Gatekeeping, Moderation, and Conspiracies

Hand-crafted fact-checking matters in an algorithmic world.

April 1, 2018

Fact-checking by ProPublica

Image courtesy of ProPublica.

It’s International Fact-Checking Day, a project of the Poynter Institute. What a quaint concept! It’s intrinsic to good journalism, but it can’t be done by algorithm or en masse – it’s lovingly hand-crafted work in pursuit of nailing down something that’s often ambiguous and needs to be considered in context and without confirmation bias. In an era when the deadline is eternally now (newspapers are no longer put to bed, they have to be up and at ‘em 24/7) and lies travel to the top of Google search results before the truth can get its pants on, there’s little time to check the facts and few staff to do.

The efforts librarians and media literacy folks have launched to help citizens sort it all out are needed, but outsourcing the work to individuals isn’t a solution any more than privacy self-defense is the fix for surveillance capitalism. Yes, we need to know how to weigh information we encounter every day, but we also need to acknowledge that it’s coming at us fast and at volume. We need some quality fact-checkers working in critical places, which means we need to support trustworthy human gatekeepers.

In journalism, that means findings ways to do what ProPublica does to make sure their investigative reporting is sound and dig in against the trend to jazz up stories to drive digital ad revenue. In science and scholarship, it means slowing down to do the job right in spite of pressure to publish at high volume, avoiding the urge to rush headline-catching studies out, and rewarding replication efforts instead of treating them as unpublishable and insignificant. We also need to cultivate a culture where issuing a correction doesn’t lead to wholesale claims that nothing journalists or scientists do should be trusted.

Meanwhile, without much notice because our outrage-o-meter burned out due to overuse and too much news is coming at us too fast (what? A lawmaker in Minnesota is proposing the state create a registry of people with autism? Seriously, Twitter? Oh dear lord it’s true), the House and Senate have passed bills allegedly to stop sex trafficking. FOSTA and SESTA will make the people it allegedly protects less safe while also telling tech companies they’d better start cracking down on content. I’m not sure if it’s a reaction to Facebook’s stock dive, to reactions to trolling on Xbox, to this bill, or what but Microsoft apparently will monitor use of Skype, Xbox and Office (Office?!?) starting in May. "Don’t publicly display or use the Services to share inappropriate content or material (involving, for example, nudity, bestiality, pornography, offensive language, graphic violence, or criminal activity)” the new terms state. I heard about this from a crime fiction writer who wonders if the offensive language, sex scenes, and violence in her fiction will get her into trouble. I’m pretty sure Microsoft doesn’t have thriller writers in mind, but the policy is worryingly broad.

As social media companies have learned the hard way, content moderation is hard. and being a gatekeeper is both expensive and fraught. That’s why Facebook denies it’s a content company, it’s just a platform for sharing, but given how influential the platform is globally that no longer lets them off the hook.

In this weird world of disputed facts and alternative truth, conspiracy theories have particular appeal. They provide a flexibly coherent narrative that ties all the doubts and uncertainties together into a compelling story that can’t be disproven because gatekeepers are part of the conspiracy. The relaunch of Roseanne has surfaced a Pizzagate-style metanarrative about the evil pedophile Democratic deep state that would probably have stayed in the shadows if she wasn’t in the news.

It reminded me that she, like a lot of Americans, bought into the Satanic ritual abuse moral panic of the 1980s, something I wrote about the year before Facebook was invented by a Harvard undergraduate. The web was relatively new and faculty weren’t sure how to help students evaluate what they found there. I argued understanding the wider information landscape was an essential part of information literacy – where do all these sources come from? How are they vetted? How can students get enough practice handling information that they get the hang of it?That problem has only become more complex and more pressing as time goes on.

Hurrah for fact-checkers and for systems that support them. We need them more than ever.


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