Lyric Jain, a 25-year-old from Staffordshire, is determined to take on the shadowy forces around the world spreading lies and disinformation. He even has foreign governments asking for his help.
In a mansion in the Staffordshire Potteries once owned by a scourge of the Napoleonic navy lives a scourge of fake news. On Valentine's Day, 1797, Admiral John Jervis defeated a fleet of French warships outnumbering him two to one. Nearly 225 years on, Lyric Jain has just returned to his family home – once Jervis's family home – fresh from his own battles against impossible odds: firing truths across an ocean of lies.
He has spent the best part of the week in Poland fighting Russian disinformation. "There are clearly so many battlefronts in the world of disinformation," he says. "Eastern Europe is certainly one of them."
Twenty-five years old and an impressive 6ft 4in, Jain was whimsically named Lyric by his parents, an Indian textile baron and his wife who arrived in England when their son was 12 and who live in the big house next door. Lyric has a sister called Rhythm; neither, he claims, has a musical bone in their bodies – but business brains, yes. Before arriving in his utilitarian reception room, we pass a quad bike Jain likes taking apart and putting together again. I suppose this Cambridge engineering graduate turned entrepreneur does something a bit similar through his company, Logically, except it dismantles nonsenses and assembles them into sense.
Logically is barely three years old but already employs 100 staff. Its clients include US federal agencies and the Indian electoral commission. Jain, I'd guess, is on the verge of becoming the first titan of the British dis-disinformation industry ("industry" is his word; "dis-disinformation" my own proud coinage). There is a job to be done and I would predict money to be made.
Fake news is everywhere. Some of it is accidental. We all make mistakes, even Logically, which has checked some 20,000 facts and has published 10 retractions. But so much out there is deliberately, shamelessly untrue: abundant on the dark net, the dubious net, social media and closed-circuit "whisper" networks, one of which is Whatsapp. Some is mindlessly malicious, like the trolls who campaigned this summer to persuade white women to shave their heads for Black Lives Matter. Mostly, it is done for money or, at state level, for geopolitical gain. Jain chose to call his company Logically because, he says, we are losing our ability to process such misinformation logically.
After a private education at Newcastle-under-Lyme School, Jain studied at Harvard, Cambridge and then the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where the idea for Logically emerged. It was backed by a start-up grant of £8,250 ($15,675) from MIT, and in 2017 it raised £2.5 million ($4.75 million) from private investors. His inspiration was the death of his paternal grandmother who, diagnosed with cancer, was persuaded by a distant relative, possibly on Whatsapp, to abandon chemotherapy. "They said, 'Drink this special Indian juice and give up your cancer meds.' " She did that. She died. Observing what is being written online now about Covid-19 must be a daily reminder of Logically's duty to his grandmother's memory.
It is a for-profit social enterprise with around 30 investigators and fact checkers working in its office in Brighouse, West Yorkshire, and another 40 in India. As well as the scrutiny it undertakes for governments and companies, it runs a website and offers a browser extension that rates other sites' credibility. It also has an app, which presents fact-checked news stories and flags up others as "FALSE". One such is a claim that the use of mail-in ballots in the 2020 presidential election increased the risk of voter fraud. (Jain says he has no personal politics himself.) Users can also upload a claim they want checked. Before we meet, I submit one myself concerning a story I wrote for this paper. I promise I'll come back to that, just as the app keeps promising to come back to me.
The biggest threats, Jain says, are not, however, from journalists but the net's "bad actors". Their motives differ. By volume, most are after money: hoaxers publish a lie that is attractive to people who want to believe that lie and attract adverts targeting them. The more sinister bad actors are in it for power; governments running "black-hatted marketing campaigns" to further their national interests. An example was the 2016 US presidential election when a Russian pro-Trump campaign was run from a small town in Macedonia. Jain says it is no longer just Russia that sows chaos like the Joker in Gotham City. China is moving its disinformation campaigns, originally designed to control its own citizens, beyond its borders. Middle Eastern countries are meddling.
These purveyors of systematic lies have discovered that Western societies are soft targets. There is something in the 21st-century psyche – a distrust of authority, a contempt for conventional politicians, an abundance of news providers catering to specific prejudices, a craving for the mental or social status that arcane "knowledge" can confer – that is not only receptive to lies but ossifies them into unshakable beliefs. There is no greater example than QAnon.
This bizarre American conspiracy theory holds that beneath the veneer of American democracy, a Satanic "deep state" controls the nation in order to run a global child-trafficking operation for paedophiles. It seems to me that QAnon was an elephant in the jungle of untruth that Logically needed, for its own credibility, to slay or at least wound. Jain says it was more about working out how a conspiracy could grow so quickly. Either way, back in the summer Logically published an investigation that named names.
"Q is supposed to be this individual, deep within US military intelligence, and QAnon is this community built around him. The prevailing theory in the research was that it probably isn't someone in military intelligence. It's either a kid in a basement or it's someone who is just trying to make money off this phenomenon. Other archetypes exist, but it's unlikely to be this actual military figure because he'd be cracked down on very, very swiftly."
So did they find Q? "Ongoing. We may have. We have a few candidates for Q, shall we say."
Logically's investigators did identify, however, a New Jersey resident called Jason Gelinas, an info-tech specialist from the banking sector. Gelinas, under the alias QAPPANON, had retrieved Q's "drops" from obscure chat forums containing hateful and pornographic content and, beginning in May 2018, curated them on a neatly organised site called QMap. This was soon attracting ten million visitors monthly. Logically does not think Gelinas is Q, but believes it has got closer to Q than anyone else. Interviewed by Bloomberg outside his home, Gelinas refused to comment except to say that QAnon was a "patriotic movement to save the country".
Q is supposed to be in military intelligence. But he could just be some kid in a basement.
A few hours later the website disappeared. The inevitable then happened. "Immediately after we released the report, every theory – from Logically is funded by Bill Gates to Lyric Jain is a GCHQ farm animal – was being aimed at us."
Logically's enemies are not logical. This summer, QAnon fans convinced themselves that the online retailer Wayfair was selling storage cabinets so overpriced that they had to contain trafficked children. Their "proof" was that the cabinets bore girls' names (presumably my Billy bookcase from Ikea was too cheap to fall under suspicion).
"It is not just QAnon," says Jain. "A lot of the people who tend to occupy these communities seem to pride themselves on their critical thinking skills. They think they are doing the right thing because they hold the outlier opinion. They believe they're seeing something that other people aren't seeing.
"So there's this de-radicalisation element to what we do, and that's where fact checking does really perform. We can throw 1,000 fact checks at, say, anti-vaxxers – people who don't believe in vaccines or believe that they're incredibly harmful, cause autism and all sorts of things – and it just won't work. It starts working when there is peer-to-peer communication: it's reaching people who have been through a similar journey and have converted to more traditional thinking."
And how do you reach them? "It's incredibly challenging," he says.
At 10am the following Tuesday, I am eavesdropping on London-based charity Full Fact's daily "stand-up". This morning, because of Covid, people are working from home, where, I notice, everyone is sitting down.
More of our public debate is moving to places that don't have accountability.
If Logically is the new kid racing round the block shouting after the black hats with pants on fire, the ten-year-old Full Fact is the respected neighbourhood bobby, politely but firmly asking those who have misspoken to correct their mistakes. Full Fact's editor, Tom Phillips, formerly of Buzzfeed, is at home in south London in front of a bookcase lined with copies of his book, Truth: A Brief History of Total Bullsh*t. He goes round the "room" of half a dozen fact checkers.
Covid statistics come up repeatedly: discrepancies in reports of airport tests; confusion over what constitutes "pillar 4"; what to do about a Daily Mail report on death rates wrong in two different ways that kind of cancel each other out. Phillips asks Leo Benedictus, a former Guardian journalist, whether he can bear to put a call into the Department of Health. "I have three email chains going with them already," he says, a little despairingly.
Much of the session is a segment one might call What the Papers Should Have Said, but there is discussion too of questions posed by readers on the "Ask Full Fact" web page, and also of stories buzzing around Whatsapp. Whatsapp, like Telegram, Messenger and, in some countries, old-fashioned networks of SMS messages, present problems for fact checkers because they are designed to be impregnably private. (Telegram boasts, Jim Phelps-style, that its messages "are heavily encrypted and can self-destruct".) To get a sense of what is circulating within its confines, Full Fact is currently piloting a three-month partnership with Whatsapp that invites users to forward doubtful claims.
The yarns doing this circuit are different from those in public spaces. "There's a lot more personal testimony type stuff," Phillips tells me after the conference. "You know, 'My aunt is a nurse in the NHS.' There's more friend-of-a-friend type rumour."
So how do they get to the bottom of that sort of thing? "With great difficulty," he says, unknowingly echoing Jain.
Yet it is not impossible. Near the start of the March lockdown, a voice recording purportedly of an ambulance service worker was thrashing round Whatsapp. The message claimed there would soon be 900 deaths a day, one third of them children. Full Fact published a statement from the ambulance service in question confirming the information was "inaccurate".
Full Fact was dreamt up over a drink with friends by Will Moy, then a 24-year-old parliamentary aide to a cross-party peer, Lord Low of Dalston. In 2010 it launched with donations from the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust and the businessman Michael Samuel, a Tory party donor and founder of the firm that makes Tommee Tippee highchairs. Lord Low is blind, meaning Moy read everything that came into his office from special interest groups. He was shocked by the "deeply misleading information being used to make important decisions".
For inspiration, Moy looked to a non-profit website in America, factcheck.org, born in 2003 as the child of the communications department at the University of Pennsylvania. Whereas Factcheck concentrated on rebuttals, Moy was determined Full Fact would also seek retractions, few and far between ten years ago. Full Fact dutifully lists its own errors. More recently, Facebook has taken to flagging up or removing dubious posts; so has Twitter. In this self-flagellating, Leveson-wary environment, Full Fact has thrived. Started by a team of three in a tiny office above a Soho sex shop, it now has some 30 staff and a more salubrious space above the Institute for Government in St James's. In its first year the website reached 30,000 users. This year it has recorded 26 million page views (some by repeat users).
Fake news has also evolved. In 2019 people knew the threat was from Machiavellian spin doctors. It is now closer to cyber warfare out there. Free speech means something different from what it meant a century ago. Today the web grants the nuttiest theorists access to audiences of several million. In 1920 you were free to say anything from a soapbox at Speakers' Corner in Hyde Park, but you would have an audience of several. What must disappoint the hippie gurus of the young internet is how quickly the utopia of unmediated communication fell to the gutter – to the extent that at one point Facebook deleted and Twitter "hid" a "misleading and potentially harmful" post claiming Covid-19 was less lethal than flu. It was written by the president of the United States.
For Moy, political discourse took an unhealthy turn during 2014 at the beginning of a voting cycle that saw a European election won by Ukip in May, followed by the Scottish referendum in September, followed by a general election the next year, another referendum and yet another election. "I think there was a ramping process," he says.
The European referendum of 2016 was a low point. "It should be said neither side of that referendum earned the public's trust."
But how do you correct lies plastered to the side of a bus? Hire your own?
"Exactly, and the interesting thing about that is not only is that a really hard problem in itself, but more and more of our public debate is moving to places that don't have those accountability mechanisms."
Moy's editor, Tom Phillips, cautions, however, against regarding these as uniquely troubling times. Every new medium of communication, from the printing press on, has generated abuse and panic. "You see both an explosion of information every time it happens and exactly the same kind of anxieties that we currently have, like news addiction and information overload – all these concepts were happening in the 1600s."
When I ask Moy, however, if fake news is merely a phase we must endure or a permanent change that our children and democracies will have to cope with, he does not seem so sure. He predicts a huge growth in narrowly cast sources and a matching decline in the reach of traditionally authoritative news sources, such as BBC News.
"That will be combined," says Moy, "with people needing more positive proof of why they can trust something in the first place. That will be combined with people unwilling to assume trustworthiness. And if you can foresee where those three trends take us in thirty years' time, you're a better man than I am."
When I meet Lyric Jain, I have already been waiting three days to have my own query fact-checked. That Tuesday, I uploaded a story from The Sun that mentioned me by name. It was based on an article in Tatler magazine about Omid Scobie, recent biographer of the Duke and Duchess of Sussex. I had interviewed him in the summer for The Times and had asked him his age.
He said – and I have the recording – he had "just turned 33". It quickly became clear from his contemporaries and records at Companies House that he was 38. The Tatler writer raised this with him. Scobie said I had never asked him his age. I knew the truth, but could Logically untangle this for anyone else interested?
Ten minutes after uploading the Sun story link, my Logically app notified me: "Check check check! We're checking your claim."
By noon Friday the page was still stuck on "checking". Eventually it came back saying it had found the matter unverifiable.
There are some tasks that a human is always going to be better at because of nuance or local sensitivities, and there are tasks that automation is better at.
Not, I say to Jain, that in the great scheme of fake news it matters. "It's trivial, maybe," he says, "considering it from a societal point of view. To you it's important. So this is where we're going as a business: how can we do the stuff that's geopolitically important to society and turn this [an individual fact-checking service] into a commercial model?"
My point is that the number of fake facts, from Trump's big lies to Scobie's footling fib is as near infinite as makes no odds.
It turns out it's quite expensive to establish a fact, Jain confesses. So can a bespoke individual service that catches everyone's concern ever be profitable? This is not an issue for Full Fact, which cherishes its charitable status. But Jain, who admires Full Fact, says that also means Full Fact is very hard to "scale".
There are ways to lower the cost of lie detection. One is artificial intelligence. During the Full Fact stand-up I sit in on, Phillips refers to something as "excellent fodder for the robots". Well, they are not real robots, it seems, but tools developed by the charity's automated fact-checking team, who use machine learning to cross-reference existing fact checks against new claims and spot refuted false claims that are being rebroadcast.
Logically uses AI in two ways: the first to keep an eye on and collate government and public data sources; the second to join what Jain calls an "assembly line" for fact checking.
"There are some tasks that a human is always going to be better at because of nuance or local sensitivities, and there are tasks that automation is better at. If you want to look at an image, investigate it forensically, machines can outdo the human eye now."
As for income, inquiries like mine, even if they are perhaps charged at £5 a go or if the app becomes paid-for, are likely to prove minor earners for Logically. Contracts with public bodies will generate more cash, while businesses fearful of their brands being tarnished by rumours (Wayfair) could pay handsomely for precisely targeted rebuttals.
Is Logically making money yet? "We're losing money." And when does his business plan say it'll make money? "Eventually."
Yet, I say, a commercial market in which truth-tellers compete with each other for market share would put a new premium on accuracy. "Regardless of my interests,
I think that could be a way in which standards could continuously improve – independent of government, independent of platform."
When Jain refers to lie-busting being an "industry", he means it. He thinks some 60 fact-checking organisations have been set up in the past 4 years. "When we started there were probably 100, 200 people in the world who were working in similar areas, most of them either in Facebook or in government. Now there are probably 5,000-6,000 people in the space. Still not enough! There are probably still more people on the other side of the table."
Of course, I say, conspiracy theorists may sometimes be right. Conspiracies do exist: someone was out to get Julius Caesar. "Yes," he replies, "there are genuine conspiracy theories and genuine frauds, but applying that lens to everything would be incredibly damaging, personally and to society."
Jain and Admiral Jervis's grand home, Meaford Hall, was used by the army to rehearse D-Day. A bunker remains concreted in its grounds. Today we are being bombarded by bombshell revelations that are scarcely less explosive for being nonsense. The good news is that Jain, Moy and Phillips have not retreated into their bunkers. They are out there fighting, and that's a fact.
Written by: Andrew Billen
© The Times of London