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Rory O'Connor

Rory O'Connor

Posted March 26, 2009 | 05:38 PM (EST)

The Daily We


With mainstream media brands in tatters, a tsunami of information inundating us online, and "quality journalism" in decline (at least as defined by legacy media executives such as New York Times editor Bill Keller), how can we be sure that the news we see and hear is really true? Facing what some still term, "The Daily Me," that scary online universe where "each of us is our own editor, our own gatekeeper," the question remains: are average citizens interested in and capable of decoding that which is useful, credible, "quality journalism" -- and that which is not? And even if they are, will they take the time to do so?

As new media researcher Miriam Metzger says, "People know they 'should' critically analyze the information they obtain online, yet rarely have the time or energy to do it." Clearly some filter or shortcut is needed to assist us in lifting and sifting through the overload of information, since, as Metzger concludes, "Only the truly motivated will actually do the work required.... The rest of us need and want filters."

Can online social networks play this role -- or do they merely serve to confirm our prejudices? Do they offer just the "reassuring womb of an echo chamber," or are they instead becoming, as some suggest, the "big new channel?" If so, will filtering best take place in already trusted environments like Facebook -- or in new, yet to be invented forms? Can "the wonders of the Web" become the new media solution to old media's ongoing trust dilemma?

According to the 2008 State of the News Media report from Pew, one of the most notable recent Internet use transformations involves the death of the home page -- and along with it "content the site can vouch for -- usually already vetted." This is a direct result of the rise of the emerging media, with aggregators, blogs, social networks and other social media forms now driving two-thirds of all visitors to legacy media news sites. The change in news-and-information distribution patterns is having a severe impact on media brands, which are frequently cited by corporate executives such as Google CEO Eric Schmidt and Time magazine's Richard Stengel as society's solution to our 'too much information' credibility gap.

Few dispute that journalism now faces a crisis of trust, or that a greater emphasis on helping citizens find credible information is necessary and would be a social good. Many agree as well that the new media are already having a revolutionary impact on a broad swath of American society -- from politics and media to business, commerce and governance. As to the question of whether the new media can supply at least a partial solution to the trust/credibility problem, the jury may still be out -- but the evidence increasingly points that way.

Given the importance of obtaining credible news and information, coupled with the fact that research shows many people now rely on the Internet without taking what Miriam Metzger terms "the requisite steps to ensure the veracity of the information they obtain," the need for more definitive data is pressing. As Metzger explains, "The early thought on social networks was that people would self-select -- so-called 'homophily' -- but evidence now suggests that in seeking political information, it works the other way around. We don't really have an answer yet -- but what you suggest seems right... it certainly passes the smell test.

"How sophisticated are people about this?" asks Metzger. "Very, it turns out. They are already using media tools as trust filters in a sophisticated way." She says the burden of credibility evaluation has increased because of technology and the consequent flood of too much information -- but paradoxically, technology also helps with the problem. "It's a double-edged sword," Metzger explains. "Technology changes the problem, making it more urgent and giving us a greater burden to verify, but it also provides new tools to grapple with credibility questions. This means the technology is opening up more possibilities for solutions -- as well as simultaneously contributing to the problem. So the problem changes with each particular situation."

Despite the many lingering questions and the need for more study, BJ Fogg stands convinced, however. "Social networks are the Big New Channel," asserts Fogg, director of research and design at Stanford University's Persuasive Technology Lab. "People don't go to Facebook to 'get something done' but to browse in an interruptible and seducible way. When you find news there, you feel like it's a discovery -- not something pushed at you -- so the response is quite different. What Facebook has unleashed will not go away!"

Nor will our need for trustworthy news and information from all our media -- legacy or emerging. Although still regarded by some as an information "cesspool" that spreads falsehoods and encourages polarization, the Internet and the new communications tools and social patterns it enables offer at least the promise of some relief from our TMI-induced credibility dilemma.

Remember those two emails many of us received in September at the height of interest in the then-unknown Sarah Palin? Given its provenance, I was immediately suspicious of claims made in one, which detailed Palin's supposed penchant for book banning. The sender was well known in my social circle as a shoot-from-the-lip liberal rather prone to exaggeration -- and sure enough, the information in it turned out to be false. Palin hadn't in fact banned any books. Moreover, several books on the list hadn't even been published at the time of their supposed banning, a fact my untrustworthy friend typically hadn't bothered to check. Soon Internet researchers revealed the list to be a simple compilation of "Books Banned at One Time or Another in the United States."

The other email, from Anne Kilkenny, a resident of the small Alaskan city of Wasilla, proved quite valuable, however. Kilkenny's message concerned a woman she knew well -- Wasilla's former mayor Sarah Palin. A homemaker and regular attendee at Wasilla City Council meetings, Kilkenny had witnessed at first-hand much of Palin's meteoric political rise, and she wrote in considerable detail about Palin's record during her six years as Wasilla's mayor.

Kilkenny's sharp, informative twenty-four hundred-word missive was meant to help inform forty of her friends. But as the Los Angeles Times reported a month later, "More than 13,700 e-mail responses and half a million Google hits changed all that." Kilkenny had told her friends to feel free to pass her e-mail along -- and they did, sending it to their friends, who in turn then redistributed it in a variety of ways, including blogs, Web sites, and social networks such as Facebook. Moving at the speed of light, the now 'viral' email soon landed on my computer desktop -- and millions of others all over the globe. It provided information unavailable from the thousands of journalists gathered at the time in Minnesota to cover Palin's impending nomination at the Republican National Convention. Ironically, it even treated the subject of Sarah Palin and library books:

"While Sarah was Mayor of Wasilla she tried to fire our highly respected City Librarian because the Librarian refused to consider removing from the library some books that Sarah wanted removed," Kilkenny had written. "City residents rallied to the defense of the City Librarian and against Palin's attempt at out-and-out censorship, so Palin backed down and withdrew her termination letter."

Like the rest of the news in Anne Kilkenny's email, her information about
Wasilla's library books turned out to be credible -- just as I thought it would be, since it had been forwarded to me by a trusted Facebook friend.