A 20-year-old Greek student puts an end to fake news

Valentine Tzekas shares the story behind FightHoax, the application he created to swiftly fact check every news story online

Behind the term 'fake news' lies something more than a hip addition to the modern lexicon. The wave of misinformation - be it deliberate or accidental - flooding the internet and circulating through social media presents a real threat to democracy and the social fabric. It is a real danger that needs to be addressed. Enter Valentine Tzekas, a 20-year-old student of computer science at the University of Macedonia, who came up with an algorithm that fact checks every news story, with a success rate of 89 per cent. Through FightHoax.com, Valentine Tzekas hopes to get on board as many news organisations as possible, effectively putting an end to the fake news epidemic.

This is an ambitious, admirable, and remarkable work by an ambitious, admirable, and remarkable young person. Growing up in Larissa, Valentine Tzekas learned how to write code when he was 12 years old; at 15, he was an avid hacker; at 18 he created his first successful venture, 'Near', a friend-tracking application that he presented at the acclaimed SXSW festival in Austin, Texas. But this time, he has come up with something that can really make a difference in the world.

What spurred the creation of FightHoax?
The recent American elections took the world by storm. All of a sudden, rumours and fake news started coming out of nowhere, stories that were equally against Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. Then, there was research published in Wired magazine revealing that there was a student in FYROM, making thousands every month by posting fake news - he later dropped out from school to become a full-time fake news writer. So, in 2016 and 2017 we've been experiencing record numbers of fake news stories. The worst thing is that people believe anything they read on the internet. So, one day I thought to myself: "Can I make something to analyse news articles and warn readers [about] anything suspicious, such as the use of propaganda rhetoric? Can I make something that will, in a few minutes, do the work of human fact checkers and get a result as to whether a given story is true or a hoax? Something that will separate personal opinion pieces and satirical stories from news?" This was a huge, insurmountable challenge for me.

Who is FightHoax addressed to? Is it for media professionals or for the public?
Fiighthoax aims to fight misinformation. We are working with news agencies and newsrooms in order to assist journalistes in doing research in the fastest and most objective manner. I believe that journalists, combined with the right technology tools can perform miracles. I'm also planning to potentially work with giants such as Google and Facebook. With their power and resources, we can truly and effectively 'clean' the internet of spam and fake news.

What has been the greatest challenge you've had to face, while developing the algorithm?
The biggest challenge was the structure of the idea. How can you solve a problem, when people sometimes do not even agree on what is true and what is misinformation? I soon came to a solution when I asked several journalists and fact checkers to understand the exact steps they take while checking the accuracy of a news story. This is exactly what FightHoax does, it goes through the same steps that fact checkers do, within seconds.

How long did it take you to develop the app?
It took about eight to nine months of very demanding work. Today we're at private beta stage; every day we're tweaking every little detail in the code.

In a previous interview, you have said that you believe that coding will become basic knowledge in the near future, like reading and numeracy. Would you care to elaborate?
I believe that code writing is an essential skill today. It's exactly the same as mechanical knowledge has been in the past. It not only helps your mind to think in a more complicated manner, but it can also help us create whatever we imagine. The possibilities are endless!

How do you think that technology can address the needs and problems of modern society?
What I believe is that technology can improve humans in whatever they do. I don't agree with the argument that technology should replace the human factor. In the field of checking the accuracy of a news story, FightHoax, in collaboration with journalists and startups, can truly make the world a better place and reducing the level of misinformation around us.

What have you gained from your hacking days?
Being a hacker means to put your knowledge and imagination to work without boundaries, so that you can achieve what you want. You learn a lot from hacking, whether it is 'white', 'gray' or 'black hat' hacking. Most of all, you learn not to trust anyone and always be very cautious.

Given that you've been involved in programming and coding since your early adolescence, how has your experience as a university student been so far?
I'm currently in my second year of studies in the Applied Informatics department of the University of Macedonia. Frankly, all the units I've attended so far seem to me to be incomplete and outdated. The truth is that I kind of anticipated this disappointment. But the good thing is that most of my teachers here acknowledged my work and we organise events and startup workshops together, in order to assist creative students. So, while I'm officially a student, I'm unofficially something like an honorary professorial assistant.

What does it mean for a person your age to live and create in 2017 Greece? How has the crisis affected you?
I believe that for creative people, there's opportunity hidden behind every problem and it's the same with the crisis. I don't have a problem that Greece is going through a hard time; simply, we all have to help collectively. The crisis is the best opportunity for new startups to develop. We need to run! And let's not forget that most of the business giants were born in times of adversity.
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