Trust Economy: A Byproduct of the Fake News Era

Fake news and the trust industry

In the post-truth period where fake news and misinformation trust has become a coveted product and property. What to take and what not is one of the most difficult questions content consumers face today. Enter trust-rating agencies. 

In finance, we have the credit rating agencies. If you know them, you know what they do. Credit rating agencies give investors information on the trustworthiness of a financial instrument. They tell you whether companies or entities that issue bonds etc can meet their obligations; they tell you all that you want to know about sovereign debts and more.  The first credit rating agency appeared in the US in 1909. John Moody set it up as investors were making a big hue and cry for better information. One must note here that by the time the credit rating agencies started setting shop in the US, the bond markets were already in existence for over three centuries. This was a period when the financial markets were exploding and bad loans, toxic financial instruments and their ilk were starting to flood the markets. Reliable information was difficult to come by. Trust became a precious commodity. People were ready to pay for verified information that could help make their money safe.  

The information business is at a similar crossroad today. Fake news and misinformation have made reliable information a rarity. For those who want to place their bets on good content, this is a tough situation. Granted, you can always go by the brands. For instance, you know The New York Times provides you with accurate information, mostly. Or If you are a fan of The Guardian, you know you can trust it with the news you get from the source. But in the post-truth era, it is not that easy, to be frank. Even the biggest players in the media space are not able to vet their content and ensure quality. Like in the case of the financial industry, gaining trust is a big deal. 

‘Big deal’ means big business. Ensuring the content you receive is clean and clear is an industry now. Several companies now offer such services. If you are a regular reader of The Economist, you must have noticed of late that the British magazine’s online content has been carrying a virtual hallmark — NewsGuard Ratings. This means the content you read on The Economist is ‘verified and rated’ by the agency. 

The NewsGuard way of fighting fake news

What is NewsGuard? For starters, this is a US-based media content rating startup. It was set up in 2008 by senior journalists Steven Brill and Gordon Crovitz. They started by building a team of trained journalists who would review the most popular news sources in the US. There were 7,500 of them then. Together, these sites accounted for almost 98 per cent of the news articles read and shared in the English language online in the US. The startup provides reliability ratings and labels the websites based on the accuracy of the information they offer. The ratings come in three modes — Green, Yellow or Red.

Green means a website sticks to basic standards of credibility and transparency. Red says it has failed to meet basic standards of credibility and transparency. Satire, another rating, means this is not a real news website.  ‘Platform’ means a site primarily hosts user-generated content that it does not vet. These ratings help not only content consumers but advertisers and brands as well. It helps them pick the right medium. Fake news makes media planning a difficult exercise for most ad companies. 

NewsGuard’s rating criteria is fairly simple. They anchor on two broad factors: Credibility and Transparency. Under credibility, it has listed a bunch of factors. It makes sure the website does not repeatedly publish false content, gathers and presents information responsibly, regularly corrects or clarifies errors, handles the difference between news and opinion responsibly, and avoids deceptive headlines. The transparency tab carries three main components: Website discloses ownership and financing, it labels advertisements clearly; it reveals who’s in charge, including possible conflicts of interest and provides the names of content creators. 

The trust industry

But why should you trust NewsGuard with this rating? NewsGuard does not rely on algorithms to vet content. Human intelligence plays a big role. The NewsGuard team says their business model is built on extreme levels of transparency and the crew include veteran journalists. Users can check the credentials of the team and the company is run by a strict ethical guideline and conflicts of interest policy. The rating portal says it always seeks the opinion of the websites it rates and every piece of information is displayed publicly and handled transparently. 

NewsGuard is one of the many products that have mushroomed in the post-truth era, targeting the trust market. Products such as MediaRank, NuzzelRank, FeedSpot and AllYouCanRead are some of the many in the market now. Many of these use computational algorithms to rate and rank news. For instance, MediaRank, says its makers, “collects and analyzes one million news webpages and two million related tweets every day.” It bases the algorithmic analysis on four properties: “peer reputation, reporting bias/breadth, bottom-line financial pressure, and popularity.”

NuzzelRank is run by news aggregator Nuzzel. Its CEO Jonathan Abrams says the system replaces a more simplistic ranking with a sophisticated filtering process. It relies on three components. First, it uses data it already has. The news aggregator has information on reading behaviour of its users. Next, it tracks at “external signals about the engagement and authority of news sources.” The third process involves partnering with organisations such as the Trust Project and the Credibility Coalition and NewsGuard and, which uses machine learning and artificial intelligence to vet content. All signs suggest that fact-checking is also becoming a boutique industry, inviting investors and clients of myriad hues.

The hunt for the best tool

Still, no tool is perfect and 100 per cent reliable. But trust industry experts say the tools will get perfected on the go and a more synchronised and meticulous system will emerge, which will help us find a way out of the fake news mess.  Interestingly, trust is becoming a precious commodity across the business and social spectrum in the digital world observes author Philipp Kristian in his book ‘Trust Economy’.  But there is a problem, it seems. Just like how the credit rating industry has been colonised by the Big Three, the nimble start-ups offering the trust labels to news and news sources today can become powerful in the long run and start dictating terms with news sources, if the experience of the finance industry is an example. That means this is the right time to start formulating the future guidelines for the trust industry. 

Want to know more about the Trust Industry? Here’s an insightful essay from Slate

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