Almost any online user saw the chilling story unfold in late May. Suddenly, a now-notorious faked video spread across the cyber world at lightning speed, showing House Speaker Nancy Pelosi appearing to be drunk and slurring her words while addressing an audience.
Immediately, the video was exposed as fraudulent, and it was removed from social media sites — though some more slowly than others, as millions of internet visitors worldwide jumped to access it.
One fact-checking operation led the charge in uncovering the truth about that doctored Pelosi video, and that company happens to be headquartered here in Colorado Springs.
Founded in 2015 by local attorney/restaurateur/hotel owner Perry Sanders and then-CNN reporter Alan Duke, Springs-based Lead Stories has become a major fact-checking/fake-news-debunking enforcer on the cyber scene.
“We were told by one of the people we work with at Facebook that Lead Stories is the most prolific fact-checker in their world,” Duke said this week.
The company has been contracting with Facebook since February to identify false and malicious posts. Lead Stories is one of 57 members of the Poynter Institute’s International Fact-Checking Network, all meeting Poynter’s rigorous criteria for accuracy and absence of bias.
In 2018, Media Bias/Fact Check, an independent organization that rates media of all kinds, provided its assessment: “Lead Stories does not use loaded language and factually sources all fact checks with credible information. All fact checks reviewed were accurate. Overall, we rate Lead Stories Least Biased and Very High for factual reporting based on excellent sourcing of information.”
Conceived before fake news vaulted into the national consciousness during the 2016 presidential race, Lead Stories took shape after Duke and Sanders spent a few convivial evenings at the Sanders-owned Mining Exchange hotel.
“Perry and I had met in L.A. when he was representing one of the parties in a celebrity case that drew national attention,” Duke recalled. “I was covering it for CNN, and we became friends. We had a lot of talks — at the time Perry was concerned about what he called the tabloidization of the news. That was the old-school way of looking at fake news, ‘Martians Land on White House Lawn,’ National Enquirer stuff.”
It quickly became clear to the partners that their focus would be the internet and would require sophisticated software to identify and track possible fakes.
After months of searching, Duke found Belgian coder Maarten Schenk online. Schenk’s software, eventually dubbed Trendolizer, was exactly what they needed. Duke and Sanders brought Schenk from Belgium to Colorado Springs and the Mining Exchange, and he agreed to come aboard as a partner. Sanders and his frequent financial partner John Goede provided funding. Duke took charge of analysis and reporting.
In its current incarnation, Trendolizer is described by Lead Stories as software that “automatically indexes hundreds of thousands of new links from thousands of sources on the Internet and constantly measures their number of likes, tweets, pins and video views. By comparing the numbers over time the current rate of increase per hour is calculated and stored.
“All links can be searched and filtered by keyword, source(s), authors and several other properties. The end result is a live look at what is currently trending or about to trend on any topic and/or from any source on the web.”
So where is this world-spanning Springs company? Somewhere downtown or maybe up north, a high-tech powerhouse hiding in two or three floors of an obscure medium-rise building?
No. Like the internet miscreants it battles every day, Lead Stories LLC is everywhere and nowhere. Alan Duke operates out of Los Angeles; Maarten Schenk works in Brussels; Perry Sanders is in the Springs, and the company employs independent coders “all around the world,” according to Duke. It’s headquartered in the offices of the Sanders Law Firm at 30 N. Tejon St., but the action is elsewhere.
“As long as I have my two laptops and my phone, it doesn’t matter where I am,” said Duke.
Lead Stories has been the first to detect and shut down some notable fake news stories before they gained traction. Trendolizer flagged the fake Pelosi video seconds after it appeared on the web. Quickly determining how the fake had been created, Lead Stories countered with facts and the video quickly was taken down by social media sites.
“Before it was shut down, it got about 2.9 million views,” said Duke. “That’s well short of being viral for such a post — subsequent views were of stories noting that it was a fake.”
Does Lead Stories monitor and debunk erroneous statements by politicians?
“We don’t fact-check political speech,” Duke said. “We cover media and publishers, people who create or disseminate content. Many are profit-driven, so we try to identify networks and shut ’em down. We’ve actually had some interesting conversations with these producers when we shut off their money flow. We talk to anyone — my phone number is on our website. We’re happy to explain our actions, but our goal is like NORAD’s — shoot it down before it gets off the launch pad. We’ve taken down some nefarious networks.”
The company is perfecting its “fingerprinting tool,” a forensic weapon that pulls back the curtain on publishers, showing who they’re linked to and how, their histories and their biases. The tool uses Trendolizer’s ever-expanding database and metadata.
Yet despite the best efforts of Lead Stories and other fact-checkers, fake news still infests the internet.
“We don’t remove content that is labeled as satire (e.g., The Onion),” said Duke, “but other fake news publishers can cut and paste the content without labeling it as fake. There’s also just sloppy journalism — maybe a reporter doesn’t understand scientific information, and a legitimate publication misidentifies content.”
The future is bright, say the founders.
“We’re growing and profitable,” said Perry Sanders.
“Our traffic is up tenfold,” said Duke. “We’re a publisher, but we have some tools. Our client list is really growing and some of them have three letters in their name.”
As in CIA, NSA, DoD, DHS or FBI? Perhaps CNN, CBS or NBC?
Duke didn’t elaborate.
“And yeah, we may have to think about expansion (into a physical space),” he mused.
On July 2, Maarten Schenk tweeted the company’s latest takedown, reporting that “Antifa is NOT planning a chemical attack on Washington, D.C.,” contrary to a report in the Right Wing Tribune. He tweeted several earlier, including this widely circulated gem:
“Fake News: Mermaid enthusiast NOT accidentally harpooned to death by local fisherman in the Philippines.”
And the work goes on.