A Weakened Set of Checks and Balances
Americans are taught in school about the system of checks and balances that safeguard our democracy.
- The President can veto legislation;
- The Supreme Court can overrule unconstitutional laws;
- Congress can impeach the President; and
- 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?
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!
- Phillip Defranco on Problems with Tape Alleging Animal Cruelty in Filming of “A Dog’s Purpose” that could be solved by greater context.
Relatedly, trust in another institution — the Police — has become a polarizing issue.↩
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.↩
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. ↩
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) ↩