If EU-funded Pheme (and other future tech) can verify online credibility, the role of journalists changes again

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The idea of Pheme is to automate certain verification processes to make it easier, and faster, for journalists to use the social web effectively in a breaking news situation, when such platforms are often flooded with information.

…it will automatically assess sources according to their authority, such as news outlets, individual reporters, potential eye witnesses, or automated ‘bots.’ It will also look at the text of the tweet itself. As Dr Kalina Bontcheva of the University of Sheffield explained: “Is it emotionally loaded with swearwords or shouting – words in all caps? What kind of verbs are used? Is there any critical language? What are the emotions – are they angry?”

Read the full piece at Journalism.co.uk


Various recent articles like this one by Journalism.co.uk characterize the primary beneficiaries of an online social lie-detector as being the journalists. Whether that’s salesmanship or shortsightedness, one has to realize that such systems would be a huge boon to Internet users wholesale. They would drastically enhance the utility of a worldwide information sharing system that frankly most of us can’t completely trust right now because of all the out-of-date, innocently wrong or intentionally deceptive material we know is out there waiting to trip us up, even as we are forced to rely on it more and more. Such systems would also subsume yet another of the traditional roles of journalists in society and thereby free us — or force us, depending on your mindset — to further recast our raison d’être in the future.

The fact is that in a world with massive computing resources, essentially limitless amounts of reference information, and continually more intelligent algorithms to run against that reference information on those computing resources, identifying a fact from a fiction is mostly just a matter of digital analysis. It’s as simple and as complicated as that.

Give a computer a verified fact, such as 2+2=4 or that President Obama’s height is 6-feet 1-inch, and it can check each piece of information it comes across to see if it deviates from the known truth and alert you. Even when there is not a verified fact but perhaps a range of general agreement and disagreement, such as the identity of the armed men patrolling two airports in the Crimea region of the Ukraine, or whether being 6-feet 1-inch is tall, digital analysis can at least highlight that a piece of information is, in fact, in question. In those questionable cases, systems could give you a statistical likelihood of a statement’s accuracy or veracity based on telltale indicators such as those mentioned in the Journalism.co.uk piece on Pheme. If you prefer, systems can present you with what appear to be the most authoritative consensus points of view about the questionable information so that you can make up your own mind about it.p>

If all that sounds a lot like what some of what a journalist does, that’s because it is.

It used to be the journalist’s primary job to go find out what was happening and, in the process, ensure the information’s credibility. We were relays and in situ verifiers.

Today, however, it is nearly impossible for something of significance to occur anywhere that is not immediately reported to the world by multiple sources through social networks. Many journalists still prefer to go see it for themselves, but now that is often for the sake of expertise, brand or the excitement rather than to find out something no one already knows.

As a result of that dilution of the on-scene gathering mission for common news, in almost every discussion you hear these days about the future of journalism, credibility is seized upon as the issue of increasing importance and distinction. In satisfying their innate need to know, it’s argued, people logically prefer information they feel they can trust. The massive amounts of news and information being dumped on a person today through social media and other provisional sources often cry out for verification. So the conclusion is that verification is something professional journalists will be able to emphasize in order to differentiate ourselves — one might say even to justify ourselves — in the modern media ecology.

Pheme and its ilk portend that even journalism’s verification mission might eventually be performed in large part by technology, too. It’s low-hanging fruit in a digital sense — despite the complexities of determining what people mean by “tall.” If journalists were hoping to hold onto that part of their purpose just because it is familiar ground and they already have the mindset for it, they should think again and start looking deeper into society’s future information needs.

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