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Crowd-sourced Voters Guide gets librarian fact-checkers

By Sarah Elson, UW News Lab

Most voters’ guides simply aim to inform. But the Living Voters Guide, which was created in 2010 by the University of Washington’s Engage Project and the Seattle civic nonprofit CityClub, strives to start discussions between voters to help them make sense of the major initiatives on the ballot. This year they’ve added librarian fact-checkers to make the crowd-sourced voters guide more trustworthy.

“The guide is kind of what people thought about these ballot measures,” explained Travis Kriplean, the developer of the Living Voters Guide. “The ballot measures are often controversial and also a bit hard to understand, so it seemed like a good way to get people to talk about them, because there are surprisingly few places for that to happen.”

The website summarizes each of the eight statewide initiatives and lists pros and cons from other users on either side, so voters can create their own list in the middle compiled of the factors that are most important to them.

Anyone can post on the guide as long as they have an account on the site. Kriplean estimated that about one out of every three people who visit the site actually contribute to it.

Kriplean said the guide’s strength is in showing what people are thinking about across the political spectrum. However, it doesn’t have a strong informational base, so it’s hard for users to discern which points are true.

To make the guide more trustworthy, he’s enlisted the help of Seattle Public Library librarians to fact-check claims that other users want verified. The librarians spend a maximum of two hours researching the claim and then write a report about whether the claim appears to be accurate. The report is posted within 48 hours.

“Our approach is not to say, ‘This person is right or wrong,’ or ‘This is true or false,’ but to say if it’s an accurate statement,” said Chance Hunt, Seattle library partnerships and government relations director. “We then provide citations and additional information for people (who) want to do their own level of comparison with the information that’s available.”

So far the librarians have responded to 27 fact-checking requests and are currently working on five more.
Hunt said they have been asked about a variety of different claims. One of the first requests they received was to check a claim about same-sex marriage.

“We had a comment about whether same-sex couples see better results in their children,” Hunt said. “Are their children more successful, happier, healthier, that kind of thing. And we were asked to double-check it, so our library staff did the research and then presented a response to that question.”

One of the most recent requests they received was to check a claim that “37 percent of students attending charter schools receive a worse educational outcome.”

“We were asked to check where the 37 percent came from,” Hunt said. “So we did some research and were able to find a study that found (the claim) to be accurate. But that was only one study, so we provided access to other studies showing contradictory or different results from a similar kind of study.”

Librarian Bo Kinney said there are some claims they aren’t able to check. The librarians aren’t qualified to conduct legal research and they can’t evaluate opinion-based or hypothetical claims.

“We’re not the final word on what is the truth,” Kinney said. “We expect that users might add additional information beyond what we were able to find. But we think that our efforts will help support informed discussion of political issues.”

(Sarah Elson is a student in the University of Washington Department of Communication News Laboratory.)