Valerie Navarrete

Two Yalies have garnered national media attention for their efforts to develop a Google Chrome extension to combat fake news.

Stefan Uddenberg GRD ’19 and Michael Lopez-Brau GRD ’23 were part of a four-person team that won a prize at the 2017 YHack for developing the extension, which helps users identify fake news while browsing the internet. Their prize — presented by the Poynter Fellowship in Journalism — is an all-expenses paid trip later this year to meet with Congress in Washington, D.C. to present the hack.

“Having the opportunity to go to Congress will give us the opportunity to show Congress members that people do really care about this problem and there are people out there that are willing to put in the work and time and effort to combat this problem,” Lopez-Brau said.

Their prize-winning extension, called Open Mind, uses a unique approach to help users identify potential fake news websites. The team plans on launching the extension within the next two months, and users can sign up to use the beta-version at openmind.press. And although it has not been released yet, more than 4,000 people have already signed up to use the extension when it launches.

According to Uddenberg, people traditionally identify fake news by training an algorithm with examples of both fake news and real news articles. However, the team found this approach problematic. Uddenberg explained that no algorithm to date can take into account contextual information in real time that might be necessary to determine whether an article is fake news, if, for example, political context might explain a seemingly unlikely piece of news.

“Our approach is to train people to become better consumers of news and to be able to empower them to know what is fake and what is real for themselves,” Uddenberg said. The team developed an extension to track users’ browser histories while they are surfing the internet, analyze the political bias in the articles they are reading and provide users a curated list of news that presents opposing viewpoints.

The team hopes that by exposing people to a wider range of political perspectives, users can extract the truth for themselves and better identify fake news.

The team intends to reach out to all sides of the political spectrum to make use of the extension.

“Our extension has no bias, we are trying to make this work for everyone,” Lopez-Brau said. The duo recently appeared on Fox News and said they expect to attract a significant proportion of conservatives to be future users.

Yale professor Francesco Casetti, who is teaching a seminar this semester sponsored by the Poynter Fellowship entitled “Truth and Media Information,” identified enclosed political spaces and the spread of partial truths on the internet as major causes of the dissemination of fake news.

But beyond the political and ideological reasons for the spread of fake news, Casetti explained, fake news websites are also financially motivated to gain readers. As long as there is demand for fake news, websites will continue producing it.

Casetti said that a minority of people today check the facts in news that they consume. While he commended Open Mind, he said that training users to check the facts is just part of a solution that would have to involve engaging people on the other side of the political spectrum.

Asked whether she would use Open Mind to help her spot fake news, Katherine Hong ’19 said, “It would be good to have to inform some of my decisions and as a third-party evaluation.” But Lopez-Brau cautioned that the extension is not a panacea.

“We’re not the first to suggest a solution, and we know that we won’t be the last, because Open Mind isn’t a silver bullet, and I don’t think there is going to be any silver bullet to this problem,” Lopez-Brau said. “It’s just going to have to take multiple steps before we are slowly able to rid ourselves of fake news.”

After they release the Google Chrome extension, the team hopes to expand it to other internet browsers as well, such as Firefox.

Alex Cui, who studies at the California Institute of Technology, and Jeff An, who studies at the University of Waterloo in Ontario, are also part of the team that developed Open Mind.

Ko Lyn Cheang | kolyn.cheang@yale.edu