Sunday, October 14, 2012

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

John D. Sutter, CNN
A new free app aims to fact-check political ads, something that may prove useful during this presidential campaign.
A new free app aims to fact-check political ads, something that may prove useful during this presidential campaign.
  • New Super PAC App aims to fact-check campaign ads
  • The free app listens to the sound waves of a TV advertisement
  • It then links the user up with information about the commercial
  • Super PAC App partners with fact-checking groups to shed light on ads' claims
(CNN) -- 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 -- 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."
CNN: So you mentioned "audio fingerprinting." What does that mean exactly?
Siegel: The short answer is that we're collecting a database of all the presidential political ads. So we have that. That database grows, obviously, by the day, as the new ads are released.
The users submits to us, though the app, an audio sample of sound (from the campaign ad). And we can match that audio sample, with our partner TuneSat, against the database that we have.
With enough audio -- it's typically about 10 seconds required to make a match -- we can say, "Gotcha." We know which ad you're listening to right now.
And then the app fires up and the user can explore the information.
CNN: What information pops up on your screen?
Siegel: We think it's still important to know basic facts. So the first screen is information including: Who is this organization? What are they called? Is it Restore Our Future? Is it Obama for America? Is Crossroads GPS? Is it Priorities USA Action? Then what are they? Are they the official campaign? Are they a super PAC? Is it something else? And then it's how much money have they raised? How much money have they spent in this campaign season?
And then it's an opportunity for the user to actually rate the ad -- and rate them with fun buttons (like) "love," "fair," "fishy," "fail." Once they do that, they can see how others have rated the ad. And then from there there's an opportunity to go into another screen, which is the actual claims of the ad. So a user can click through and we're disaggregating an ad into distinct claims. For each of those claims, here are objective, nonpartisan, third-party sources that are talking about that claim.
So you can quickly get a sense of, "Is this claim based in any kind of fact or is it all noise?" And hopefully that's an opportunity for the user not to have to do a lot of homework to figure out, "Am I watching an ad that's kind of true? Not true at all? Or actually, yeah, that is telling me some really valuable information."
CNN: So it's fact checking it, in a way.
Siegel: It is fact checking it, but we as Super PAC App are not doing the fact checking. We are, you know, standing on the shoulders of some great organizations, including and PolitiFact. But also, you know, major media outlets who are doing their own reporting.
CNN: I imagine this has got to be an incredible amount of data. How do you keep up with that while, as you mentioned, more and more ads keep coming in all the time?
Siegel: We have a Web crawler and we are pointing it at the right places to find these ads. Reliably, you can find many of these ads on YouTube. But that's probably not going to get us all the way there. You can imagine some organizations that don't create YouTube channels or never post (the ads) online. And you can also imagine an organization that posts it online 24 hours after it's actually run. And we want to have to not wait for that window.
We have informal partnerships with journalists. ... We're plugged in with those journalists and they're feeding us ads on a one-off basis. And then, separately, on our own, we're signed up for all the newsletters and press sheets that alert us to when new ads are put out there.
CNN: Does the app track information about its users?
Siegel: It tracks how "a user" has rated the ads. But we have absolutely no identifying information. We do know, in aggregate, how many people have rated an ad as "love" or "fishy," but we have no way of tracing that back to a user. A given user will be able to fire up his or her prior tags, so if you go on the app before and tagged five different ads, you can find those ads in a filter for "my tags." But that's all data that's stored on your phone. You're not sending that data back to us.
CNN: What have you found so far? Are most of the ads factual?
Siegel: I wouldn't necessarily even want to comment on that. That's painting with such a broad brush. What I can say is that we're really excited about what we're doing. We're not trying to say super PACs are good or bad, necessarily, but they're definitely here, and they're definitely spending lots of money. The campaigns are spending a lot of money and all of that money is going into television ads. And therefore there's a need for users to be able to play through the noise a little bit.
Some of these ads are complete distortions of the truth and you can quickly discover that if you have some trusted news source telling you so. And some of the ads are completely accurate and are telling you really valuable information that can help make you a more informed voter. And you need to know that, too.
It allows us to reach people who are like, "Yeah, this is kinda weird that my television is screaming all these ads at me, 24-7. I don't get it, but, by the same token, I've got a life. I'm going to go make dinner now and I'm going to go play catch with my kids. And that's that." Fine, great, don't get off your couch. Just hold up your phone to the TV and we can give you some very basic information that will help make you a little bit more informed.
CNN: It seems like this election cycle is unique in terms of the amount of money being spent on campaign ads, and the presence of super PACs. Can you talk about why you think this app is especially important now?
Siegel: Because of the "Citizens United" decision, that Supreme Court decision, super PACs can exist. And what it means is that anyone who's willing and able to write a check can have a voice in this election. And by anyone, that is a union, that is an individual, that is a company. And they can do so to an unlimited degree.
The amount of voice you can have is only limited by the amount of airtime you are able to buy. And that's unprecedented. That means that sometime in mid-August or late August, there's going to be, particularly in swing states, no more (nonpolitical) commercials. And I suspect that's going to feel very weird to the average person.
We're hoping people will say, at the very least, "Well, I want to understand why there are so many commercials on?" We think the Super PAC App is a way to very quickly, very easily -- and actually in a fun way -- get to that message.
CNN: What do you think the next presidential election will look like in terms of the use of technology to help get people information?
Siegel: Yeah, someone asked that question of me recently and my response, which was kind of flippant at the time but I think is honest, is that "I can't even imagine." Right? Like the advancement of technology in the next four years -- it's so exciting to think what might be possible. What I said to that person at the time is "Who knows, in 2016, we might all be flying in cars."
And I honestly do feel that way. What is applied in terms of mobile technology in the next four years? I hope it's something like the Super PAC App on 10 rounds of steroids. I don't know what it is, but I'm really excited to see it and I'm really excited to use it. And, potentially, even be the one developing it.

“We weren’t told they wanted more security there. We did not know they wanted more security.”

There were lots of feisty words and fishy facts in Thursday’s debate between Vice President Biden and Rep. Paul Ryan. Here are some quick highlights.
“We weren’t told they wanted more security there. We did not know they wanted more security.”

Fact checking the vice-presidential debate

 at 02:02 AM ET, 10/12/2012
VIDEO: Highlights from Thurday night's debate between Vice President Biden and Rep. Paul Ryan in Danville, Kentucky. 
(This is an expanded version of material that originally appeared in the Oct. 12 print edition of The Washington Post.)
There were lots of feisty words and fishy facts in Thursday’s debate between Vice President Biden and Rep. Paul Ryan. Here are some quick highlights.
“We weren’t told they wanted more security there. We did not know they wanted more security.”
— Biden, speaking of the U.S. diplomatic mission in Libya
Biden’s bold statement was directly contradicted by State Department officials just this week, in testimony before a congressional panel and in unclassified cables released by a congressional committee.
“All of us at post were in sync that we wanted these resources,” said Eric Nordstrom, the top regional security officer in Libya earlier this year. A Utah National Guardsman who led a security team, Lt. Col. Andrew Wood, said: “We felt great frustration that those requests were ignored or just never met.”
Maybe Biden was too busy in debate prep to watch?
UPDATE: In a bit of post-debate clean-up of Biden’s remarks, the White House on Friday said Biden was speaking for himself and President Obama, not the administration.
“The congressman here cut embassy security in his budget by $300 million below what we asked for.”
— Biden
Ryan, as head of the House Budget Committee, set broad targets for spending in his budget blueprint that would have cut nondefense discretionary spending by 19 percent in 2014.
There were no specific cuts in embassy security, but Democrats have extrapolated the number, across the board, to come up with this statistic. But it is not a real number with true budget impact. Update: The Hill newspaper detailed some back-and-forth rhetoric concerning the negotiations over the funding, noting that the figure also includes money for construction and maintenance, not just security.
By the way, our definitive timeline on shifting administration statements on the Libya terrorist attack can be found here.
“Prior to the election, prior to him being sworn in, Governor Romney was asked the question about how he would proceed. He said, ‘I wouldn’t move heaven and earth to get bin Laden.’”
— Biden
Romney made this statement in a 2007 interview with the Associated Press: “It’s not worth moving heaven and earth and spending billions of dollars just trying to catch one person.”
But Biden has ignored the rest of the interview, in which the AP quoted Romney as saying “he supports a broader strategy to defeat the Islamic jihad movement.” Just a few days later, Romney expanded on his remarks during a debate:
“We’ll move everything to get him. But I don’t want to buy into the Democratic pitch that this is all about one person — Osama bin Laden — because after we get him, there’s going to be another and another. This is about Shia and Sunni. This is about Hezbollah and Hamas and al-Qaeda and the Muslim Brotherhood. This is a worldwide jihadist effort to try and cause the collapse of all moderate Islamic governments and replace them with a caliphate.”
“When Barack Obama was elected, they [Iran] had enough fissile material — nuclear material to make one bomb. Now they have enough for five. They're racing toward a nuclear weapon. They're four years closer toward a nuclear weapons capability. We've had four different sanctions, the U.N. on Iran, three from the Bush administration, one here. And the only reason we got it is because Russia watered it down and prevented the sanctions from hitting the central bank.... In Congress, I've been fighting for these sanctions since 2009. The administration was blocking us every step of the way.”
— Ryan
Ryan greatly simplifies things here. Iran has built up its supply of nuclear material, but none of it is usable in a weapon yet. Most experts say the United States and its allies would have ample warning if Iran tried to enrich its nuclear material to weapons grade. (Biden confused matters by asserting that both the Israelis and the United States would know when Iran starts “building a weapon” — that is much more difficult to track.)
Meanwhile, the debate on Iran sanctions is rather familiar. If you go back four years, you will see that it was the Obama campaign that made claims of weakness and fecklessness on Iran. President George W. Bush had considered the building of a multinational coalition seeking to negotiate with Iran as one of his foreign-policy legacies, but Obama officials were critical, saying it offered “weak carrots and weak sticks.”
Now, Ryan’s critique of the sanctions and the U.N. diplomacy is also missing certain nuances.
1. The U.N. Security Council resolution is only the tip of the iceberg. Obama’s initial outreach to Iran, which was largely unreciprocated, and the discovery of another secret Iranian nuclear site near Qom, did help build a stronger international coalition against Iran. The U.N. Security Council resolution is always the lowest common denominator, but passage of Resolution 1929 in 2010 provided a diplomatic rationale for other key players, such as the European Union, Japan and Australia, to pass even tougher sanctions on their own. Indeed, the template for the E.U. sanctions was a set of ideas that could not pass muster with the Russians and Chinese at the United Nations.
2. Not all actions are spelled out. As part of the U.N. sanctions, Russia won an exemption that would have permitted an $800 million sale of S-300 air defense missiles to Iran. But then Russia canceled the sale anyway, in what can only be viewed as the outcome of successful, quiet diplomacy.
3. Consequences are sometimes difficult to predict. The Obama administration’s willingness to pursue a deal to supply fuel to an Iranian research reactor helped convince Russia and China it was serious about a negotiated end to the standoff. But bungled diplomacy and miscommunication on this issue with Brazil and Turkey led to the loss of a unanimous vote at the Security Council.
4. Congressional action can sometimes be a useful tool for diplomacy, but it can also be an irritant. All administrations try to preserve as much flexibility as possible; no one likes to have their hands tied. George W. Bush was especially aggressive about adding signing statements saying he would not be bound by some of the terms of legislation passed by Congress.
We can’t really speak to Biden’s claim that “these are the most crippling sanctions in the history of sanctions, period.” That certainly might be a subjective assessment, but the effectiveness of sanctions is measured by results. The Iranian economy appears to be suffering, but the Islamic Republic thus far has shown little sign that it plans to slow down its nuclear program in response to these sanctions.
“Look at all the string of broken promises. If you like your health-care plan, you can keep it. Try telling that to the 20 million people who are projected to lose their health insurance if Obamacare goes through.”
— Ryan
Ryan is referring to a recent Congressional Budget Office study that gave several scenarios for what could happen to employer-based coverage once the law was implemented. The most positive scenario has 3 million people being added to employer coverage, while “on balance, the number of people obtaining coverage through their employer would be about 3 million lower in 2019 under the legislation than under prior law,” the CBO concludes.
The worst-case scenario was 20 million people, which is where Ryan got his number. It’s worth noting that the baseline scenario — 3 million fewer people — represents just 2 percent of the people who now get insurance through their employers.
Usually, when Republicans cite this figure, they say “up to 20 million,” but Ryan did not even bother with that modifier, making his claim especially alarmist.
The CBO cautions that there is a “tremendous amount of uncertainty” about how employers and employees will respond to the legislation. “One piece of evidence that may be relevant is the experience in Massachusetts, where employment-based health insurance coverage appeared to increase after that state’s reforms,” the CBO noted. Mitt Romney, as governor, ushered in health-care legislation that served as a model for Obama’s health plan
“Romney said, ‘No, let Detroit go bankrupt.’”
— Biden
This statement is drawn from a headline — “Let Detroit Go Bankrupt” — on an opinion article written by Romney for The New York Times. But he did not say that in the article. (He repeated the line, however, on television.)
Although “bankrupt” often conjures up images of liquidation, Romney called for a “managed bankruptcy.” This is a process in which the company uses the bankruptcy code to discharge its debts, but emerges from the process a leaner, less leveraged company.
Ultimately, along with getting nearly $80 billion in loans and other assistance from the Bush and Obama administrations, GM and Chrysler did go through a managed bankruptcy. But many independent analysts have concluded that taking the approach recommended by Romney would not have worked in 2008, simply because the credit markets were so frozen that a bankruptcy was not a viable option at the time.
Biden also overstated the Obama administration’s role in saving the auto industry, glossing over the fact that the outgoing George W. Bush administration first bailed out General Motors and Chrysler.
“They got caught with their hands in the cookie jar, turning Medicare into a piggybank for Obamacare.”
— Ryan
“What we did is, we saved $716 billion and put it back, applied it to Medicare.”
— Biden
Ryan accused the Obama administration of using Medicare as a “piggy bank” but this is a much more complicated story.
This $716 billion figure comes from the difference over 10 years (2013-2022) between anticipated Medicare spending (what is known as “the baseline”) and the changes that the law makes to reduce spending. The savings mostly are wrung from health-care providers, not Medicare beneficiaries — who, as a result of the health-care law, ended up with new benefits for preventive care and prescription drugs. (Some argue that those provider cuts will eventually result in poorer patient care — see next fact check.)
But Biden is completely wrong when he says the money was applied to Medicare. In fact, the anticipated savings from Medicare were used to help offset some of the anticipated costs of expanding health care for all Americans, as Ryan said.
But the transfer does not affect the Medicare trust fund. The Obama health-care law also raised Medicare payroll taxes by $318 billion over the new 10-year time frame, but only a third of that money is credited to the trust fund; the rest goes to general revenues.
Ryan, as House Budget Committee chairman, probably knows he’s playing a rhetorical game here. (We’re not sure what Biden was thinking.) Federal budget accounting is so complex that it is easy to mislead ordinary Americans — a tactic used by both parties.
Ryan is correct that in the health-care bill, the anticipated savings from Medicare were used to help offset some of the anticipated costs of expanding health care for all Americans. But all government money is fungible.
Under the concept of the unified budget, money that is collected by the federal government for whatever purpose (such as Medicare and Social Security payroll taxes) is spent on whatever bills are coming due at that time. Social Security and Medicare will get a credit for taxes collected that are not immediately spent on Social Security, but those taxes are quickly devoted to other federal spending.
The House Republican budget plan crafted by Ryan retains virtually all of the Medicare “cuts” contained in the health-care law, but diverts them instead to his Medicare overhaul. Republicans argue that that is a more effective use of the savings.
“Their own actuary from the administration came to Congress and said one out of six hospitals and nursing homes are going to go out of business as a result of this.”
— Ryan
“That’s not what they said.”
— Biden
Ryan is right on the figure, and Biden is wrong. But Ryan overstates the case.
“It is doubtful that many [hospitals and other health-care providers] will be able to improve their own productivity to the degree” necessary to accommodate the cuts, Medicare actuary Richard S. Foster has written. “Thus, providers for whom Medicare constitutes a substantial portion of their business could find it difficult to remain profitable, and, absent legislative intervention, might end their participation in the program (possibly jeopardizing care for beneficiaries). [Our] simulations ... suggest that roughly 15 percent of [hospitalization] providers would become unprofitable within the 10-year projection as a result of the [spending cuts].”
Last time we checked, 15 percent is just shy of “one out six” (16.67 percent). Still, “unprofitable” is not the same as “going out of business.”
Frankly, if the cuts turn out to be too painful for providers, Congress will likely halt them. That’s what has happened in the past. Just about every year Congress passes the so-called “doc fix,” which defers cuts set in the 1996 balanced budget plan.
“By the way, that $6,400 number, it was misleading then, it’s totally inaccurate now.”
— Ryan
Ryan has changed his plan to overhaul Medicare to address some of the loudest complaints. The new version of the plan includes the option for traditional Medicare, as well as a commitment that at least one health-care option would be fully covered by the government.
Indeed, the new plan is much more generous than the original version. The old plan had capped growth at the rate of inflation. Many experts believed that was too low and pushed more costs on beneficiaries, which is where the estimate of an additional $6,400 in premiums came from.
In the updated Ryan plan, Medicare spending would be permitted to grow slightly faster than the nation’s economy — in fact, at the same growth rate as Obama’s budget for Medicare.
“It’s a plan I put together with a prominent Democrat senator from Oregon.”
— Ryan
“There’s not one Democrat who endorses it.”
— Biden
Here, Ryan goes too far. Biden is right — Ryan worked with former White House budget director Alice Rivlin and Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) on versions of his Medicare plan, but both since have distanced themselves from the final proposal, saying it did not reflect their discussions. BusinessWeek reported that Wyden said that Ryan is “talking nonsense” about their partnership.
After the debate, Wyden posted a note on his Facebook page complaining about Ryan’s reference:
The Vice President is right, Romney/Ryan moved the goal post on Medicare and I strongly oppose their plan because I believe it hurts seniors. The Romney/Ryan plan raises the age of eligibility and repeals the ACA leaving millions of seniors with no health coverage. The Romney/Ryan plan on Medicare pulls the safety net out from under the poorest and most vulnerable seniors, taking away the opportunity for nursing home care from seniors who need it and have no other options.
The Wyden-Ryan white paper strengthened the safety net for these dual eligibles. The Romney/Ryan version shreds it. The Republican ticket knows that neither I, nor any other Democrat, would support these policies.
The Romney/Ryan plan on Medicare is further proof that Mitt Romney is singularly unfit to end gridlock and bring bipartisan solutions to Washington.
“Was it a good idea to spend taxpayer dollars on electric cars in Finland, or on windmills in China?”
— Ryan
We’ve written repeatedly about such claims, which are exaggerated. There are foreign connections but the stimulus money was generally spent in the United States.
This “cars in Finland” concerns a loan guarantee to Fisker Automotive, which The Washington Post hasidentified as troubled. But the company disputes the RNC’s claim that $500 billion in U.S. money (via two loans) is being spent to produce cars overseas. Instead, the company says the money has been spent on design and engineering activities in the United States, and the expenditures have been reviewed by PricewaterhouseCoopers. Ultimately, the company plans to build a lower-priced version of its car in Delaware, using a $359 million loan, but less than $25 million that has been disbursed so far.
Follow the links for more details about that case and the “windmills in China.
“The middle class will pay less, and people making a million dollars or more will begin to contribute slightly more.”
— Biden
In describing the administration’s tax plan, Biden appeared to have moved the goal posts. The president has consistently said he would roll back Bush-era tax cuts for couples making more than $250,000 and individuals making more than $200,000.
“With regard to the assault on the Catholic Church, let me make it absolutely clear: No religious institution, Catholic or otherwise — including Catholic Social Services, Georgetown Hospital, Mercy, any hospital — none has to either refer contraception, none has to pay for contraception, none has to be a vehicle to get contraception in any insurance policy they provide. That is a fact.”
— Biden
Biden went a bit far saying it is “a fact” that religious groups will not pay for contraceptives under the health-care law.
Biden was referring to the so-called contraceptive mandate, which requires insurers to provide coverage for birth control without charging additional co-payments. (We have touched on this issue in two separatecolumns).
Biden was instrumental in brokering that accommodation in an effort to quell an outcry from Catholic leaders otherwise sympathetic to the Obama administration.
The Obama administration made a decision to fully exempt religious institutions such as churches from this rule. It also said it will exempt religiously affiliated organizations such as Catholic schools and hospitals, but their insurance providers must still cover birth control with no out-of-pocket costs for the insured.
But there are still unsettled issues in this matter.
Some church organizations still object to the mandate despite the exemption for religion-affiliated groups, arguing that they could end up paying for birth control indirectly if the mandate causes their health insurance costs to rise. Furthermore, the Obama administration said in March that it will come up with an accommodation for religiously affiliated employers that self-insure, but it has not yet decided how to handle that seven months later.
Ryan pointed out that the accommodations failed to satisfy many religious groups. “If they agree with you … why would they keep suing you?” he asked.
Here are more details on the lawsuits Ryan was referring to, and the legal arguments involved. — Josh Hicks and N.C. Aizenman
“We should not have called Bashar Assad a reformer.”
— Ryan
Ryan brings up some old history here about the hopes the administration originally had about the Syrian leader.
Most famously, as the uprising in Syria began in 2011, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said that “many of the members of Congress of both parties who have gone to Syria in recent months have said they believe he’s a reformer.” She quickly tried to take back her statement, saying two days later: “I referenced opinions of others. That was not speaking either for myself or for the administration.”
We actually looked into this question at the time and concluded that Clinton’s claim of a bipartisan support for the idea that Assad was a reformer was not credible. She earned Three Pinocchios.
But it is worth remembering this was never stated as an official U.S. policy position, as Ryan suggests.