The Web’s Original Design (1960) Would Have Exposed “Fake News” Better

A Weakened Set of Checks and Balances

Americans are taught in school about the system of checks and balances that safeguard our democracy.

  1. The President can veto legislation;
  2. The Supreme Court can overrule unconstitutional laws;
  3. Congress can impeach the President; and
  4. There is a “Fourth Estate” — the Free press, that serves as an additional check, holding the government accountable.

Alarmingly, public trust in government  and faith in the fairness and accuracy of the press has reached a low point.  In September of 2016, Gallup reported that only 32% of Americans (and only ~14% of Republicans) say they have “a great deal” or “a fair amount” of trust in the mass media.1  These statistics portray a public with less trust in government and the press, which when coupled with an new president who recognizes few legitimate checks against his power, portend a crisis in democracy.

The Challenge of Fake News

The subject of “Fake News” has recently become a hot topic, but “Fake News” is not a new problem; it is just much more common.  A significant source of the problem is that the internet has allowed new media outlets to bypass traditional gatekeepers without any checks and balances. What’s badly needed are additional norms and technologies to keep all media accountable and restore public trust.  The problem is complex, but a technological solution can be found in the internet’s past, by looking back to Internet Pioneer Ted Nelson and his original vision for what eventually became the Web we know today.

The Web’s Original Design

In 1960, Ted Nelson had an epiphany while a grad student at Harvard, in which he foresaw all types of media being delivered to individuals via computer screens.  I’ve written a longer essay describing the history and design of his original vision (which takes between 20 and 45 minutes to read, depending upon whether you skip the optional sections).  But for the purposes of this article the important insight Nelson had was that media must present the original copy of every source alongside its quotation, allowing the reader to assess the context from which the quotation was made.  2  A major barrier to informing the public is its short attention span.  Most media outlets feel the need to be concise, lest they lose readers/viewers in the weeds. But many times readers need the freedom to inspect the “weeds” to verify the publication’s claims.  In Nelson’s system, all “links” would present their source immediately beside the quotation. 3

Nelson’s design for side-by-side (parallel) text does nothing to solve the problem of “Fake News” fabricated out of full cloth, or the issue of reporting unverified sources, but it does allow readers to get greater insight into a story’s context and it could act as a check against stories that mutate out of an initial set of facts when second and third-hand accounts circulate a story.

As an example of how this can happen, consider the meme “Al Gore invented the internet”, which circulated in 1999.

Example: Who invented the Internet?

Al Gore: official vice-presidential photo

Vice-President Al Gore

Most Americans old enough to be President have heard about Al Gore’s absurd claim to have invented the internet, but few  know that this story is a myth based upon a misquotation.  Al Gore did not claim to have “invented” the internet, but to have sponsored the legislation that converted the military’s ARPANET into the public Internet.  Gore’s legislation also paid for Marc Andreessen to develop the Mosaic web browser, which would later become Netscape and now Firefox.

According to Internet pioneer Vint Cerf:

“As far back as the 1970s Congressman Gore promoted the idea of high speed telecommunications as an engine for both economic growth and the improvement of our educational system. He was the first elected official to grasp the potential of computer communications to have a broader impact than just improving the conduct of science and scholarship.”

The myth about Al Gore’s claim to have “invented” the internet is an instance of “fake news” in an era before social media companies like Facebook and Twitter even existed.  Like all “fake news”, it owes its power to recipients’ desire to believe a story that fits with their conception about how the world works or should work.  In the case of Gore, some people felt as though such a claim fit with their image of who Gore was, and why they didn’t find him likeable.  The meme originated with  Wired columnist Declan McCullagh who wrote an article titled “No Credit Where It’s Due” on March 11, 1999.

The story later mutated to substitute the word “create” for “invent” and was spread by Gore’s political opponents, who had an obvious motivation in spreading it to as many voters as possible.

As Snopes says in its article debunking the meme, when people say  Eisenhower took the initiative in creating the interstate highway system, it is not meant that Eisenhower engineered the bridges or dug any ditches.  Rather, Eisenhower gets credit for sponsoring the legislation and marshaling the support for funding the initiative.   So also, it should be with Gore.

What Al Gore Said, in Context

I’ve designed a poor-man’s version of Ted Nelson’s concept, intended to whet the public’s appetite for the full parallelism that Nelson calls for.  Because side-by-side comparison is so difficult to implement in our current browsers, I created a WordPress plugin that allows authors to voluntarily demonstrate the context of their quotations, using an expandable inline format.  Here is the original (accurate) quote, without the context.

I took the initiative in creating the Internet.

But notice if you click on the arrows above or below the quotation you can see the 500 characters before and after the excerpt, demonstrating that the quotation was preceded by a comma and the phrase “During my service in the United States Congress, “.

I had been planning to hold off demonstrating my open source quotation tool until  more of the bugs have been worked out and the code is optimized; but I feel it’s important to raise the issue of “quote context” now, even though the code is immature, because today’s political and media landscape are so troubled.

Providing Context to Videos

This same idea could be attempted in video format, displaying the 30 seconds before and after an excerpt.

This video example is just a crude way of suggesting how Youtube could be used to link excerpts to their broader context.  I can imagine Youtube allowing video creators to upload the full context of all source clips, adding contextual “before” and “after” buttons to each clip, and seamlessly stitching together all video components.

None of this solves the problem of the authenticity of clips, but allowing creators to demonstrate the context of their work could inspire greater confidence in the public, offering participating media outlets a competitive advantage.

Where has the Innovation Gone?

Silicon Valley seems to have lost some of its former interest in innovating with media, focusing on new moonshots such as self-driving flying cars, extending human lifespans indefinitely, and rockets to Mars, leaving critical media innovation unexplored.  As an illustration of some of the media areas in need of innovation, I’ll pose a few questions:

  • When viewing a newsworthy video on YouTube that cuts off early, why can’t YouTube seamlessly connect me to the continuation of that clip, using clips uploaded by others?
  • Why can’t Google search for the best comments that link to a particular video time segment, in a similar way that Medium.com has experimented with comments?

Its become convention that school papers contain footnotes; and Wikipedia has replicated this convention in their online encyclopedia.  Its time for journalists and technologist to develop new conventions that promote greater accountability and restore trust in our institutions.  Our democracy depends on it!

Related:

 

Footnotes


  1. Relatedly, trust in another institution — the Police — has become a polarizing issue.

  2. Granted, this wouldn’t work for phones because the screens are too narrow, but on desktops and tablets, the related quotations would dynamically appear on the right hand side of the screen.

  3. To be sure, it is currently possible to open a new tab or window, but the context can still be inconvenient to locate and as the web demonstrates, convenience can be transformational. 

  4. Youtube allows basic linking. Nelson envisioned a more sophisticated viewing experience in which all internet content would function like the Edit Decision Lists that Video Producers use. (more about EDL)

How Bad Data-Driven Decision-Making Led to the Mistake of “New Coke”

new coke

The Testing Threat

In the 1980s, Coca-Cola executives were shocked to learn that what Pepsi advertisements said was true — in a random taste test, people preferred Pepsi over Coke.  Coca-Cola executives responded with a massive retooling effort, resulting in a product dubbed “New Coke”.

“New Coke” turned out to be a major flop.  What we know in hindsight is that the way taste-tests are done is biased — in small amounts (sips) people prefer the sweeter drink, but in larger amounts (a 12 ounce can), people preferred the original Coca-Cola formula.

The Imperfect Metric

This is a phenomenon that happens all the time — An effort is made to quantify success.  The metric chosen is imperfect; yet people exert a lot of effort to maximize or minimize the metric, even if flaws in the metric are known.  I’ve talked to students who don’t understand the concepts they are studying, but simply memorize the “correct answers” because they know that is how they will be evaluated.  Teachers teach to the test; and students study to the test.

Music: Data Driven by Shazam

In a similar way, the author of an Atlantic article describes a smartphone app called Shazam.  A “Shazam” is equivalent to a google search for music; but the music industry treats search traffic for a song as if it were the same as a Facebook “like”.

So, what meaning does the Shazam metric really convey?  Quality? Novelty?  Attention?

The music industry has made “Shazam” the new “test”, and by “teaching to the test” the direction of the music industry has shifted.  The industry is now more data-driven, but the result is more repetitious music with predictable chord progressions — a sort of “comfort food” (6 min).

So like “New Coke”, does our our crude big-data analysis result in better music, or are we just making it simpler and “sweeter”?

Open Source Media

A lot of people think about software when they hear the words “open source,” but I’d like to extend the concept to “media”.  By that I mean books, tv, magazines, radio, etc.

Example

The basic idea is simple — suppose you’re reading a book about Jack Kennedy that makes an interesting claim and then cites its source with a footnote to an “NBC Interview with Jack Kennedy: Chet Huntley and David Brinkley in the Oval Office in the White House, Sept 9, 1963.”

One of my first questions would be: “Can I get a transcript of the interview?”  A second would be: “Can a get a recording of the whole interview?”  Without the first, I can’t verify what the president said.  Without the second, I can’t get the context.

Two related questions this raises are: “What are the ground rules for the interview;” and “How much editing was done to produce the final product?”

It’s interesting that in Brinkley’s interview, the president was given a number of “mulligans,” although he appears not to have seen the questions ahead of time.

One of the commenters noted:

The media and politicos are in cahoots, rehearsing the interview.

Ground Rules for Interviewing

So I’ve been thinking: “What are fair ground rules for an interview?”  Here’s a few ideas:

  1. The full recording, including out-takes, should be available for the historical record. 1
  2. Should anything be left out of the transcript?  Inevitably I think the answer will have to be yes, unless you get rid of all “off-the-record” interviews.  I also think the appropriateness of off-the-record remarks varies according to the degree of power that the interviewee has.  The secrets of the powerful often warrant less protection than the secrets of the weak.
  3. It may take time to gain the trust of the interviewee; and in real-life, the interviewer only begins recording when trust has been established and the interviewee is ready.

The Complete Record

I’ve sometimes wondered, what would happen if journalists tried to put everything on the record.  They would record their telephone calls asking for the interview. They would share all their email correspondence.  They would begin recording as they approached the office or home of the interviewee and then just keep filming until after they left.  And they would publish the entire contents of this “record” with every interview they did.  This is now feasible on the web, whereas it was impractical in the television or print-only world.

Now of course most people wouldn’t care to watch the whole thing; but a few would; and they might post notable things for the inspection of a wider group.  Is this what we want?

Paris Review Style Interview

An alternate model is employed by the literary journal “The Paris Review.”  It’s editors like to select their favorite authors to interview; and they give the authors full license to edit their answers.2

Naturally, the authors are used to choosing their words carefully; and this approach allows them to extend such care to the interview.  It allows the author to say exactly what they want, potentially resulting in more clarity, or alternatively less accountably.

Speaking about interviewing authors, David Fenza says:

A good literary interview is not faithful to the actual spoken event.  The transcript of the actual spoken interview should only serve as a draft of a dialogue that will, eventually, present the writer as completely and succinctly as possible.  A good literary interview is improvisational, but it’s also revisionary.  Writers are creatures who succeed through revision; they are most themselves when they revise; and this should carry over into the interview.3

When to allow a “Paris-Review” style interview depends on the type of interview desired. In any case, the ground rules should be disclosed.

If a President is given chances to “edit” their answers, there should be some indication of this when the interview is published.  But no matter how the interview is edited or revised, can the full historical record be preserved?

It is common to see something like “This is an edited and condensed version of the interview.” It would be interesting to see some sort of statistical disclosure about how much of the included text was changed; and how much was excluded.

Death Therapy

Erasing Death (book)

Often when I hear of someone given multiple life sentences as punishment for a crime, I ask my self what the difference is between one life sentence and five life sentences.  I understand there is symbolism in the additional sentences; and in some cases people with a “life sentence” may be released early.1 In any case, I ask myself is whether there would actually be a way for multiple life sentences to be carried out.  Perhaps the sentence could mandate killing the criminal and then resuscitating them again, only to kill them again and then resuscitate them.  The process could be repeated enough times that the criminal could serve 5 life sentences in the course of a month.  (No, I’m not a lawyer.)

A new book by a doctor who specializes in resuscitation suggests that there is a common experience of dying that is consistent across cultures.  To be considered “dead”, one’s heart has to stop beating.  This stops brain activity, but it does not mean the the brain cells have died.  In fact, it is possible for a body to be chilled, and the person to be resuscitated several hours later.

Upon regaining consciousness, many patients have no memory; but others report seeing a bright light and feeling a very loving presence.  They recall having their life reviewed with them and feeling pain as they recall times when they caused others pain.  Some patients report being inspired to try to do better with their new lives.

So perhaps instead of giving our prisoners a lethal injection, we could give them “death therapy”.

I can imagine that were this resuscitation perfected, so that the risk that patients stay dead is reduced, many wealthy people would pay for such an experience.


  1. Wikipedia: [B]ack-to-back life sentences are two or more consecutive life sentences given to a felon. This penalty is typically used to prevent the felon from ever getting released from prison.
    .. this is effective because the defendant may be awarded parole after 25 years when he or she is eligible .. “