Developing Minds Want to Know: Q&A with Jeff Sonderman of the Poynter Institute/PolitiFact

Aug 28, 2012

No matter what side of the political aisle you fall on, there is one thing in which we can all agree: virtually every candidate running for political office is full of it. Of course, some candidates are more liberal with the truth than others. It is all a matter of degree. Thankfully, there are apps […]

No matter what side of the political aisle you fall on, there is one thing in which we can all agree: virtually every candidate running for political office is full of it. Of course, some candidates are more liberal with the truth than others. It is all a matter of degree.

Thankfully, there are apps like Settle It! Politifact’s Argument Ender to help us determine what statements by candidates and parties are right, kind of right, or outright fibs. The free app – which is also available on Android devices – tests users on which purported facts are actually true (as well as what claims quality as “pants on fire”. Users are then labeled anything from “Intern” to “Wonk” based on their grasp of the past.

Settle It! is an offshoot of the popular fact-checking PolitiFact website, which is produced by The Tampa Bay Times, with an assist from The Poynter Institute and funding from The Knight Foundation.

In this edition of Developing Minds Want to Know, we check in with Jeff Sonderman of Poynter to discuss why Settle It! only really works on mobile devices, how the service can contribute to a more informed electorate, and what technological innovations in political sphere we should expect heading into 2016.

APPOLICIOUS: Tell us how Settle It! is uniquely suited to mobile devices.

JEFF SONDERMAN: Our goal was to help people access on-demand fact-checking information at the moment they need it – so it made sense to build that as an app for the smartphones that are always with us. Settle It! is a completely new product designed for the mobile experience – nothing there is constrained by a pre-existing Web product.

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APPO: With vetted, fact-checked information literally at our fingertips, are you optimistic that we can have a more informed electorate come November?

JS: That’s certainly our hope. We optimized the app not only for finding information, but for sharing it as well. So we hope each person we get to use the app can actually inform 10 or 100 times more people by sharing information with their friends.

APPO: Why do you think politicians get away with uttering such misleading statements when the facts can so quickly be researched and presented to prove otherwise?

JS: Winston Churchill once said “A lie gets halfway around the world before the truth has a chance to get its pants on.” That gap may be smaller today, but it remains true that the initial lie can still spread far and wide and have an impact before the fact-check gets out there. PolitiFact is always looking for ways to close that gap and bring fact-checking closer to the initial statement.

APPO: Talk about the gaming aspect of Settle It! and how it might be able to engage users more deeply than the original Truth-O-Meter (also a great application).

JS: We felt the game was really important and exciting. A far larger number of people will engage with a game than will simply seek out factual information. The game is fun, and rewards the users for continually exposing themselves to new information that they might otherwise ignore.

APPO: Settle It! is free to download whereas Truth-O-Meter has a $1.99 download price. Are there plans to make money through this new application? If so, how? If not, why not?

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JS: Settle It! is funded through a grant by the Knight Foundation, which is interested in helping produce better-informed communities. Because of the grant funding, and because we wanted the largest-possible audience for this important information, we chose not to charge for the app.

It does, however, indirectly aid PolitiFact by spreading its brand and enabling users to share links to Truth-O-Meter rulings on the PolitiFact website.

APPO: What is your assessment of the applications put out to date from the Obama and Romney campaigns?

JS: To be honest, I haven’t looked that closely at them. But they are probably more focused on organizing the base and coordinating volunteers than they are on distributing facts. So I think we’re probably playing in a different ballpark.

APPO: Outside of Poynter applications, what in your opinion are the best apps for political/policy junkies?

JS: The Washington Post has put a lot of custom work and awesome features into its WP Politics app for iPad. And The New York Times has a neat Election 2012 app that aggregates news from multiple sources and has a bunch of special features. POLITICO has a pretty cool iPad app too that I’ve seen them make a lot of improvements to over time, and I know they have a great tech team there.

APPO: Given the pace of technological innovation, can you forecast what features a politically-oriented application might have in 2016?

JS: I think we’ll continue to see apps take more sophisticated advantage of phone sensors (like location), personalization algorithms and social graphs. I think we’ll see apps that are your guide to your elections, instead of just a guide to all elections.

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Brad Spirrison

Brad Spirrison is the managing editor of appoLearning and Appolicious Inc. In this capacity, he has sampled and evaluated thousands of iOS and Android applications. He also holds an M.A. in Education and Media Ecology from New York University.

Spirrison worked in concert with appoLearning Expert and Instructional Technology Specialist Leslie Morris while curating and evaluating educational applications.

A longtime media and technology commentator and executive, Spirrison is also a regular contributor to ABC News, The Huffington Post, TechCrunch, Bloomberg West and The Christopher Gabriel Program.

Spirrison is married and lives with his wife and young son in Chicago. As his son was born just weeks before the debut of the iPad, Spirrison takes his work home with him and regularly samples and enjoys a variety of educational applications for young children.

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