After making a splash with her student team in November at Princeton University’s HackPrinceton hackathon, Nabanita De (seen right), a UMass Amherst master’s student in Computer Science, turned to the Isenberg-based Berthiaume Center for Entrepreneurship for business advice. Nabanita’s project with three students from two other universities couldn’t have been timelier. In just 36 hours, her team devised an algorithm and Chrome browser extension to ferret out misinformation from real news on Facebook.
That was no small matter, considering widespread criticism of Facebook’s role in propagating misinformation about candidates and issues in November’s presidential election. (President Obama had called Facebook “a dust cloud of nonsense.”) While Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg had initially resisted such criticisms, the company reversed its position in mid-December by introducing “experiments” to combat misinformation on the site.
Facebook might have responded sooner had it taken a beat from the hackathon team.
Its browser extension “classifies every post, be it pictures (like Twitter snaps), adult content pictures, fake links, malware links, and fake news links as ‘verified’ or ‘non-verified,’ using artificial intelligence,” Nabanita told Business Insider, which helped bring the team’s project to national attention. The browser plug-in includes a little tag accompanying stories that identifies them as “verified” or “not verified.” And the project has open-source status, allowing any developer to install and tweak it.
“Nabanita’s group was like many others at a hackathon,” remarks Berthiaume Center associate director Birton Cowden. “Their intention was just building a solution for a problem that they had identified. They had no idea how big of an impact and how much attention that solution would generate.
“None of them thought of it as a potential business,” Cowden continued. But true to Berthiaume’s campus–wide role of exploring the entrepreneurial potential of UMass-based research, Cowden is encouraging the team to consider business possibilities for its browser extension. “We are now helping them think about this as a startup and connecting them with industry leaders to help broaden the team’s horizons,” he remarks.