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In theory, the internet, blogging, and "people-powered media" should have made the professional news media obsolete. With ubiquitous internet access, information about any event can be produced directly by those witness to it; and that information can be accessed without intermediaries by anyone interested in reading or viewing it. The main reason this has so far failed to happen is that news consumers have no way of assessing the credibility of unknown or anonymous news sources.

Consider: Any one of us has a limited number of other people whom we know well enough to accept as reliable sources of information. We trust information that comes from these people first-hand; and we usually trust information these people relay to us second-hand, from people they trust and will vouch for in turn. But if someone tells us something that got passed to them from a source they don't know themselves, we generally regard it as hearsay and rumor. In effect, our reliable news sources are limited to those from whom we are at most one degree removed.

Below the fold: the role of the media, why this is a problem, and how we can fix it

Given the one-degree-removal limitation on the spread of reliable news, the professional media have a critical function to play. On the one hand, they build a relationship of trust between themselves and their viewers and readers; and on the other hand, they seek out and confirm the reliability of the important news sources of the day (including anonymous sources who can't distribute their news directly). In this way they reduce to a single degree the separation between the sources and consumers of news. By their nature, then, the news media must be limited in number: for sources can only convey information to so many reporters at a time; and the number of other people any person can learn to trust will always be smaller than the number of potential news sources.

Unfortunately, this limit in numbers creates an information bottleneck, and those with an interest in controlling the news have learned to exploit and manipulate this bottleneck for their own ends. To date, attempts at defeating these media manipulators has focused on replacing the reporters within the bottleneck with independent, non-corporate reporters; but as long as the bottleneck remains, it can be taken over by anyone willing to expend enough resources to do so.

What we must look for are ways to break the bottleneck itself -- ways to establish a direct avenue of trust between news sources and consumers that doesn't rely on a limited number of professional middlemen. To do so, I suggest borrowing a concept from social networking sites, with an important modification. It's a simple idea, but one that could be put to use in a lot of different ways.

Social networking sites rely on connecting people via chains of mutual friends who are already known to each other. According to popular theory, any two people in the world can be connected in this way using only six intermediaries (AKA "six degrees of separation"). But information flow is only considered reliable to one degree, because the recipient needs to be able to verify the reliability of every link in the chain. What I propose to overcome this limit is that every link in the chain have associated with it a credibility rating, assigned by the person at the receiving end of that link; and that the credibility of a particular story be automatically re-assessed at every link as it passes from source to end user.

For example: suppose you have a friend (to whom you've given a 90% credibility rating) who has a co-worker (whom she likewise finds 90% credible) who has a nephew (also 90% credible) who is serving in Iraq and who writes a report on activities there. The nephew labels his own story 100% credible; when the story gets passed to his uncle, its credibility rating gets multiplied by the rating the uncle has given his nephew, and becomes 90% credible. When the story passes from the uncle to his co-worker, it gets multiplied by the credibility rating that co-worker has given him, and becomes 81% credible. When the story passes from your friend to you, its credibility drops another 10% to 73%. If the story then gets passed from you to others, its 73% credibility will be reduced by whatever rating those others have given you.

You yourself would be aware of almost none of this. You wouldn't know where the story came from, how it got to you, or the reliability of any given link between you and the source. All you'd know is that the whole chain of connections between you and the story's source had a total credibility rating of 73%. And the only thing you'd need to actively do is assign credibility ratings to your incoming sources of information.

Besides circumventing the media bottleneck, this type of news credibility assessment would have several other advantages:

  • It would protect anonymous sources. All that would matter at any given link in the information chain would be how credible the previous link was and what credibility the story itself had at that point -- not where the chain ultimately began. A whistleblower needing to get information out could distribute it unsigned; the next links in the chain would know the news was coming from a trusted source, but would have no way of knowing whether the whistleblower was that source or was just relaying the news. There would be no journalists to subpoena or threaten with imprisonment; there would be no trail left to expose the source of the information.
  • Each story's credibility rating would be customized to each recipient. The credibility of each story you receive would depend on which sources your personal network found credible, and thus would reflect your own views and the views of those you trust, whether they be left- or right-leaning, skeptics or conspiracy theorists.
  • Information originating from people more closely connected to you would tend to be rated as more credible. Thus credibility would also be a rough indicator of personal relevance, and would tend to filter for local stories and stories involving people you know.

There are a lot of different ways this strategy could be implemented. Here are some possibilities:
  • An email plugin. In your email client, you could assign credibility ratings to everyone in your address book, and to new messages you create. Those messages would get an added header reflecting their credibility. Your recipient's plugins would change the header each time the message was forwarded, factoring in the recipient's credibility rating of the sender.
  • RSS readers. You could rate the credibility of your RSS feed subscriptions -- or of the individual authors on each feed. Those feeds might also attach credibility ratings to their individual stories, if they're relaying content originating elsewhere. And if you have your own blog or website, you could aggregate those feeds into a combined feed of your own, with the credibility ratings adjusted accordingly. And then others could subscribe to, aggregate, and republish your feeds, ad infinitum. This would be a much faster way to circulate news than email, as it wouldn't depend on people manually forwarding each story.
  • Social news sites. Start with a site with user-generated news stories, like the Korean OhmyNews. Add the ability to connect users into networks, like Friendster and MySpace. Then use those networks to assess the credibility of the stories. The advantage to this would be that news stories wouldn't have to literally pass from user to user -- the site itself could find the connections between a story's source and any other user, and compute the credibility of those connections automatically. The story could then be distributed directly to all the site's users at once, with an appropriate credibility rating applied to the story for each user.
  • A "meta-standard". Take all of the above, and add operating-system-level support for adding credibility metadata to files. Make credibility a ubiquitous attribute of all information, and of all information sources. Have the OS keep track of the credibility of text as it's cut and pasted between email, web browsers, and other applications. Create a multi-protocol standard that would work between email headers, xml feeds, html attributes, file system metadata, etc.

This, I think, is the critical step needed to move blogging from the stage of commenting on and criticizing the corporate media, to replacing it.

Originally posted to Abou Ben Adhem on Wed Jul 05, 2006 at 12:39 PM PDT.

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