse to the trough, but you can’t make them drink water,” Jain admits. He worries too that fact checkers broadly are still “playing catch-up” as propagandists increasingly move from open spaces — like a public Facebook feed or Twitter — to more hidden platforms, such as Facebook Messenger or private groups, as well as encrypted apps like WhatsApp and Telegram.
“If we could say it was the same tactics and same actors at play, I’d be confident we have everything under control,” Jain says. “We have some idea the new tactics and new tools that are coming, but what we don’t know is what countries or organizations are hiding up their sleeve, perhaps for an October surprise.”
That challenge will leave Jain fiddling for a solution, although the engineer and quad bike enthusiast has never been shy about tinkering. “I always liked building things and trying to fix them,” Jain says. Given the state of misinformation globally, he has a hell of a repair job ahead.
- Nick Fouriezos