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SUBSCRIBE NOW!
Vol. 19 No. 5 — June 2011
FEATURE
All the News Thatís Fit to Post. Or Is It?
Quality Information and the Social Web


by Nancy K. Herther,
Sociology/Anthropology Librarian, University of Minnesota Libraries

Brigham Young political science professor Richard Davis noted in 1999 that “anyone can put anything on the Internet and seemingly does. Often, one cannot be sure of the reliability of the information provided. Reliability diminishes exponentially as the information is passed from user to user and e-mail list to e-mail list until it acquires a degree of legitimacy by virtue of its widespread dissemination and constant repetition” (The Web of Politics: the Internet’s Impact on the American Political System, Oxford University Press, 1999, p. 40). Many believe that the internet remains a major conduit for false information and the spread of rumors.
Public Knowledge

In a democracy, the idea of an informed electorate puts the issue of public knowledge front and center. Yet Pew studies find that “the public’s assessment of the accuracy of news stories is now at its lowest level in more than two decades of Pew Research surveys” [http://people-press.org/report/543]. Distrust of the news industry is only one of the issues.

In October 2009, the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press asked a cross-section of American adults 12 multiple-choice questions to gauge what they knew about recent events. The results were sobering, with responses indicating that the questions “stump large segments of the public, including the current size of the U.S. military commitment in Afghanistan, the approximate level of the Dow Jones Industrial Average, and the name of a key environmental proposal being debated in Congress” [http://people-press.org/report/554/news-iq-knowledge-quiz]. A longitudinal study by Pew in 2007 found that during the period between 1989–2007, despite the massive changes in technology and the news industry, public knowledge had declined in many areas [http://people-press.org/report/319/public-knowledge-of-current-affairs-little-changed-by-news-and-information-revolutions].

Harris Poll, testing assertions of extremist views in an increasingly polarized America, conducted a poll in March 2010 in which people were asked about their perceptions of President Barak Obama. The results are chilling:

  • He is a socialist (40%).
  • He wants to take away Americans’ right to own guns (38%).
  • He is a Muslim (32%).
  • He wants to turn over the sovereignty of the United States to a one-world government (29%).
  • He has done many things that are unconstitutional (29%).
  • He resents America’s heritage (27%).
  • He does what Wall Street and the bankers tell him to do (27%).
  • He was not born in the United States and so is not eligible to be president (25%).
  • He is a domestic enemy that the U.S. Constitutions speaks of (25%).
  • He is a racist (23%).
  • He is anti-American (23%).
  • He wants to use an economic collapse or terrorist attack as an excuse to take dictatorial powers (23%).
  • He is doing many of the things that Hitler did (20%).
  • He may be the Anti-Christ (14%).
  • He wants the terrorists to win (13%).

The percentages were even stronger for those who self-identified themselves as Republicans and for those with less education [http://www.harrisinteractive.com/NewsRoom/HarrisPolls/tabid/447/mid/1508/articleId/223/
ctl/ReadCustom%20Default/Default.aspx
].

Libraries, schools, journalism, legal systems, and other institutions concerned with the public knowledge continue to focus on validity: verifying facts, corroborating testimony, finding unbiased information and making neutral assessments. With the rise of the social web, creating this type of information literacy in the public-at-large has proven challenging.

Add into this mix all of the technology changes — cell phones changing the very definitions of communication and access; blogs and websites that present news coverage faster than you can make instant coffee. Social media is allowing for both personalized and filtered information acquisition as well as for collaborative news discussion and creation.

The internet has changed communications channels, unraveled information industries, and become ubiquitous, global and ever-present. It has blurred the lines between fact and fiction, personal and public, opinion and authority, naiveté and honest skepticism. Has technology outstripped our abilities to discern fact from fiction, gossip from exaggeration, truth from carefully constructed lies?

Gossip, Rumor, and Privacy

Opinion polls consistently show that the public is concerned about their privacy — from their credit cards to medical records to their physical environments. This has become a major issue with all types of media in terms of covering major events, finding pictures, videos, or other information posted on websites, Facebook, or YouTube. For others, the increasingly social development of all types of media — from reality television to hidden cameras or paparazzi — has been an easy source of personal enrichment. The Berkeley Center for Law and Technology’s Paul Schwartz has called this mixture a “cauldron of law, social change and technology.”

“The fact is that once something makes it to print, it takes on a life of its own. There are countless examples … The point is that error, once mediated, tends to persist across time when it is remediated. That is not new. What is new is this idea of ‘viral.’ It is like good art, I know it when I see it, but I’ll be darned if I can explain why, but no one I know of has really explained the mechanism for some things going viral and other things not.”

– John Newhagen, Philip Merrill College of Journalism, University of Maryland–College Park

In his book, The Future of Reputation: Gossip, Rumor, and Privacy on the Internet (Yale, 2007), George Washington University law professor Daniel Solove provides an excellent framework to understand the developing social and legal structures for privacy issues in America. He finds that gossip has grown and changed in the era of the internet in ways that have accentuated its negative impacts. Gossip and opinion travel further and faster than ever before. They no longer are word-of-mouth or written words easily subject to libel and slander laws.

Additionally, the internet has greatly increased the social process of shaming and dramatically changed the impact of facts/fiction/innuendo on individuals and society. In earlier times, shaming was a social reaction to disruption, sin, or crime that might involve anything from ostracizing the offenders (à la Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter), to moving pregnant teens to distant relatives or special programs until after the birth of their children, or running rustlers out of town in the Wild West. Today, according to Solove, the internet has changed this. No longer just a method to maintain social order and civility, the internet and other new media have created an easy, cheap way to not only provide a public drubbing, but ruin careers and even cause suicides.

Whether in pursuit of fame and fortune or as a way to promote one’s ideas or advance some cause, the internet provides anyone with a ready global audience today. Remember the extensive Fox News assault on Gary Condit in the missing persons case of Chandra Levy? The aggressive pursuits of CNN Headline News’ Nancy Grace in interviewing Melinda Duckett about the disappearance of her child? (Duckett committed suicide the next day.) What, Solove and others have asked, does this do to the legal foundations that underpin our government and culture — such as the right to a fair and impartial jury system?

Reliable Sources

On Thursday, March 4, 2010, Georgetown law professor Peter W. Tague was beginning to teach his first-year criminal law class. Just a short time into his lecture he apparently paused to share a piece of what he described as credible information on the future of U.S. Supreme Court Justice John Roberts: Roberts would soon announce his decision to retire from the Court due to health issues. “He told his students that he could not reveal his sources but that the information was credible,” noted Kashmir Hill of the Above the Law blog. “His students proceeded to send out the surprising news via email and/or chat and/or tweet. Somehow it made its way to Radar Online, and soon the blogosphere went into a frenzy over the news.”

At this point, the story had a life of its own, even though “midway through his lecture on the credibility and reliability of informants, Professor Tague revealed that the Roberts rumor was false and that he was illustrating how someone a lawyer might ordinarily think was a credible source — like even a law school professor — could disseminate inaccurate information,” notes Hill. “An important lesson in law: Trust should be based on multiple sources.”

This became a very useful lesson in itself, however, since the students had already begun to spread this “news” from their cell phones, PDAs, and computers. The classroom experiment became an international issue. The blog Radar Online even published the story as an “exclusive,” reporting that Roberts would be retiring “at any time” [http://www.radaronline.com/exclusives/2010/03/exclusive-us-supreme-court-chief-justice-john-roberts-considering-step-down]. The story became an internet hit, mainly because none of the “news” websites or blogs (including The Huffington Post and Drudge Report) bothered to confirm the details — choosing instead to just repeat the story without any fact-checking.

A Small Incident Becomes a Very Big One — The Case of United Flight 663

On Wednesday, April 7, 2010, United Airline flight 663 was on its usual course from Washington, D.C., to Denver. An incident occurred that was described by a formal statement from the Transportation Security Administration (TSA): “Federal Air Marshals responded to a passenger causing a disturbance on board the aircraft. The flight landed safely at Denver International Airport at approximately 8:50 p.m. EDT.”

In analyzing the texts of television/cable media transcripts from the 24-hour period following the incident, as recorded in LexisNexis Academic, it is interesting to note how the facts of the incident become intertwined in the commentary from “experts” during the programs — mixing facts with opinion and assessment even before the incident’s facts are determined.

On the night of the incident, Fox’s Greta Van Susteren, on her 10:30 EST On the Record program, provided a traditional news report of the unfolding events:

There has been suspicious behavior on a flight from Washington DC to Denver, Colorado. There are conflicting reports. We don’t want to give you false information. We’ll continue to monitor this. The TSA is also monitoring this, and as soon as we have more information about this flight from Washington to Denver with suspicious conduct. But again, there are conflicting reports. We will get you more information as soon as we have it.

She then went on to the regularly scheduled programming, an interview with an analyst on political events of the day.

Anderson Cooper’s 360 Degrees program, beginning at 10:00 p.m. EST the same night, began coverage with a similar report of the situation:

Breaking news, though. I want to show you Denver International Airport — on the ground, United Flight 663. The breaking news, we have details, very preliminary. We’re being very careful not to get ahead of the facts. What we know is this. There was a disturbance aboard the flight traveling from Reagan National Airport in Washington to Denver International Airport. Someone tried to light their shoe or shoes on fire. The plane is on the ground, as I said, met by authorities in Denver, including the TSA and the FBI.

Cooper then continued on this topic with interviews and discussions with a “national security analyst” and the “CNN National Security Contributor.” At this point, the program became one of supposition and opinion. Such as this from its “terrorism analyst”:

It appears that there is a shoe bomber involved … . And building a shoe bomb is not an easy thing to do. And we may find that it’s the same shoe — the same bomb-maker in all these cases, because they bear a certain amount of similarities.

Within hours of the event, with so little verified information available, how could any expert “analyst” determine similarities between this and any other past incident? And, later, another comment infers something even more ominous:

Anderson , as you know, in this kind of situation, always there’s kind of misinformation initially. Going back to Christmas Day, the first reports [of the shoe bomber] were that a firecracker had gone off on Northwest Flight 253. Of course, it was much more serious.

Then there is Cooper’s own rhetorical question near the end of the program:

[W]hat moron on the planet does not know that you don’t make a joke about, like, blowing up an airplane or lighting a shoe bomb or anything on a plane or in an airport or anywhere near an airplane. It’s just, it’s like he’s so stupid if that is, in fact what happened.

Cooper ends his program with the comment, “It’s amazing in this day and age how quickly a small incident becomes a very big one.” In the case of this program, the commentator and guests themselves used innuendo and supposition, in place of verified facts, to keep their audience tuned in.

By the next morning, the facts of the case were clear and the story had lost its salacious coverage. As reported on ABC’s Good Morning America:

One of the passengers, this man, identified as Qatari diplomat Mohammed al Modadi. It all seemed routine until just before landing, when al Modadi went to the bathroom. Government sources say flight attendants noticed smoke coming from the restroom, and notified federal air marshals on the flight. ... The air marshals confronted him, demanding to know what he was doing. He identified himself as a diplomat from Qatar and responded, perhaps sarcastically, that he was trying to light his shoes on fire. A reference instantly bringing to mind shoe bomber Richard Reid and the underwear bomber from last Christmas. ... Now apparently the explosive, so-called explosive shoes were, in fact, not explosive. No bomb found. This was simply a case of a passenger apparently trying to sneak a smoke in the restroom. Now al Modadi was on official business to Denver. He is a diplomat. That gives him diplomatic immunity.

How events are covered and how facts are presented can either help inform or inflame. The truth will eventually become apparent, but at what potential cost? As Joe Saltzman, professor of journalism at the University of Southern California Annenberg School for Communication and director of the Image of the Journalist in Popular Culture (a project of the Norman Lear Center), notes: “The only way to defeat rumor and misinformation is to know the truth and, as anyone who has studied history knows, a good lie always is easier to digest than a piece of hard truth.”

The Participatory News Consumer

In March 2010, the Pew Research Center released a major study which examined “how Internet and cell phone users have turned news into a social experience.” The “Understanding the Participatory News Consumer” report [http://www.pewinternet.org/~/media/Files/Reports/2010/
PIP_Understanding_the_Participatory_News_Consumer.pdf
] found:

The internet is now more popular than newspapers or radio as a news platform — just behind TV.

Nine in 10 American adults get news from multiple platforms on a typical day, with half of those using four to six platforms daily.

Most use only a few, trusted websites for news and less for local coverage.

Consumption of news is now a socially engaging and socially driven activity, especially online today. Participation is more through sharing than contributing news.

Cell phones are key devices — used by 80% of American adults, and 37% of them go online from their phones. Twenty-six percent of all Americans say they get some of their news by cell phone today.

RSS fees, customized homepages to include favored news source, and other options are used by an increasing number of Americans.

Fifty-five percent of adults said that it is easier now to keep up with news and information than 5 years ago.

Only 63% of the respondents believed that major news organizations did a good job covering all of the important news stories and subjects important to them.

 

A related “State of the News Media” report from the Pew’s Project for Excellence in Journalism [http://www.stateofthemedia.org/2010] released in June 2010 found similar trends. Journalism is changing, and so is its audience.

Berkeley ’s Schwartz warns that with the ongoing, “rapid change common on the Internet,” such as virtual worlds, cloud computing, microblogging services, and location-aware programs, we face “a number of new cyber-developments with significant implications for privacy.” The more important question may be whether we will be able to ever develop legal remedies or accepted social mores to protect information and individuals from impacts of rumors that develop rapidly, unpredictably, and spread like a virus.

Solove believes that we individuals today have “only a limited degree of control over our reputation, but this control can make a world of difference.” His advice? “By concealing information about our private lives and our violations of social taboos, and by preventing damaging falsehoods about us from circulating, we can make ourselves less vulnerable to misunderstanding, misjudgment or unfair condemnation.”

Just the Facts

There have always been groups interested in factual accuracy, and many of these groups have been especially concerned about the seeming increase in inflammatory stories so easily spread over the internet. “The pressure to report during the rumor stage is heightened by the Web’s hyperactive self-publishers,” notes Internet Broadcasting Systems’ Bar Palser. “Before the Internet there was no way for stories to reach a broad audience without passing through the media gatekeepers. Today, people assemble their own news reports from both traditional news sites and independent Web publishers” [http://www.ajr.org/Article.asp?id=3768].

It may be an easy way to beat the competition, to get higher click-throughs from internet searches (and increase your advertising ratios), but Palser sees another side. “This is the wrong time for journalists to shrug their shoulders and accept that some misinformation is bound to slip into news reports, or to relax fact-checking practices, or to use the race to publish as an excuse for carelessness.”

Michigan State University professor Cliff Lampe sees sloppiness and budget issues as critical factors. “I think the John Roberts thing was fueled by lazy journalism, and is actually more of a traditional media problem than an Internet problem,” Lampe notes. “To be fair, part of that laziness is the conservation of effort required to operate a news source in the constrained budgets that currently exist.”

USC’s Saltzman has been watching these trends for many years. “The lingering impact of rumor or hoax has a very small life-time. Once revealed to be wrong, most Internet users go on to the next piece of gossip or innuendo.” According to Saltzman, “If an Internet site repeatedly offers information that is suspect, it usually dies quickly. Even Internet users do not like to be fooled more than once.”

Saltzman notes: “If a piece of gossip or innuendo turns out to be true — yes, Jesse did cheat on Sandra; Tiger did have multiple affairs — then the story will continue in the public forum for months and even years and there are lingering issues regarding those individuals because the gossip turns out to be correct long before established news media confirms it.”

The relationship between traditional news sources and internet news is more complicated than many realize, as well. “There is also a strange suspicion of established news media even though most of the news and information that is on the Internet is stolen from established news media sources,” Saltzman explains. “More than 90 percent of the information on the Internet is commentary based on information from established news media. So it’s a dichotomy. On the one hand, the Internet user doesn’t trust the established media and goes to off-beat sources. On the other hand, those sources generally rely on established news media for their basic stories and information.”

Brooks Jackson, director of FactCheck.org and a member of the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg Public Policy Center, pioneered the “adwatch” and “factcheck” story types while at CNN. “I think that now more than ever we need paid, trained reporters working under the control of experienced editors who vet their copy through an established series of protocols to ensure accuracy. It’s our misfortune as a society that the need for solid reporting and editing is growing just as the revenue that supports this sort of thing is draining away,” Jackson believes. “It’s just tragically ironic that the Internet is responsible both for dispensing an unprecedented amount of false information to the public and also for draining away the ad revenue that supports good reporting and editing.”

Profit for internet-based companies is another issue. “So far there [haven’t] been any real profits on the Internet, although there is a mob mentality, a frenzy to get users to click on sites and the best way to do this — the best way to always get an audience immediately — is to go with the salacious, the controversial, the hype,” Saltzman notes. “But gaining an audience in this fashion is a fleeting thing. It doesn’t promote long-term readership or interest. That kind of Internet site that relies on a lunch-mob mentality doesn’t last long and certainly seldom turns a profit.”

Jackson agrees. “Twenty-four-hour cable news networks gravitate toward trivial stories that lend themselves to soap-opera coverage. They pander to the public’s appetite for easy-to-grasp celebrity news, ‘missing blonde teenager’ stories, ‘balloon boy’ stunts … and they slight harder-to-cover subjects.” He adds, “It’s also a lot cheaper to put on an hour of opinionated blowhards giving their opinions about the news than it is to present an hour of solid fact served up with imagination and care and in a way that the average person finds engaging and easy to grasp. Talk is cheap; good reporting is expensive.”

“The increasing impact of the Internet as an information medium (and this is as true for library science as it is for journalism) is that it demands more effort on the part of the user. The funny thing about that is that the standard model for a functioning liberal democracy, going back at least to Milton in the 17 th century, is that the individual should and can carry that load.”

– John Newhagen , Philip Merrill College of Journalism,
University of Maryland–College Park

The Future?

Technology continues to change, as does our increasingly global, social society. We can take heart from the optimism of journalistic experts. “The future is bright,” Saltzman believes. “More and more people are reading newspapers, magazine and other news media than any other time in history. The readership is up. The problem,” he says, “is there is no competent business model yet developed to turn that readership into profits for the news media companies involved. Once that template is achieved, the information will be available to everyone — the most reliable, accurate and fair information possible under incredible deadline pressure.” As Saltzman puts it, “The old wire service (a deadline every second) doesn’t make for a good environment for accuracy and fairness and completeness. But if the news media can figure out ways to turn a profit with their websites, if they can get rid of their paper products in favor of Internet sites, then we may see a new world of more information, better information, faster information than we’ve ever had before.”

Future news will also be more collaborative. In 1998, John Newhagen, journalism professor at the Philip Merrill College of Journalism, University of Maryland–College Park, wrote about those involved in the transmission or provision of information and how the rise of the “social power” of technology will naturally bring up concern over credibility and objectivity. In the years since this research, Newhagen’s perceptions have only grown concerning the social nature of future news: “Take the case of Wikipedia. Journalism and an important part of academia dislike it and may ban its use. They do so on the grounds that the information in it is soft and the people who use it are lazy.” But according to Newhagen, that’s not the whole story. “I have concluded that the aforementioned trend is a red herring intended to distract us from the fact a huge power struggle is taking place between what Wikipedia founder Gates calls the ‘command and control’ system to a ‘collaborative system’ of information work. There is,” Newhagen maintains, “an important irony here. Journalism recently touts its importance as a key institution in providing the free flow of information needed to sustain a liberal democracy. The irony is that it argues against the kind of collaborative system Wikipedia and other social media represent, which I see as democratizing.”

Lampe agrees. “There’s a strain of thought that says that the breadth of the Internet actually makes for better information quality. The ‘to many eyes all bugs are shallow’ philosophy says that the more people who look at something, the more likely someone is to help determine quality. There are lots of examples of this occurring anecdotally, plus some more rigorous work in looking at sites like Wikipedia, Snopes and WikiLeaks. The research shows Wikipedia’s error rates are similar to Encyclopedia Britannica.”

Despite the sophisticated security systems and products available today — and many are free — the newer generations seem less interested in these issues than their parents’ generations. Balancing anonymity and accountability is something that few of the younger generations seem concerned about, preferring the openness of social networking. However, there’s more to this than simply “buyer beware.”

Communications professor Kevin Kawamoto sees a need for education and the lead of information professions. “I think lots of sources of information are better than fewer, but the trade-off is that we just need to be more critical consumers of information. Otherwise, we will end up with a situation where people have access to a lot of information but are no less ignorant than if they had access to just a little.”

As Kawamoto notes: “Some organizations already use an internal system of evaluating information on their sites.” Since it’s difficult to imagine some type of Good Housekeeping seal on sites that adhere to some set of principles, Kawamoto suggests that it might be possible to “have the organization explain that it has an evaluation system, explain how it works, and use it. The information consumer then can make up his or her mind about the credibility of the content.”

“Although the Internet poses new and difficult issues, they are variations on some timeless problems: the tension between privacy and free speech, the nature of privacy, the virtues and vices of gossip and shaming, the effect of new technologies on the spread of information, and the ways in which law, technology, and norms interact. New technologies do not just enhance freedom but also alter the matrix of freedom and control in new and challenging ways.”

–Daniel Solove

Nickolas DiFonzo, Rochester Institute of Technology psychologist and author, is an acknowledged expert in the study of rumors. “The problem is that people are increasingly distrustful of formal information sources. The future of quality information? Possible, but it will require effort. The web allows rumors to spread quickly, but also allows more rapid rumor checking. To those individuals who are motivated to find facts, I think it is generally possible.”

Lampe reminds us that, in the Roberts case, “People were questioning the news and the source immediately. I actually think this is a really heartening example of people thinking carefully about sources and congruity in news. As the feedback loop on rumors gets shorter, there should be less issues of trust. Right now, trust in traditional media (and other traditional organizations) is at an all time low. People actually trust more the news they are getting from their social networks than they are the news from traditional media.”

Although the internet has disintermediated many traditional services of information professionals, it may be opening up other opportunities and needs as well. “We’re not going to put the genie back in the bottle — the genie being the different technologies that people use to communicate — and that’s not even desirable,” Kawamoto notes. “We do need to teach people about that genie and, in simple terms, to show them that there are good genies and bad ones.”

Internet Rumor Checkers

Barbara and David Mikkelson are on a mission. They created and now maintain Snopes, one of the premier sites tracking internet rumors today. Profiled in a New York Times article (“Debunkers of Fictions Sift the Net,” April 4, 2010 [http://www.nytimes.com/2010/04/05/technology/05snopes.html]), the seeming futility of their mission was well-summarized in this quote by Barbara Mikkelson: “Well, we have to get out there and defend the truth. When you’re looking at truth versus gossip, truth doesn’t stand a chance.”

That assessment may be overly grim. Today there are many websites dedicated to tracking down the truth behind rumors, gossip, hoaxes, and urban legends. Here are a few of the best:

FactCheck.org

http://www.factcheck.org

A project of the Annenberg Public Policy Center, FactCheck.org allows you to track rumors or to “Ask FactCheck” to get the low-down on rumors.

PolitiFact.com

http://www.politifact.com/truth-o-meter

Winner of a Pulitzer in 2009, the site covers the web with news, articles, and a “Truth-O-Meter” to check rumors as they arrive.

Fact Checker (The Washington Post)

http://blog.washingtonpost.com/fact-checker

From Michael Dobbs, this site ended with the November 2008 elections. The site used a rating system of 0-5 Pinocchios to rank the truthfulness of statements made during the Obama/McCain campaign.

Snopes.com

http://www.snopes.com

Subtitled “rumor has it,” this site covers the waterfront from the arts to business to religion to politics.

Columbia Journalism Review (CJR)

http://www.cjr.org/index.php

With the subtitle of “strong press, strong democracy,” CJR provides coverage of events, rumors, and other aspects of discourse in our wired life.

MediaMatters

http://mediamatters.org/tags/issues

This site covers the media, major personalities, and programs, “documenting conservative misinformation throughout the media.” You can search or browse by subject area.


Nancy K. Herther's e-mail address is n-hert@umn.edu.

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