Journalists and Technologists Should Collaborate
to Build More Trustworthy Media:
3 Proposals for Technologists
by Tim Langeman, March 11, 2017
The Internet: Both "Problem" and "Opportunity"
Americans' trust in the mainstream media is at historic lows,1 which is troubling because a trusted free press is essential to democracy. There are many reasons for the breakdown in trust, but while the proliferation of internet sources and social networks spreading "Fake News" has been a hot topic in the last several months, the problem of Fake News predates the recent rise of social media; and although the internet intensifies the problem, internet technology also provides an opportunity for solutions.
There is a variety of definitions of Fake News, from fabrication out of full cloth, to unverified sources, to anonymously-sourced news,2 to out-of-context misrepresentations of real sources. The problem is complex,3 and can not be solved by a single approach, but one technological solution to the problem of out-of-context quotations 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 that we know today.4 In Nelson's vision, we find an original design that harnesses technology for social ends.
It is important that today's technologists work with journalists using a similar social awareness to develop new systems that apply technology towards the social goal of building more trustworthy media. This article looks back at two prominent examples of Fake News stories that predate the Obama administration — one involving Al Gore in 1999, and a second involving Sarah Palin in 2008. It also proposes that journalists adopt new technology that could allow authors to demonstrate the context of their quotations, and poses three challenges for technologists to improve their companies' products and services.
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.5 I have drafted a longer essay6 describing the history and design of his original vision to free ideas from the fetters of paper and integrate them with audio and video.7 But for the purpose 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.8 A major barrier to informing the public is people’s short attention span, and those in charge of media outlets understand well the importance of being concise. They do not want to risk losing their readers and viewers in the “weeds,” (large amounts of associated and additional information available at the click of a mouse). But many times readers want to explore the weeds to verify the publication’s claims. In Nelson's system, all links would display their source immediately beside the quotation, without requiring readers to click on a link and leave the current document for a new tab or window.9
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 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 a story is circulated by second and third-hand accounts.
Two Historical Examples of Fake News
As an example of how stories can mutate, consider two Fake News memes:
- Al Gore: “I Invented the Internet”, which circulated in 1999, and
- Sarah Palin "I can see Russia from my house", from September 2008.
Example 1: 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. 10 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 did not find him to be likeable. The meme originated with Wired columnist Declan McCullagh who wrote an article titled “No Credit Where It’s Due” on March 11, 1999.
Gore's political opponents — Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott and Jim Wilkinson, the spokesman for House Majority Leader Richard K. Armey — filed press releases amplifying McCullah's story, but it was a New York Times article titled “Inventors of Paper Clips and Tall Tales.” that picked up on Lott's story and substituted the word “invent” — for Gore's original "create". 11
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 have 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.
Please note that 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 with the phrase "During my service in the United States Congress".
I had been planning to hold off demonstrating my Neotext open source quotation tool until more of the bugs have been worked out and the code is optimized; but I think it is important to raise the issue of "quote context" now, even though the code is immature, because today’s political and media landscapes are so troubled.
Example 2: Did Sarah Palin Say "I Can See Russia From My House"?
Both Al Gore and Sarah Palin were — and still are somewhat today — polarizing figures in American politics; and when the public is polarized it is easy for portions of the public to see their stereotypes fulfilled in the media, especially if an event was not accurately portrayed originally.
As happened with the Gore meme, the Palin meme originated from a real interview, but one that was distorted by the media — in this case an edited interview video that was parodied on Saturday Night Live.
The narrative that evolved to explain Palin’s original (and misconstrued) quote was that she was inexperienced (which one could argue was accurate), but the meme that developed became paraphrased like this:
INTERVIEWER: What sort of foreign policy experience do you have?
PALIN: I can see Russia from my house. ***
*** (what the public remembers incorrectly)
Palin did not actually say the line in question, but when I consulted Snopes, they showed a video clip of the interview, and it did look like she said something similar to what the public remembers.
Unfortunately, the 12-second clip is not enough to form an accurate opinion about the statement in question because when I turned to the unedited transcript of the conversation, Palin comes across very differently, and the comment about Alaska's proximity to Russia arises out of a longer conversation about Russia's conflict with the Republic of Georgia, in which Palin appeared informed, or at least briefed on the conflict.
Note that the issue of Russia's proximity to Alaska was first raised by Gibson and was not raised by Palin as a foreign policy credential.
September 11, 2008 in Fairbanks, Alaska (Video)
GIBSON: Let me ask you about some specific national security situations.
GIBSON: Let's start, because we are near Russia, let's start with Russia and Georgia. The administration has said we've got to maintain the territorial integrity of Georgia. Do you believe the United States should try to restore Georgian sovereignty over South Ossetia and Abkhazia?
PALIN: First off, we're going to continue good relations with Saakashvili there. I was able to speak with him the other day and giving him my commitment, as John McCain's running mate, that we will be committed to Georgia. And we've got to keep an eye on Russia. For Russia to have exerted such pressure in terms of invading a smaller democratic country, unprovoked, is unacceptable and we have to keep...
GIBSON: You believe unprovoked.
PALIN: I do believe unprovoked and we have got to keep our eyes on Russia, under the leadership there. I think it was unfortunate. That manifestation that we saw with that invasion of Georgia shows us some steps backwards that Russia has recently taken away from the race toward a more democratic nation with democratic ideals.
That's why we have to keep an eye on Russia. And, Charlie, you're in Alaska. We have that very narrow maritime border between the United States, and the 49th state, Alaska, and Russia. They are our next door neighbors. We need to have a good relationship with them. They're very, very important to us and they are our next door neighbor.
GIBSON: What insight into Russian actions, particularly in the last couple of weeks, does the proximity of the state give you?
PALIN: They're our next door neighbors and you can actually see Russia from land here in Alaska, from an island in Alaska.
GIBSON: What insight does that give you into what they're doing in Georgia?
PALIN: Well, I'm giving you that perspective of how small our world is and how important it is that we work with our allies to keep good relation with all of these countries, especially Russia.
** grey text = edited out of televised video (4 min 18 sec)
After this interview on September 11, 2011, Saturday Night Live did the September 13 skit with Tina Fey as Sarah Palin.
On September 25, 2008, Katie Couric did an interview with Palin in which Couric restated the meme that Palin had cited Russia's proximity to Alaska as a credential:
Couric: You've cited Alaska's proximity to Russia as part of your foreign policy experience. What did you mean by that?
Sarah Palin: That Alaska has a very narrow maritime border between a foreign country, Russia, and, on our other side, the land-boundary that we have with Canada. It's funny that a comment like that was kinda made to … I don't know, you know … reporters.
Palin: Yeah, mocked, I guess that's the word, yeah.
Couric: Well, explain to me why that enhances your foreign-policy credentials.
Palin: Well, it certainly does, because our, our next-door neighbors are foreign countries, there in the state that I am the executive of. And there…
Couric: Have you ever been involved in any negotiations, for example, with the Russians?
Palin: We have trade missions back and forth, we do. It's very important when you consider even national security issues with Russia. As Putin rears his head and comes into the air space of the United States of America, where do they go? It's Alaska. It's just right over the border. It is from Alaska that we send those out to make sure that an eye is being kept on this very powerful nation, Russia, because they are right there, they are right next to our state.
I personally don't believe that Palin handled Couric's follow-up questions well; and you could say that some of the criticism was warranted, 12 but that doesn't mean the original meme was fair.
Providing Context to Videos
This same idea of showing extended context 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 from the public and offer participating media outlets a competitive advantage.
Where Has the Innovation Gone?
Silicon Valley seems to have lost some of its former mission of media innovation, focusing instead on new moon shots 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 three questions to computer technologists in Silicon Valley:
- Why is it not possible for YouTube to seamlessly connect the viewer to the continuation of a given video clip, using clips previously uploaded by others?
- Why is it not possible for the Google search engine to allow viewers to find the best comments available that are linked to a specific video time segment in a way similar to that of Medium.com's experiment with comments?
- Why is it not possible for web browsers to have the linked content displayed beside the linking source, without forcing viewers to leave the source page?
The issue of media trust is a complex one, but one part of the solution involves developing new journalistic conventions and technology. It has become convention that academic papers contain footnotes, and Wikipedia has replicated this convention in their online encyclopedia. Imagine if it were also a convention that all text, audio, and video quotations would contain links to their full sources, enabling audiences to effortlessly inspect each quotation's full source. Imagine if web browsers were redesigned so that hypertext links no longer sent readers away from the document they were browsing, but displayed a citation and its source side-by-side. With enough willpower, such a system is possible. It is time for journalists and technologists to collaborate to develop new systems that restore trust in media. Our democracy depends on it!
Questions to Consider
- What do you think of the Neotext expanding citation system featured in the article?
- What do you think of the Al Gore and Sarah Palin Fake News examples?
- What do you think of the idea of modifying the browser to support contextual quotations without requiring the user to leave the source page?
- What do you think about the idea of a system to provide greater context to video clips?
- In September 2016, Gallup reported that trust in the mainstream media is at its lowest point in polling history (which began in 1972). ↩
- Recently, President Trump has attempted to push the definition of Fake News beyond news that is factually incorrect, to include reports that use anonymous sources, or simply news that is unwelcomed by the administration. Such conflation muddles the issue. For the purposes of this article, Fake News refers to news derived from factually incorrect sources, or the misconstrual of sources, especially in the form of out-of-context quotations.
There are many complicated issues involved in improving the public's
trust in media beyond just Fake News.
Lack of trust may be caused by a wide range of factors:
- a lack of diversity among journalists,
- financial incentives inherent in organizations' business models or goals,
- increasing partisanship,
- increased shallowness, caused by the public's desire to be entertained,
- preferences for sources that fit with individuals' existing worldview.
- The title of this piece refers in a bit of shorthand to the Web's Original 1965 Design. The Web itself was built in 1989-1991, but its creator, Tim Berners-Lee drew inspiration from Ted Nelson's Xanadu vision and had lunch with him in 1989, or 1990 in Sausalito.
- I use the year 1965 in the title because that year Nelson published his ACM paper describing parallel documents. ↩
- The longer Ted Nelson essay takes between 20 and 45 minutes to read, depending upon whether the optional sections are skipped. ↩
- Freedom of the press can be fettered by not only by government censorship but by restrictions or limitations within the mediums themselves. On today's internet, we are fettered by the limitations on annotation and an ability to view only one page at a time. This limitation precludes the development of the type of marginal notes and commentaries that are found in medieval manuscripts. ↩
Granted, it would not be possible to have parallel display on 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. ↩
There is a whole Wikipedia page dedicated to telling the story about Al Gore and the Internet. Wikipedia quotes Campbell-Kelly and Aspray (Computer: A History of the Information Machine) as saying "up until the early 1990s public usage of the Internet was limited and the 'problem of giving ordinary Americans network access had excited Senator Al Gore since the late 1970s.'" (pg. 298)↩
- And some of the criticism was prejudice against a woman with a "funny" accent. Her words would have been experienced differently if they came out of the mouth of someone with an accent like Tony Blair↩
The Washington Post's Fact Checker recounts how the story spread. A cautionary tale for politicians: Al Gore and the ‘invention’ of the Internet ↩
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) ↩