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Summer Scholar Valerie Szabo debunks fake news with fact-checking technology and research
From adolescence through adulthood, we’re observing a generation who appears remarkably fluent in multi-tasking. They weave through social media sites effortlessly, text friends with lightning speed, and journal nearly every hour of their lives through the lens of a smartphone. Collectively, we’re Generation Tech.
But we’re also finding out that, despite having endless access to information, Generation Tech is becoming increasingly clueless when it comes to filtering accuracy and trustworthiness in the 24/7/365 news cycle afforded by modern technology.
That’s the topical space where Valerie Szabo, a rising senior at Capital University, is spending her summer as part of a 10-week research project. She is one of eight Capital students who have been awarded the honor of Summer Scholar, participating in a high-impact program offered here, which allows students to conduct their own research on campus with a faculty mentor.
Her research, aptly named, “Fake News: Identifying Misinformation in Widespread Media,” dives deep into an area receiving a lot of attention on the heels of last year’s presidential election and the months preceding it. But fake news, as Valerie points out, transcends politics. It can also be seen in almost every grocery store checkout line where celebrity obsessions, apocalyptic catastrophes, and alien abductions taunt us from the magazine racks.
“The essential goal of my project is to determine how fake news is different from real news and how you can be on the lookout for the telltale signs that maybe some of the stories you see may not be from a source you can trust,” Valerie explains.
However, the challenge often occurs in that most stories have some elements of truth that can be either impulsively or skillfully crafted into a quick tweet, headline, or a clip. Once that hits the internet, there’s no telling where it may end.
“There’s nothing out there that’s completely false and there’s nothing out there that’s completely real,” begins Valerie. “And we know that once you have an opinion on something, it’s very hard to change your mind, even when you’re presented with the correct facts.”
Dr. Nicholas VanHorn, an instructor in the Psychology Department, is Valerie’s faculty mentor. His background in cognitive psychology and expertise working with R, a computational language widely used for research in statistical methodology, is a perfect fit for Valerie’s project.
- Valerie Szabo
“We’re going to essentially create a program that, when you load news into it, should be able to give us a sense of whether it’s fake or not,” says Valerie. She goes on to explain that this “topic modeling” helps researchers discover recurring or abstract “topics” arising from a broad range of documents.
Of course, word or phrase mining for semantic structures in text is only part of the process. Valerie says that she is also using existing databases where the research has been hand-checked, mostly by journalists who pore through several versions of articles to determine if they are mostly false or mostly true. This is what even non-researchers know as fact checking.
As the incoming editor-in-chief of Capital University’s “The Chimes,” Valerie stresses the importance of fact-checking to maintain journalistic integrity. She warns that news consumers should be wary of click-bait, which is comprised of a variety of largely sensationalized headlines, posts, sound bites, video clips, and any media designed to drive web traffic under the guise of news.
Valerie offered that both journalism and marketing need to be vetted better by consumers.
“I still think the larger news outlets tend to be more fact-based, but then there are all these outcroppings of smaller news organizations that just want to get information out there and may not take the time check it.
“Then there are those creating fake news just to make money. They absolutely don’t care what they write. They publish whatever they want and they go on clicks to the page. The more clicks you get, the more ad revenue you’re going to get.”
When asked if bias reporting falls into the spectrum of fake news, Valerie cites this is one of the things her research looks at.
“Fake news articles, as well as biased articles, tend to be more emotionally charged. A lot of our databases are based on things that are politically charged just because there’s been so much of it on all sides. As the country becomes more divided, propagators are able to get so much (fake news) out there.”
From her Capital Commons apartment to the Chimes office at the Convergent Media Center, Valerie has spent the first couple of weeks immersing herself with information. Although campus is very peaceful right now, summer is not a vacation for students who want to pursue research. The typical delivery expected is a large paper with a presentation before classes resume in the fall. Despite an admitted learning curve, weekly meetings with Dr. VanHorn have given Valerie a lot to consider as she imagines where her dual psychology/sociology degree might lead her.
“I honestly have no idea what field I’ll go into,” laughed Valerie. “I’ve always been fascinated with the brain and how it works; how it controls everything and how we still don’t know much about it.”
Prior to becoming a Summer Scholar, Valerie participated in independent study where she compiled a data set for Maryhaven. Her subjects were patients with addictions to opioids, and the experiential learning underscored the value of a liberal arts education. Her research, “Prescription Opioid Abuse in a Medication-Assisted Treatment Program in Central Ohio,” was presented at the 2017 Symposium on Undergraduate Research.
According to Valerie, her core classes are exceptional and designed in a way that make a dual major attainable.
“It’s been great at Capital and I love it here,” Valerie began. “I really can’t imagine being anywhere else. I’ve had so many opportunities and I’ve had the opportunity to do research within my classes as well as outside.”
Valerie came to Capital from Cortland, Ohio, in 2014 and anticipates graduation in May 2018. Like so many of our undergraduates, she is a first-generation student and credits her parents for instilling a strong work ethic and making college a priority. They always supported Valerie and aspired for her to go to college and be the best she could be.
“My dad is a mechanic and mom is working as a cashier. My parents have always been there for me and I really appreciate their support. They always tried to do as much as they can for me and I wouldn’t be here today if it weren’t for them.”