The truth is out thereMay 20th, 2010 by Tommaso De Benetti
The amount of information available today is vast beyond our comprehension. The very discussion of this data deluge has itself generated a fair bit of coverage. Still, like the elephant in the room, it is not often that you hear people complain about the fact that, let’s face it, most of it is garbage.
It might sound a bit catastrophic, but the numbers look scary: information overload could be the next weapon of mass instruction. Some facts about this exploding data: YouTube turns five years old this month, with an average of more than two billion views per day. At the beginning of 2010, Technorati alone featured 133m blogs. There have been over 14.2 billion tweets, while over five percent of the world’s population now use Facebook. Across all these forums people can produce content with no authority, entitlement or credibility.
Believe it or not
Let’s be clear: social media and web tools exist to make it easy for people to craft and share amusing content. Of course, this ease also allows the creation of huge amounts of imprecise, irrelevant or deliberately deceitful information. Whether it’s reports that downplay global warming, give prominence to an orphanage for sloths on the front page of a major newspaper, or a rant on how a corrupt government is replacing religious morality with game theory, the problem is the same: how can we filter out the garbage from the quality content, thereby allowing us to develop original, well informed opinions?
A Denver-based startup called HowTru claims to have the solution. Whenever a HowTru user reads a story, he or she can either confirm or refute its validity. In time, the story will develop a veracity score visible to HowTru users indicating how reliable a specific source is.
This sounds great in theory, but I wonder how well it will work in practice. At best, it seems the majority of HowTru users will base their judgments on information absorbed elsewhere. Given the dire shape of worldwide journalism, even opinions based on supposedly reliable channels are likely to be biased or inaccurate. And that’s at best. At worst they will be uninformed opinions based on the whims or worldview of the user. This raises the question: can we trust the wisdom of the crowd?
Too good to be true?
Toma Bedolla, founder of the company, claimed in an interview with ReadWriteWeb that: “As we reach critical mass, we can counter the effects of misinformation.” To me this is like saying because a Britney Spears album sold millions of copies worldwide, it is automatically worth listening to.
Apparently the system has some countermeasures for this problem. The website states “Accuracy of the article is verified or refuted by members of the crowd. These evaluations are not counted equally; HowTru weighs each evaluation according to the credibility earned by the evaluator in the relevant context, e.g., nutrition, business, politics etc.”
Again, this sounds good, but I still think it is problematic. Truth is not a matter of democracy or consensual majority: the Pythagorean Theorem would hold true even if not a single person in the world believed in it.
Comments under the article demonstrate similar skepticism. As one user argues “there was a time when the crowd believed the Earth was flat.” Unfortunately, popularity is not necessarily a reliable indicator when evaluating if something is true or not, especially because, as another user claims “People gravitate towards their tribe. It’s false precision”.
In response to such arguments one of the developers responds: “We make considerable efforts to filter out the effects of ‘popularity’ on credibility (real and perceived). By doing so, we create a system that provides diminishing returns for someone who follows the crowd.”
Even so, I suspect that Howtru ratings will still reflect whatever the predominant bias of the particular audience is, regardless of what the underlying facts may be (eg the same story posted on Fox will have a different rating than if it was published on The Economist). This is not to say that the users are disingenuous – rather that it is human nature to interpret information in a way that reflects one’s pre-conceived ideas – even if it means ignoring the elephant on your coffee table.