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Alum Sreya Guha Builds Search Engine to Combat Fake News

By Launchx team

February 05, 2018

This article by Daniel Funke first appeared on Poynter.org.

Instead of pool days and part-time jobs, Sreya Guha spends her summers with lines and lines of code.

A senior at the Castilleja high school in Palo Alto, California, Guha has spent the past two summers creating software. Her most recent project, Related Fact Checks, lets internet users paste article links and search to see if that topic has been already debunked by a fact-checking organization.

The platform isn’t your typical class project—it’s one of the best uses of existing technology to combat online misinformation, several fact-checking experts told Poynter.

“It’s a fun exploration,” said Justin Kosslyn, product manager of Jigsaw at Google, in an email. “I haven’t seen anything quite like it, and it shows the breadth of ways that fact checks might be organized and presented to curious users.”

“Google is very excited by the work,” said Cong Yu, a research scientist at Google, in another email. “I have personally been very impressed by the efforts of this very talented high schooler.”

But Guha, 17, didn’t initially set out to impress one of the world’s biggest technology companies. She told Poynter in an interview that she had the idea to create Related Fact Checks following the vitriolic 2016 U.S. presidential election, which piqued her interest in—where else?—history class.

With the help of her history teacher, Christy Story, Guha created a National History Day project that functioned as a search tool for presidential speeches. Then, she applied those computational methods to fact-checking.

“When you look at most news articles today, you find a row of social sharing buttons,” she said. “It would be great if, along with these buttons, when clicked, (one) would give users fact checks related to that article. The goal is to just illustrate that concept.”

And given the acclaim she’s earned for her website, it looks like Guha has largely achieved that goal.

Drawing upon the ClaimReview schema, basically a few lines of code that help search engine algorithms recognize and surface fact checks, Guha has created an interface that helps users as they seek to verify claims online. Bill Adair, Knight Professor of Journalism & Public Policy at Duke University and director of the Duke Reporters’ Lab—which worked with Schema.org to create the ClaimReview markup—told Poynter in an email that he was impressed by Guha’s work.

“She has a really sophisticated understanding of misinformation and how we can combat it using our ClaimReview schema,” he said.

And Kosslyn agreed. He said the entire service is really well thought-out, from the Google Chrome extension to the website’s transparent about page and privacy policy (Serbian fact-checker Istinomer has a similar extension). Guha even outlined the functionality for Related Fact Checks, as well as the problems it seeks to solve, in an academic paper.

“…  the ecosystem is still missing an important piece of functionality—not surprisingly,

articles with fake or controversial news do not link to fact checks that discuss their veracity,” it reads. “Without an easy way of going from a news article to a fact check that investigates it, fake news gains traction.”

In late October, Guha took that paper all the way to Vienna, where she presented it to the International Semantic Web Conference. Since the conference fell on a long weekend, she was able to go without missing school.

“After I did my research, I was looking for a bigger forum. While talking to family and friends, I heard about this conference,” she said. “I got to present my work to a group of computer scientists, which was a really nice experience.”

Her family has been a key source of support in helping her pursue web projects outside of school, Guha said. Although she did all the coding for her projects by herself, having parents that are well-educated in both politics and computer science has helped.

Guha said her mother, Asha, has a background in political science and nonprofits. Her father, Ramanathan — a computer scientist who is responsible for creating popular web features like RSS, RDF, Schema.org and Google Custom Search — told Poynter that Sreya has always been naturally curious and favored serious discussions. She regularly texts her parents in the middle of the day with big ideas she wants to try, and she often can’t go through breakfast without reading The Atlantic.

“To give balance, she throws in The Economist,” he laughed.

Guha was raised that way, he said. The family regularly has challenging discussions, often around the dinner table, that center on anything from the regulation of net neutrality to the end of the Obama-era Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. Guha is a huge fan of Kamala Harris and loves the book “Talent is Overrated” by Geoff Colvin.

Editor’s note: An alum of our summer entrepreneurship program, Sreya Guha credits LaunchX with helping to inspire this project.

As a LaunchX alum, I wanted to thank you for getting me started on my journey. Without attending LaunchX, I would have never been inspired to not only create this tool but also network and make it an entrepreneurial venture.

The deadline to apply to our summer program is February 20th. Visit our summer program page to learn more.

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