TROY — Since the dawn of the internet, the amount of news and information available to the average citizen in any free country has virtually exploded. . . and Americans are still sorting through the rubble.
Households previously kept informed about a majority of current events via three or four news sources that were considered reliable — i.e. their local newspaper, a favorite national or international newspaper, and the evening news — are now faced, 24 hours a day, with an overwhelming amount of information on an overwhelming range of topics from an overwhelming, and often obscured, variety of sources.
So how does a responsible news consumer approach the abundance of information, both factual and false, with which they are now perpetually bombarded? Our.News, a startup website based in Troy, is attempting to answer that question by allowing readers to rate news stories and sources, much like Yelp!, counting on the wisdom of the crowds to help individuals navigate their news better.
With an American president who derides trusted news sources as “fake” and works to erode public trust in an institution meant to check his power, the question of what news we can trust is an increasingly important one. And, ongoing revelations of Russian influence on U.S. elections through the use of intentionally false and misleading “news” should be causing every citizen to sit up and question his or her own news consumption habits.
The New York State Writers’ Institute recently hosted a symposium titled “Telling the Truth in a Post-Truth World,” featuring a series of discussions about journalism, media and democracy between media personalities, legal experts, and accomplished nonfiction writers. During the course of the two-day event, the phrase “information literacy” was repeated many times.
While the phrase, which first originated in the mid-1970s in a report for the National Commission on Libraries and Information Science, has proven difficult to define, most journalists would likely characterize information literacy as the ability to critically question the quality of any given information, regardless of personal bias.
Understanding how to achieve information literacy for beleaguered U.S. citizens, it would seem, is about as easy as defining the term itself. There seemed to be agreement among symposium panelists that education needs to start early, in elementary school or sooner. The caveat to that as a singular approach, others pointed out, is that it essentially leaves an entire generation (or more) of information illiterates doomed to live out their days unable to differentiate between fake news and useful, factual information — information they might use to improve their lives.
Enter Richard Zack, a “serial entrepreneur” with a background in technology. Zack, along with partners Ryan Yagatich and Sean Killary, has created Our.News, a web-based platform intended to combat fake news by letting registered users rate the accuracy of news stories through a secure system. Users can submit and rate news according to four metrics: spin, trustworthiness, accuracy and relevancy. Our.News’s technology uses neutral algorithms to add weight to ratings and compute scores for each news link submitted to the site, which can then be shared across social media.
“We use a credibility system to verify new users,” said Zack. “The more steps you take to prove you’re a real human being, such as verifying your email or phone number or uploading a profile picture, the more we weight your score.”
Ratings from those who can establish themselves as experts on a given topic will be given extra weight as well, while those who exhibit blatant bias patterns over time are given less. Zack said the use of the color purple in the logo is meant to symbolize the company’s political neutrality.
“We’re calling it open news validation,” said Zack. “We want to provide the public with all they need to determine the truth in news for themselves.”
An Ignite NY startup, Our.News began alpha testing in April and released a public beta version in early July. Anyone wishing to try out the new platform while it’s still in development can register online by typing Our.News on your webbroswer and begin rating news right away.
“I think I’m a smart guy, and I’ve fallen for it,” Zack said. The embarrassment of sharing something on social media that ended up being false, he explained, as well as the experience of watching the suffering of a friend about whom damaging false news was published, inspired the idea to find a way for the public to collectively combat the problem.
Zack also mentioned an article he read on Mashable regarding computer programs that are able to edit video so convincingly he finds it frightening. “This technology is in its infancy and will only get more realistic as time moves on,” he said, making it all the more imperative that the public find ways to verify news and its sources.
“My view is that we can generally trust the public,” he said. “We believe that everyone deserves to be part of the conversation when it comes to the news.”
One beta user, “Amanda,” a woman with a Masters degree in Journalism who asked to remain anonymous, said the question of how readers perceive the news with which they engage has long been an interest of hers. Initially, she simply logged in to see what other people were reading and what they were saying about it.
Eventually, Amanda began coming across news on her own and found herself wondering how other readers would perceive a story she felt was clearly biased or otherwise questionable. While she now interacts with the site with moderate regularity, she said she feels that as more and more people use the platform, it will become an increasingly more valuable tool.
“[Our.News is] free now and will always be a free service,” Zack said. He plans to monetize the platform by selling “hyper-targeted” advertising. While personal information will not be shared, the site will gather information about user’s perceptions and share that information with paying advertisers.
Zack said that while he hopes to integrate the service with as many news publishers as possible, there are a number of plug-ins and apps that allow the platform to interact with other news sources regardless.
“The way the technology is being built,” he said, “ultimately the way it will work is that the news can come from any source.” Readers, he explained, will be able to read a news story on any platform and use an app, still in development, that will allow them to double-swipe up if they believe it’s true or double-swipe down if they believe it to be false. Double tapping on the story will bring up a window with additional information on the various ratings the story has received. Zack said they are also working on employing a hashtag system to allow users to submit or check ratings directly from Twitter.
Zack mentioned the idea to panelists on the last night of the symposium, during a discussion about the profound transition that the internet has forced upon newspapers, when he asked whether those on stage felt that print news has been doing enough to innovate and think outside the box to ensure its survival. Without learning more about the platform, Richard Tofel, president of ProPublica, was critical of the idea of news rating, saying it is likely to come with “enormous value judgements” and that it is incumbent on each individual news consumer to ensure their own news literacy.
“It’s a good thing that we argue about all of this, that’s what our democracy is premised on,” he said, noting how closely news is tied to our political beliefs, lifestyles and personal identities. He ended, however, by saying, “I think the idea of a neutral arbiter of all those things is going to prove permanently elusive.”
“I think [Our.News is] an excellent conversation starter when it comes to news judgement,” said Amanda. “The reality is that most of us have very strong opinions about what’s good news and what constitutes the news but, up until this point, there really hasn’t been a platform where you can really share your opinion and, at the same time, solicit the opinions of others.”
Outside of the “sharing” of stories, she said, there hasn’t been any real vehicle for understanding why those stories were shared or how the reader felt about them. Were they shared because the reader felt they were accurate and relevant, or because they were sensational or contained something the reader wanted to refute? That feedback, she said, could be used by news organizations to understand what their readers are looking for.
“It facilitates a new kind of dialogue about the news, encouraging the public to interact with traditional media in a new and meaningful way,’” said Zack. “And potentially impact media coverage in the future by building deeper trust between news publishers and the public.”
“We’re not trying to tell you what news to trust,” he said, “but trying to give you tools to decide yourself.”