How We're Tackling The Problem of Misinformation Online

Posted by Sam Mallikarjunan on May 8, 2015 8:00:00 AM

journalists_vs_robotsI'm not going to spend much time selling you on the idea that there's a problem with how we consume information from the media. The switch has been flipped so that mass media distribution -- which was once centrally controlled by limited groups of people with printing presses or access to radio infrastructure -- is now accessible to anyone with a computer and an internet connection.

(click here to skip to the tl;dr summary)

This is a great thing for the world: It makes it harder for small groups of people to control the freedom of information people use to make decisions about the world. However, it's also meant that any semblance of trust that we once had in media sources like Walter Cronkite on the nightly news is now meaningless.

People can have many reasons for positioning information as true. Sometimes it's deliberate misinformation with an agenda. Sometimes it's satire -- misinformation designed to be obvious enough to make a point. Sometimes it's people writing things that are wrong because it's what they actually believe regardless of available evidence.

More often, and in the case of this blog article that would earn (at best) a D- from an English professor, it's simple lack of resources and laziness. I've made several assertions so far in this article ("media was once centrally controlled", "trust is meaningless", "sometimes it's deliberate misinformation", etc.) that probably sound true (obviously I believe them to be true) but I've provided no evidence to back them up.

Like I said, D-.

This isn't because I have some nefarious agenda, it's simply because I only have about an hour to write this article. I simply don't have the time to hunt down evidence to support things that "I know are obviously true" when my boss is breathing down my neck to get the article out and do other tasks (okay, technically I am the boss but I'm sort of a jerk to myself about deadlines). I've even had journalists at newspapers tell me that their editors see publishing inaccurate content on the internet as a fair trade off for getting it published quickly because "they can always make an update online". Apparently they don't know how quickly misinformation can spread, how devastating it can be to people's lives, or that nothing is ever truly gone from the internet.

A Two-Sided Problem

So what we're left here is very uneven playing field for great journalists who were raised with strict ethical standards of research and reporting and websites that can't (or won't) invest the expense into adhering to that set of standards. Simply put, it's cheaper and easier to produce bad content than to produce great, well-researched content.

This is the challenge that we at Verytas want to tackle. We want to make it less profitable to create D- content and less expensive to create A+ content, thereby making the playing field more even for the noble journalists who do still care about responsibly informing and educating the public (they do exist, I promise you).

Making D-'s Less Profitable

Misinformation isn't a bad business model. It's cheap to spin up a website, clone the look and feel of a popular trusted site like MSNBC, publish a lead story saying (for example) that Macaully Culkin has been found dead in his apartment, and rake in ad revenue. Especially with the profligation of new "Top Level Domains" (things like .com and .org have now been joined by things like .website and .guru) and the ease of creating subdomains (things like "msnbc.fakeWebsite.com"), it can be hard for users to know whether they're looking at the real MSNBC website or if it's a fake.

Some sites aren't quite that nefarious, and for various reasons just produce fictional stories masquerading as real news. Satire has a powerful place in the world, but when it masquerades too well as real news it can easily fool people (think you're immune? Take our satire recognition quiz by clicking here).

One of the most broadly appealing functionalities of Verytas is the fact that, as a browser plugin, we can work in the environment in which people share lots of news (social media) and enhance that experience to make it easy for you to recognize what articles are deliberate misinformation vs. legitimate satire vs. sites you should actually read. So we're going to try and make it so that websites that don't disclose that they're satire (which makes them intentional misinformation) get less traffic from social media because people are less likely to click through to investigate the story if they know it's already been vetted as false. This means less ad impressions, which means less revenue.

To be clear: We're very supportive of honest satire, so even in V1 of Verytas, satire gets a separate color (purple) from intentional misinformation (red) that will be highlighted in your social media feeds. Great satire is often worth reading; traffic baiting through deliberate misinformation is not. Even the act of clicking through to a site so that you can verify the information yourself may make them just as much money whether you end up believing the information or not, as many sites bill advertisers based simply on the number of impressions their ads receive.

We're even toying with another idea to make creating shoddy content less profitable. Even if traffic does come to their site, we can block their ads (similar to other ad blocking browser extensions) so that they don't make money. Most ad blockers block all ads (unless the advertiser pays the extension creator to exempt them from blocking), which hurts sites that produce great content more than sites that produce bad content because of how expensive creating great content is. Todd Garland, CEO and founder at ad technology company BuySellAds said "If you enjoy consuming great content on the web and use AdBlock, you are *just* as much a part of the problem as the crappy advertisers and annoying lag in page load that got you to install it in the first place." (source)

In fact, depending on how likely we are to get sued for this, we've even discussed letting users opt-in to replacing the ads on sites that are repeat offenders of intentional misinformation (like msnbc.website) with calls-to-action directing visitors to other, more reputable sites with content on that topic. This has the benefit of driving less revenue for sites trying to hurt people and more revenue (in the form of traffic) for sites that create great content.

Hopefully, as we grow, D-'s are going to cost more than just losing your TV privileges in high school.

Making A+ Content Cheaper to Produce

As I mentioned earlier, some websites are producing poorly researched content not because they have nefarious intentions but because they simply can't afford the resources to fact-check and cite all of their assertions and information. Ironically, as the Verytas team is currently composed of people working full-time+ jobs elsewhere while volunteering what limited spare time and money that they have, we also fall into this bucket of wanting and needing to produce quality content but lacking the dedicated fact-checking and research resources to do as good a job as we'd like (trust me, the irony that this particular article would be highlighted yellow by Verytas if you saw it on Facebook or Twitter is not lost on us).

After interviewing dozens of reporters and journalism professionals, we've found that while the amount of research and fact-checking time can vary wildly depending on the topic, it's not unusual to spend 4 hours or more doing background and research in addition to the time that it takes to write the article. So if you're trying to write even just two articles a day, your whole work day day can be taken up simply with research.

To make it worse, at many media companies, trying to stay competitive with the cost structures of lower-quality websites has caused them to reduce or eliminate entirely their research and fact-checking departments -- meaning that the burden of responsibility lies entirely on the person writing the article.

So the second half of our attempt to level the playing field is around making it so that writers can accomplish their research tasks at dramatically faster speeds ("Research at the Speed of News" is our current tagline -- what do you think?). As someone who has spent most of his career in the software industry, I was shocked at the lack of technology many reporters had available to them. They manually go and check multiple data sources that have easily available API's (an API lets one piece of technology, like Verytas, talk to another piece of technology, like PolitiFact). A process that could take seconds is taking hours.

If you're writing an article about a politician voting in favor of a new offshore drilling rig, and OpenSecrets.org has the oil industry listed as a major donor for that person, that's relevant research from a credible source that should just appear on the page you're looking at -- you shouldn't have to hunt that down. This is a problem we can solve. In fact, it's not even a particularly hard problem to solve. It's just that no one has really tried.

In addition to technology, modern business is filled with examples of infinitely flexible on-demand marketplaces that may provide a template for solving problems like these. Uber, the ride-sharing service, works on the principle of providing a faster and better quality experience at a lower cost to the end consumer by maximizing the utilization of top performers in the area. That is to say, a great Uber driver might make less per ride, but they'll make more per hour because the Uber platform sends them ride after ride after ride and entirely removes the massive inefficiencies of traditional taxi dispatch processes.

At Verytas, we plan to apply that same model of economic efficiency to researchers and editors. Thousands of potential editors and researchers on Verytas means that writers can spend more time writing and less time hunting down information that's outside of their core area of expertise. By maximizing the utilization of the best writers and researchers, we can help these people make more money per hour while reducing the cost to the end journalist or media company.

Creating great content doesn't have to be as expensive as it is.

We Can't Give Up

The sad and simple fact is that almost no one is building technology designed to help these people. The general strategy at most media companies seems to be to lay off as many people as you can and work those lucky enough to keep their jobs as hard as possible to try and reduce costs.

It's as if we, as a society, have given up on the media because saving them seems just too hard. The independent news media has been a critical force in the growth of free societies around the world. The internet is one of the coolest things that the human race has ever created, allowing information to flow freely around the world at the speed of light.

By making it easier for people to make decisions about what content to read in a way that doesn't economically benefit shoddy content creators and by making it cheaper for great writers to create the kind of content that they so desperately want to, we can take small steps towards making the media once again a force for good that we can (with an ever-skeptical eye) trust.

The current plan for Verytas isn't even close perfect, and in the great tradition of Lean Startups will certainly continue to evolve. However, even if this problem is unsolvable, our worst-case scenario is that we make the internet experience slightly cleaner for a smaller number of people than we had hoped.

tl;dr (Too Long; Didn't Read)

Here's the short version: Creating poorly researched or even completely false "news" content online is currently a better business model than conventional media companies trying to create content held to conventional standards of journalism. It's cheaper to produce and gets more views more quickly than thoughtful, well-balanced articles.

Our plan to level the playing field between great journalists and people trying to make money from fooling you is to make the latter less profitable (by helping people see in social media if something is false without clicking through and rewarding them with ad impression revenue) and to make the former less costly (by building tools to help journalists conduct quality research incredibly fast).

Want to help? We need beta testers. Please, sign up and continually tell us everything you hate (or love) about what we do!

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Topics: Satire, Media Business, Startups, Journalism, Misinformation

Verytas is a tool that lets everyday people easily fact-check the content they see on social and news media sites like a pro.

Verytas pulls from commonly used professional sources as well as human-generated citations or refutations and automagically overlays the information in real-time on your normal browsing experience.

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