At beaches and pools you'll sometimes see a notice that reads “Lifeguard On Duty,” or more often, “No Lifeguard On Duty—Swim At Your Own Risk”. Recently Microsoft, originator of the Edge mobile browser, started including a feature in it called NewsGuard.
The user must activate it, but once he or she does, every news site that's been rated by NewsGuard (about 2000 so far) gets either a green checkmark or a red exclamation point. Green means the site has passed enough of the nine criteria NewsGuard uses to assess credibility and transparency to meet with their approval.
And of course, red means the site flunked. The example NewsGuard uses of a site that flunks is RT.com, which is operated by Russia but doesn't make that fact exactly obvious.
The fact that such an influential organization as Microsoft thought it was a good idea to include this third-party app (NewsGuard is an independent operation based in New York City) says something about the anxiety that tech and social media companies feel concerning the issues of fake news, divisiveness, and related matters.
Reasons for this are not hard to find. As we learned how Russia tried to influence the 2016 elections with fake social media accounts, we were bombarded with tweets from the Oval Office saying all sorts of things, some of which were actually true.
When Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg was called before Congress last spring concerning misuse of Facebook data by the research firm Cambridge Analytica, he appeared out of his depth when he was asked about the finer points of free speech and what his firm's responsibilities were with regard to spreading disinformation and falsehoods, as well as selling information on users that could be used in politically suspect ways.
On its own website, NewsGuard boasts that it employs “professional journalists,” not algorithms, to evaluate news sites. These journalists presumably sit around a table and debate whether a given site is hiding its true source of financing, for example (not always an easy thing to determine), or whether the news that shows up on it can be verified by independent and multiple sources.
This is nothing more than good journalism, or what used to be called good journalism. In an era when the word “viral” means something good, at least when it comes to news, “good” often substitutes for “popular,” but there's a big difference.
Here's where the philosopher's distinction between “objective” and “subjective” comes in handy. We have a sense that objective news is better than subjective news, but there's a problem with that.
As the late Mortimer Adler wrote, “We call something objective when it is the same for me, for you, and for anyone else. We call something subjective when it differs from one individual to another and when it is exclusively the possession of one individual and of no one else.”
By that criterion, there aren't that many objective news reports anywhere. Pictures of a solar eclipse, maybe—obituaries, at least with regard to the facts about a death. But maybe the late So-and-So was a nice person to you, but a real SOB to others.
Was he a nice guy or not? That's subjective, as is most of the news reported by even the most sober and responsible journalists, unless it's C-Span-type relaying of an event without any selection, editing, or other intervention by a third party.
So, saying some news sites are objective and others are subjective wouldn't get us very far. Instead, NewsGuard falls back on the distinction between truth and falsehood, and relies on sources other than the site itself to reveal falsehood.
But of course, those sources may not get it right either, whatever “right” means. The upshot of all this is that if you, as a NewsGuard evaluator of a website, find that most people and institutions you trust say that a thing is false or misleading, you're going to decide it's false or misleading, and you'll give that site a red “do not trust” rating.
The fear in some circles is that a liberal or other systematic bias may reveal itself in the ways that NewsGuard rates sites. And I'm sure that something like this will happen. Already RT.com has run a story saying that NewsGuard is “controversial”. It's understandable that the site used by NewsGuard itself on its own website as an example of a red-rated source, complains about the red rating.
The deeper question is whether the NewsGuard feature will make any difference to users. The hope is that the hapless passive consumer of news, who formerly was suckered into believing all kinds of claptrap, will now see the red rating on his favorite sites and will turn over a new leaf, avoiding places like Breitbart and the Drudge Report and becoming a more enlightened and useful citizen and voter.
To some, that's a hope. To others, that's a fear, which is why many news sources whose common characteristics are hard to discern, but may generally be classed as conservative (with exceptions), have expressed concern that the wide availaibility of NewsGuard will lead to some sort of discrimination against them.
If it's a problem, it's not one that I would personally spend a lot of sleepless nights over.
For one thing, NewsGuard doesn't keep you from viewing a site. It just tells you that there may be problems with it, and details the problems. In that sense, it's just a kind of fact-checker or background-provider, and I see no particular harm in that.
As long as using NewsGuard is voluntary, and as long as its ratings, or something similar, don't acquire the force of compulsion or law and succeed in banning sites altogether, it seems to me that the app can do more good than harm.
Of course, I haven't bothered to check whether they're rating my site, but I doubt that it's one of the top 2000 news sources that NewsGuard has inspected. We try to tell the truth here, but most readers know this blog mixes opinion with facts. For those who can't tell the difference, maybe NewsGuard will help.
Karl D. Stephan is a professor of electrical engineering at Texas State University in San Marcos, Texas. This article has been republished, with permission, from his blog Engineering Ethics, which is a MercatorNet partner site. His ebook Ethical and Otherwise: Engineering In the Headlines is available in Kindle format and also in the iTunes store.
Sources: I referred to the NewsGuard website athttps://www.newsguardtech.com/ and their nine criteria athttps://www.newsguardtech.com/ratings/criteria-for-and-explanation-of-ratings/. I also viewed the RT story on NewsGuard at https://www.rt.com/news/449530-newsguard-edge-browser-media-integrated/ and the Wikipedia article on NewsGuard. The quote by Mortimer Adler is from his Ten Philosophical Mistakes (New York: Collier, 1985), p. 9.