Truth and the Net

By Cory Doctorow

Newsworld Online site, fall 1997

Trusting what you read on the internet is a dangerous prospect, but it beats the alternative. At least on the internet, you get to choose your bias.

You can't trust what you read online. You can't trust what you read in the paper. You can't trust what you see on TV, or hear on the radio. You can't trust what your friend swears her brother's girlfriend said is true.

You can't trust anything – not with the gospel, bet-your-life trust that you reserve for things like gravity and death and your family.

You never could.

But for a long time, it sure seemed like you could. It seemed like any enterprise to which the CRTC gave a broadcast licence would surely conduct itself with dignity, fairness and accuracy. Anyone with the wherewithal to put a newspaper in your door in the morning, or get a magazine onto the stands surely wouldn't risk seeming wild or foolish by publishing untruths.

In hindsight, we know how wrong that was. Look at the CBC's infamous "Hippie Bill" segment where a young William Gibson (later to become a world-famous science fiction writer, but even then something of a storyteller) guided a gullible camera crew around the hippie paradise of Yorkville, inventing hippie argot and "facts" about the hippie lifestyle.

CBC.ca archives video: Yorkville Hippie haven, 1967

Look at how the New York Times omitted mention of Stephen Colbert's virtuoso performance at the 2006 White House Correspondents' Dinner, in which the comedian scorchingly denounced the press for its failure to address issues of moment in the Bush administration.

Consider the raft of woo-woo magazines advocating the use of crystal pyramids to improve gas-mileage, conspiracy books about alien abductions, racist monthly newspapers, nutjob talk-radio hosts, and the thousand other ways in which the truth is mangled, omitted, or reversed by the press. It's a truism that experts of all kinds wince when they see mainstream press coverage of their disciplines, anticipating the perennial clunkers, errors and mix-ups that characterize all generalist coverage of specialist subjects.

The most important difference between the internet and all the media that came before it is the cost of participation. On the internet, participation is pretty much free — or at least, it's in free-fall, with library terminals, cheap hardware, open WiFi and free training courses making the net available to ever-larger pools of people.

Almost anyone can participate. If having the money to run a publication was ever any kind of proxy for reliability, kiss it goodbye. You can't even count on a site's prominence as a barometer of its truthfulness. Wildly popular sites like the collaborative encyclopedia Wikipedia can be edited by anyone who comes upon them, anonymously, and those edits show up live the instant they're made.

Media scholar Clay Shirky calls the pre-internet era the "select, then publish" epoch. It was a time when industrialists hired editors to choose from among the pool of available accounts of the world and its workings and publish those that suited their taste best.

Now we're in the era of "publish, then select." Gone is the era of a few news outlets who divide the pool of advertising dollars into substantial chunks and use those chunks to staff a newsroom full of investigative reporters.

Good riddance. We've got something better in "publish, then select" land. Investigative bloggers like Kathryn Cramer — whose hobby is tracking the movements and deeds of mercenary armies — post their initial impressions of a story, with whatever details they've gleaned. A horde of readers converges on the post and sends her corrections, argument, accord, evidence, and opinion. Cramer sifts through this to find what she considers credible and coherent, and adds new posts. In this incremental fashion, a truth emerges. Not the only truth (lots of the subjects of Cramer's posts strenuously object to them and tell her so on her site and on their own), but a truth nevertheless.

Other collaborative projects like Wikipedia — an encyclopedia with more than one million entries that anyone can edit — go one further, deploying elaborate tool-suites so that readers can, with a little effort, see who contributed what to which Wikipedia posts and when. Wikipedia articles are just the surface, beneath which lurks a palimpsest, revealing the chatter, denunciations, and consensus-building that yielded the current version of the truth.

Wikipedia gets it wrong all the time. So do bloggers. But then, so do newspapers, magazines, TV and radio. The interesting thing about systems isn't how they perform when they're working to specification, it's what happens when they fail.

Blogs, Wikipedia, and other online media fail gracefully indeed. When a newspaper gets a story wrong, it can take 24 hours to get a correction out – if it corrects it at all. There's no ready way to link criticism of a newspaper article with the article itself. Certainly, you can't make the edits yourself.

But if you find an error in a Wikipedia entry, you can fix it yourself. You can join the discussion about whether a blogger got it wrong. Automated tools like Technorati link together all the different blogs discussing the same topic, turning them into a conversation.

As advertising dollars are gobbled up by Google, Craigslist and eBay, major media outlets are slashing their newsrooms and their editorial staff, making do with generic syndicated material off the wires, contracting "truth" to a few accounts, a few biases. Meanwhile, "citizen journalists" of publish-then-select are discovering that you can fact-check on the cheap, without a Chumcity or Torstar building behind you, provided you do so *after* you go to press.

The news isn't just something your audience/funders receive in completed parcels. It's something they come to understand by looking at the story from many angles, through a multiplicity of online sources. 

A public service broadcaster that wants to truly provide a service to the public can do better than merely producing yet another account of events. It can provide tools to help its audience explore the story as it emerges.

Imagine a future where "public service" news is a set of collaborative online tools that help citizens piece together coherent accounts of events as they unfold: message-boards that let you fly over to get the gist of the conversation, or drill down to see the nitty-gritty of individual discussions. Something that helped users create persistent identities through which their contributions could be permanently linked over time. Something that turned the news into a palimpsest where every buried body could be disinterred and examined for wounds.

Most of all, a public service broadcaster could be the repository for the raw materials of the news: public, freely reusable databases of geodata, audiovisual news morgues, and user-created AV materials that the broadcaster could host permanently in a stable archive. As public service broadcasters around the world developed comparable archives, these could be reciprocally linked, giving Canadians access to the BBC, Britons access to Deutsche Welle, Germans access to Radio France. If bloggers and other citizen journalists represent a future for newsgathering and reportage, public service entities like the CBC should be working to fill in the infrastructure gaps that presently stand between them and a well-rounded, wide-ranging, timely and balanced view of the news.

Meanwhile, it's not sloppiness that compels a blogger to publish before all the facts are in hand. The way a blogger gets all the facts on hand is by publishing, attracting a discussion, and figuring out what's really going on, as best as anyone can figure it.

It's a lot of work, getting to the truth. Reading the newspaper is easy. Choosing whose news to believe is hard — but if it's the truth you're after, and not just some dominant narrative du jour, there's no getting around it.

Do you share Cory Doctorow’s view about the truth of what you read online? Are "citizen journalists" making the online world more trustworthy?

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Cory Doctorow (www.craphound.com) was born in Toronto and lives in London, England. He is a science fiction novelist, blogger and technology activist and co-editor of the weblog Boing Boing (www.boingboing.net). Doctorow is a contributor to Wired, Popular Science, MAKE, the New York Times and other newspapers, magazines and websites. He is a former director of European affairs for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a non-profit civil liberties group that defends freedom in technology law, policy, standards and treaties. He currently serves on several boards and advisory boards including Participatory Culture Foundation and Technorati, Inc.

Doctorow was a keynote speaker at the CBC.ca Web Ed 2006 conference. He spoke on the limits of copyright online.