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Transparency: More on the value of an ethics seal

Over at the Idea Lab blog, where I’m one of many contributors, there was an interesting post last week with the title: “Finding Political Sleazemongers.” The post was written by Ellen Hume, research director of the Center for Future Civic Media at MIT.

Hume wrote about a project that she had started at MIT:

“I have invited researchers at MIT’s Center for Future Civic Media to participate in an effort to blow the whistle on groups who are falsely presenting themselves as “ordinary bloggers,” but instead are paid to spread false information about candidates during the 2008 campaign in viral internet campaigns to influence voters.”

But apparently, the project touched off a debate among her MIT colleagues about its approach. So she put two questions up for discussion:

“I would like to know what others think about this debate. Should we track down and expose people who pretend to be individuals, but in fact represent paid political opposition groups, who are sending out mass messages that are blatantly false and deliberately damaging to the character/issue at hand? Is it ok to track them down and simply expose them for who they really are and steer people to more verified sources of information on the subject at hand?”

I posted the following response in the comments section:


I think this touches on a critical issue we all face as the number of news and information sources multiply: How do we critically evaluate these sources so we know what information to trust?

This notion isn’t just limited to political discourse, but touches on all aspects of digital information. For instance, many corporations have embraced social media to spread marketing messages across the Web, a method that allows them to “recruit” all sorts of folks with big followings to build buzz for their products and services. But these social media gurus are not necessarily obligated to disclose a relationship with a company to their audience. Some do, some don’t.

I recently interviewed an executive at a company which provides a third-party commenting service for blogs and Web sites. They provide a number of tools to moderating comments and community interactions. As part of their service, if you’re starting some online forums, their employees will post in the forums, or seed them with questions, to make it appear to casual visitors that there’s a lot of conversation occurring. But they don’t identify themselves as employees. They may not be spreading any lies, but my instincts tell me that it doesn’t feel quite right.

So, you’re touching on some important issues. And I think any effort that helps people meet that challenge and critically evaluate sources is a noble and necessary one. That said, I think your approach is slightly off the mark.

First, I don’t think there is a “right to privacy in posting on the web.” You’re posting in public. Period. If you publish something online with the intention that it will be viewed by others (which would seem to be the intent of publishing any propaganda), and you choose to fake your name, then it’s totally legitimate for someone to point that out. I don’t see an ethical dilemma there or a privacy issue.

But, once you unmask this person, then what? There are two potential scenarios that meet the “outrage factor.” First, the person is fundamentally publishing information that is factual, but failing to disclose that they are being paid by a campaign. If the campaign is failing to disclose that the person is being paid, or attempts to lie about it, then there might be some outrage factor.

The bigger outrage would be if the information is fundamentally false, or misleading AND the source was being paid by the campaign. In both these cases, you have to do three things: Establish that the source is not disclosing their real identity; evaluate the quality and accuracy of the information; and determine there is a real connection to the campaign.

For me, the most useful part of all of this is the second piece: evaluating the quality and accuracy of the information. Fortunately, there are a lot of excellent efforts during this campaign to do that.

Beyond that, I think there is a more positive way to approach this problem. Patrick Thornton, who blogs at Journalism Iconoclast (http://patthorntonfiles.com/blog/) has a project underway to create an “online ethics seal.” The seal evaluates five different categories:

1. Sourcing
2. Objectivity/advocacy/opinion journalism or opinion
3. Linking
4. Copy editing/fact checking (does a second person fact check?)
5. Conflicts of Interests

What I like about the concept is that encourages disclosure and transparency, and rewards sites that embrace those values. The project is still in its early stages, but it’s worth checking out here:


However, keep please keep us posted on what the class decides to do and what it learns. If there’s a central site to follow their work, please let us know where to find it.

2 Responses

  1. Chris….the idea of a “seal of approval” will not work for a number of reasons. The first one being that the blogosphere is a vast place, and that you may miss many of the smaller corners. You would then be, tacitly anyway and unfairly, saying that the bloggers who have not heard about your “seal of approval” are somehow misleading others.Second, the idea of a “seal of approval” may not play well with certain political groups who are very active on the web, even if they support the general concept of ferriting out mis-communication. Concepts such as this, as well as media literacy and having a clearinghouse or uber-editor to help determine what is “good” journalism, are liberal concepts that some on the right side of the political isle eschew for many reasons. So, with a program like this, you may end up only “certifying” those bloggers who share your overall political beliefs while alienating others.Further, “ethics” conversations are occurring all over the web, and all over the conference circuit. We do not know who’s saying what and where they’re saying it (I’m working on a solution to this.) So, to think that all bloggers will agree, and all bloggers who are ethical or not misleading others will hear about this, or use it, would be difficult to determine.

  2. Tish:Thanks for the comment. You raise a lot of valid points. Let me just address a couple. Yes, the blogosphere is huge. But I don’t think not having the seal would necessarily reflect as a negative. Rather, I think it’s a positive incentive for folks to adopt certain practices in the interest of building trust and transparency.And the political aspect, yes, certainly it’s challenging. You’d need a wide community support for creating these guidelines and in essence enforcing it. But that said, I think Wikipedia has developed a good model for how this might work. There was tremendous controversy in that community over the editing of Sarah Palin’s bio which triggered all sorts of measures to moderate the debate. It’s not perfect, but it showed that the key is having a core community that is committed to the central idea of accuracy and fairness above their own political interests.Chris

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