Legitimate: Restoring trust in online news with verification tools

30 May 2022

Gerard and Caoimhe Donnelly. Image: Legitimate

The challenge when sourcing news online is telling the real deal from fake news. This Belfast start-up is building a new content-sharing platform readers can trust.

More than half of us struggle to tell real news from fake news. At least, that’s according to a 2022 Digital Consumer Trends report from Deloitte Ireland, which revealed that 57pc of 1,000 people surveyed find this difficult.

With more than 85pc believing fake news to be a major problem, there’s a market out there for tools that can help separate fact from fiction. That’s where Legitimate comes in.

Founded in Belfast in 2020, Legitimate is looking to fight fake news, fake profiles and disinformation online by going straight to the source, and verifying who’s legitimately worth your attention.

“Unlike other companies who focus on fact-checking to combat disinformation, we are focused on the identity of the person behind the article and making sure they are authentic,” explained co-founder and COO Caoimhe Donnelly.

Legitimate uses a mixture of technologies in this process. “We need to perform identity verification, index hundreds of thousands of articles per day and then query millions of records in fractions of a second,” said Donnelly.

“We use custom metadata and dozens of algorithms to attribute articles to the correct author and are also currently building out a machine learning program that will be able to make highly accurate predictions about articles we can’t attribute to a person.”

‘Unlike other companies who focus on fact-checking to combat disinformation, we are focused on the identity of the person behind the article’

Donnelly, a Dubliner now living in Northern Ireland, started Legitimate with her husband Gerard, a full-stack developer and marketing operations consultant with 20 years’ experience in the tech sector.

She herself is a primary school teacher turned entrepreneur. Following two decades in education, she has spent the past two years working tirelessly with journalists, publications, politicians and university journalism departments to get Legitimate off the ground.

For now, the focus is on getting journalists and politicians to join the platform and become verified sources. “The ultimate goal is to build the biggest community of journalists and politicians online,” Donnelly explained. “Doing this will enable us to verify millions of pieces of content and help prevent disinformation.”

According to Deloitte’s survey, 42pc of respondents stopped using at least one social media platform, either permanently or temporarily, in the last year. Almost a third (30pc) of these users abandoned platforms because of too much fake news, while 5pc logged off because of bullying or harassment.

The toxicity of online spaces has been the focus of much recent attention, yet these platforms persist as a key source of information for their users. Most people Deloitte Ireland surveyed (74pc) rely on multiple sources for news and information in order to get a fuller picture, but a mere 16pc find news on social media to be typically trustworthy, compared to 65pc believing they can trust traditional news sources.

A clear space has emerged in this tempestuous news landscape for a start-up like Legitimate to step in. As well as offering a free-to-use space to find and save news content, built-in content creation tools and a messaging feature mean it can also be a place to connect and interact in what is hoped will be a civil way.

For Donnelly, the assurances offered by Legitimate will make it a more welcome online space. “We will also provide a safe place for people to share their content and a platform where users can consume content with the reassurance that it’s from a real, verified source,” she said.

‘The ultimate goal is to build the biggest community of journalists and politicians online’

At the moment, Legitimate is targeting sign-ups from journalists and politicians in the UK and Ireland, with plans to expand to the US and Canada in the coming months. “We will eventually be penetrating the public relations market in these regions,” said Donnelly.

The company is currently raising a funding round and, fresh from a visit to San Francisco, Donnelly revealed that it has secured initial investment from a US-based media investor.

“Things are currently going great,” she said. “With any start-up, you could always be doing more. But we feel we have put ourselves in a great position to accelerate growth in the coming months.”

This growth will include expanding the Legitimate team as the start-up will be recruiting across engineering, marketing and customer support in the coming weeks.

“We have also focused on building out an advisory board of extremely experienced people from the industries we operate in,” said Donnelly. “They will provide a wealth of advice and knowledge as well as a network to help us achieve scale more quickly.”

The biggest challenge so far has been making the connections to build those relationships, especially as a company born amid the pandemic.

“For such a long time there were no events that we could attend and no in-person meetings. We adapted, like everyone did, using virtual meetings and quickly got used to communicating this way. It is exciting now that we can meet people in person and develop these relationships,” said Donnelly.

While she sees Dublin as “one of the top places in Europe now for start-ups”, Legitimate’s hometown of Belfast has its own bustling tech scene. “Unfortunately, the government funding has been cut which will have a detrimental effect on things. But hopefully there will be further funding to come,” said Donnelly.

And her advice for other founders starting out in Ireland is simple: “If you truly believe in what you are building, and customer research has shown that there is a market for it, don’t give up! Keep pushing forward and don’t be discouraged by setbacks.”

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Elaine Burke is the host of For Tech’s Sake, a co-production from Silicon Republic and The HeadStuff Podcast Network. She was previously the editor of Silicon Republic.