John Palfrey: So, it's my great pleasure to introduce to you Urs Gasser. Ur is someone who has been with the Berkman Center for a long time now. We're extremely lucky that he is our Executive Director. He was a professor at the University of Saint Gallen and an expert in what we think of as information law. He also comes from a tradition of studying this matter from a methodology that's actually somewhat distinct from the way that we study information and the way we study Internet and technology. So we're incredibly lucky that he is both our Executive Director and a great expert on this. This is his core topic of information quality. He's going to run us through a very brief presentation, and then I will turn it over to Ethan Zuckerman, our close colleague from MIT Center for Civic Media. Professor Gasser, thank you.


Urs Gasser: Thank you so much. Good after­noon. Welcome back. As John men­tioned this is some­how a dream come true for me. The top­ic of infor­ma­tion qual­i­ty has been one of my pet top­ics for many years, so I’m real­ly excit­ed that you’re all com­ing togeth­er here today.

I would like to thank first our col­leagues and friends at the Ford Foundation for mak­ing this pos­si­ble. But then of course also our col­leagues and friends, in par­tic­u­lar Ethan, over at MIT. I’m thrilled that over the next few years we will for sure strength­en our col­lab­o­ra­tion, and I think this is a ter­rif­ic start. So thank you Ethan to you and your team.

And then final­ly of course also thanks to the Berkman team for pulling this togeth­er, after espe­cial­ly last week’s event with Lady Gaga, which was kind of quite a chal­lenge for us. And a big thank [you] espe­cial­ly to Susan, who did a great job mod­er­at­ing the morn­ing ses­sion. Thank you Susan for that.

So what I would like to do over the next few min­utes is real­ly to do two things. First of all to high­light some of my key find­ings from this morn­ing. I’m sure you have many oth­ers to add, so this is kind of just one inter­pre­ta­tion of what I’ve heard. And to try to map these insights on this kind of emerg­ing the­o­ry of infor­ma­tion qual­i­ty which as John men­tioned is more of a European frame or approach to the top­ic here.

I’d like to clus­ter my thoughts and struc­ture them into four cat­e­gories. One is what I will call foun­da­tion­al issues. Second, a few words and obser­va­tions regard­ing meth­ods. Third, a few areas of appli­ca­tion that we touched upon this morn­ing, and maybe also high­light­ing one or two that we haven’t talked so much about but that I think are increas­ing­ly impor­tant. And then final­ly also as a segue to the fol­low­ing ses­sions, a few words about poten­tial points of inter­ven­tion.

But before I do that just a very quick ques­tion or provo­ca­tion. Why do we have this con­ver­sa­tion right now about truthi­ness, about truth in the dig­i­tal net­worked envi­ron­ment? I remem­ber dis­tinct­ly when I arrived here rough­ly ten years ago, infor­ma­tion qual­i­ty was not a very pop­u­lar top­ic here. Actually no one was real­ly inter­est­ed in it, so again I’m real­ly glad to see so many col­leagues here today at the law school com­ing togeth­er.

And it’s real­ly a ques­tion, why do we talk about that today, the ques­tion of truth online? I offer three pos­si­ble expla­na­tions. One is that we feel col­lec­tive­ly that it’s time to read­just our nav­i­ga­tion sys­tems, as we are con­front­ed with a new a tech­nol­o­gy but also of course with new play­ers or inter­me­di­aries dis­ap­pear­ing and new inter­me­di­aries enter­ing the infor­ma­tion ecosys­tem. We’ve cov­ered a lot of that ground this morn­ing.

A sec­ond pos­si­ble expla­na­tion why we have the con­ver­sa­tion about qual­i­ty of our infor­ma­tion ecosys­tem now from that par­tic­u­lar angle may be the under­stand­ing of pow­er of mis­in­for­ma­tion. As it was not­ed this morn­ing, we even start­ed wars based on mis­in­for­ma­tion recent­ly.

And final­ly and that’s per­haps more a European provo­ca­tion, it’s not so clear to me whether the diverse ecosys­tem that we have today, the diverse infor­ma­tion envi­ron­ment that we live in, pro­duces always good out­comes, nec­es­sar­i­ly and auto­mat­i­cal­ly. So whether this vision and idea of just cre­ate enough speak­ers and enough infor­ma­tion sources and then the mar­ket­place of ideas, through this kind of invis­i­ble mech­a­nism, will lead to the truth and to the good out­comes, that this trust may be erod­ed in today’s envi­ron­ment.

So these are I think three offer­ings from my per­son­al per­spec­tive.

But now, switch­ing to a sum­ma­ry and map­ping mode, first we’ve got the reminder from our col­league from the Kennedy School this morn­ing that we should be more spe­cif­ic about the lan­guage you use about def­i­n­i­tions. I’ve heard a cou­ple of things this morn­ing that were extreme­ly help­ful in clar­i­fy­ing my own think­ing. We had dif­fer­ent notions of infor­ma­tion actu­al­ly that were used, some­times infor­ma­tion as bits and bytes. The raw data that we are con­cerned about, the qual­i­ty of the raw data but then of course also about infor­ma­tion as mes­sage and effects. Some of the things Yochai was talk­ing about. We also cov­ered I think dif­fer­ent types and addressed the nuances between dif­fer­ent types of infor­ma­tion. We talked about fac­tu­al infor­ma­tion, but of course also opin­ions and beliefs. So I tru­ly believe also from a the­o­ret­i­cal per­spec­tive it’s very impor­tant to dis­tin­guish these nuances.

One oth­er thing I want to high­light here is real­ly what I liked so much about this morning’s con­ver­sa­tion is that we have been rethink­ing in many ways the infor­ma­tion mod­el and infor­ma­tion flow mod­el. So the ques­tion how we are exposed to infor­ma­tion, or actu­al­ly how we find the infor­ma­tion, be it through search engines, be it through brows­ing, plays very much a role of course in this con­ver­sa­tion. So it’s no longer that we just are exposed to infor­ma­tion that some­one has select­ed for us. And to see search as part of the infor­ma­tion process that has a rel­e­vance with regard to truth and qual­i­ty and truthi­ness as one qual­i­ty cri­te­ria I think is impor­tant.

Also the recre­ation and reuse part that we inter­act with infor­ma­tion, with dig­i­tal con­tent. And that this again shapes our skills and abil­i­ty to make qual­i­ty judg­ments. So I real­ly like this enriched mod­el of infor­ma­tion flow that is very dif­fer­ent from the con­ver­sa­tions we had even fif­teen years ago with focus of news­pa­pers. So I tru­ly think this reflects the shift from an ana­log to a tru­ly dig­i­tal mod­el, this kind of more nuanced under­stand­ing of how we inter­act with infor­ma­tion.

Just anoth­er quick obser­va­tion point from this morn­ing. Truthiness or truth have been two of the qual­i­ty cri­te­ria we men­tioned a lot. There were oth­ers men­tioned, for instance cor­rect­ness of infor­ma­tion, infor­ma­tion that is not mis­lead­ing. And I think indeed there are a broad range of infor­ma­tion qual­i­ty cri­te­ria we could also look at in the con­text of our con­ver­sa­tion today.

One col­league of mine did a map­ping and came up with sev­en­ty dif­fer­ent qual­i­ty cri­te­ria. Some of them again more on the sub­jec­tive side, where your pre­vi­ous knowl­edge for instance plays a big role, or some of the sub­jec­tive fac­tors we talked [about] today, and some of them more on the objec­tive side. But either way. Also the acknowl­edg­ment this morn­ing that con­text mat­ters so much when we talk about these qual­i­ty cri­te­ria, be it truthi­ness or be it cor­rect­ness of infor­ma­tion.

A sec­ond out­come cer­tain­ly of this morning’s ses­sion, what are key fac­tors of influ­ence? And I just list­ed a few here. Of course the new actors that are shap­ing our infor­ma­tion expe­ri­ences online, we’ve put a lot of empha­sis on that. Not so much, actually—and I’m a lit­tle bit sur­prised by that—we didn’t talk so much about social net­work­ing sites. But maybe we’ll come back to that lat­er this after­noon. Search engines have been cer­tain­ly men­tioned.

Economic fac­tors have been addressed. Arguably one could make the case that in the atten­tion econ­o­my, the incen­tives for mis­in­for­ma­tion may actu­al­ly grow. We also talked quite a bit about the tech­no­log­i­cal fac­tors, the log­ic of dis­tri­b­u­tion as well as aggre­ga­tion net­work effects, affect the cur­rent infor­ma­tion ecosys­tem in a way that is direct­ly rel­e­vant with respect to the notion of qual­i­ty.

Then in the lat­er part of the morn­ing of course, the dis­cus­sion of the impor­tance of the human or psy­cho­log­i­cal fac­tors, some of them even hard‐wired. The role of emo­tion, the role of the amyg­dala in our brain, right. But that some of them of course also through learned behav­ior and social­iza­tion, cul­tur­al bias­es, and oth­er aspects were help­ful­ly high­light­ed this morn­ing, and per­haps we can think about and brain­storm about tools and design choic­es that shake things up a lit­tle bit, espe­cial­ly where it’s more learned behav­ior rather than hard‐wired biol­o­gy.

Charlie made a great point on the impor­tance of the legal sys­tem, how the legal envi­ron­ment shapes, actu­al­ly, the notion of truth and oth­er qual­i­ty cri­te­ria in a very direct way, but there are also indi­rect ways in which law shapes our info qual­i­ty envi­ron­ment.

One thing I want to add or high­light is the Data Quality Act. You didn’t men­tion that this morn­ing, but that’s a piece of leg­is­la­tion that applies to fed­er­al agen­cies and tries to reg­u­late the qual­i­ty of infor­ma­tion and data these agen­cies put out there. And if you go back to this idea of open data and open gov­ern­ment you see the rel­e­vance of that. That’s just kind of as a foot­note, an inter­est­ing way in which law can actu­al­ly be help­ful some­times. Although, Herbert Burkert, my friend, sum­ma­rized it at a dif­fer­ent con­fer­ence that infor­ma­tion qual­i­ty is a top­ic best to be avoid­ed by law.

A few words on meth­ods. What is real­ly different—and actu­al­ly the stuff in ital­ic is what I think has changed in the dig­i­tal envi­ron­ment is we have dif­fer­ent meth­ods and tools and tech­niques avail­able to under­stand the phe­nom­e­na we’re dis­cussing today. Yochai with his team did a great pre­sen­ta­tion, how we can track the flow of infor­ma­tion over time. How we can map and ana­lyze rela­tion­ships. Of course the Truthy tool that he had is a sim­i­lar idea. I think that was not pos­si­ble to the same extent, or at the same scale at least, in the paper world.

But of course also as we learned this morn­ing and Wendell start­ed with the provo­ca­tion, the tools and tech­niques of manip­u­la­tion have also changed, and of mis­in­for­ma­tion.

And final­ly, and I will return to that on the last slide, of course also the meth­ods of inter­ven­tion, what you can do about it. We had sev­er­al great ideas and start­ing points for sure addressed this morn­ing.

Very briefly only, our areas of appli­ca­tion. Where truth mat­ters and still mat­ters. Of course there are many areas we could look into, and giv­en the con­tex­tu­al­i­ty of the infor­ma­tion phe­nom­e­non, I argue it’s real­ly impor­tant to not only have these kind of hor­i­zon­tal con­ver­sa­tions as we have it today, but get sector‐specific, so to speak, and look into dif­fer­ent areas.

Of course today we have a cer­tain empha­sis on news and polit­i­cal infor­ma­tion. We’ve also addressed the ques­tion of sci­ence and pol­i­cy­mak­ing, and the impor­tance of main­tain­ing qual­i­ty in those debates. Trade and com­merce are anoth­er impor­tant area. We talked a lit­tle bit, Kathleen addressed the adver­tise­ment issue. One that I would add is per­son­al infor­ma­tion, per­son­al well‐being, as includ­ing health infor­ma­tion. That is a key area where arguably these qual­i­ty con­sid­er­a­tions are extreme­ly impor­tant. Again, last week we we had here this con­fer­ence on cyber­bul­ly­ing and oth­er forms of prob­lem­at­ic behav­ior online. And there again you see the rel­e­vance of the same type of ques­tion about the qual­i­ty of per­son­al infor­ma­tion.

Finally, inter­ven­tion points. (Finally in terms of the sum­ma­ry.) It’s almost fol­low­ing the Lessig frame­work, four modes of reg­u­la­tion with of course tech­no­log­i­cal means, and tomor­row is the hackathon. We will cer­tain­ly exper­i­ment with that. Can we cre­ate fil­ters, aggre­ga­tion tools? How help­ful can visu­al­iza­tion tech­niques be to address some of the chal­lenges to sort through the truthi­ness prob­lem? What are nav­i­ga­tion aids for cyber­space?

But then also anoth­er key area we high­light­ed this morn­ing, the role of human beings. The role of actu­al­ly peo­ple doing fact‐checking. The poten­tial and pow­er of large‐scale coop­er­a­tion. Peer review, men­tioned by Yochai again. But also the role of edu­ca­tion and train­ing of jour­nal­ists. But young peo­ple more broad­ly. And Denise wrote a great piece on the blog lead­ing up to this con­fer­ence on this top­ic.

Of course there may be also an emerg­ing mar­ket for truth. NGOs are play­ing a big role in that, sup­port­ed through foun­da­tions of course. New types of infor­ma­tion bro­kers emerge, because obvi­ous­ly accu­rate infor­ma­tion has a high val­ue. So again there is a broad range of instru­ments and also oppor­tu­ni­ties to think cre­ative­ly about the use of mar­ket forces and the incen­tives avail­able. We iden­ti­fied some of them.

And of course also final­ly, being at a law school some legal top­ics and legal strate­gies, despite Herbert Burkert’s words of warn­ing, truth in advertising—regulation seems to be kind of one pos­si­ble con­tri­bu­tion. Privacy laws and also look­ing at the recent White House roadmap with a poten­tial right to cor­rect infor­ma­tion if it’s not cor­rect per­son­al infor­ma­tion. These are pos­si­ble tools and instru­ments in the tool­box.

Last slide, chal­lenges ahead. Now, from a research per­spec­tive first, this morn­ing con­firmed my at least work­ing hypoth­e­sis that we have a rel­a­tive­ly good under­stand­ing already, and insights into var­i­ous bits and pieces that are high­ly rel­e­vant. So take for instance what we know about the psy­chol­o­gy of infor­ma­tion pro­cess­ing, or about net­work analy­sis. What we know about how for instance infor­ma­tion trav­els in social net­work­ing sites.

But bring­ing these things togeth­er and devel­op­ing some sort of holis­tic view and work towards a more com­pre­hen­sive under­stand­ing and under­stand also the inter­play among the fac­tors, includ­ing trade­offs, seems to be a research chal­lenge.

Second chal­lenge. I would encour­age all of us to think both strate­gi­cal­ly as well as prag­mat­i­cal­ly about where can we make a dif­fer­ence? Where can we improve the cur­rent ecosys­tem? And what are strate­gies that we can apply longer‐term? I would argue both one and two require the cre­ation of spaces for exper­i­men­ta­tion and learn­ing, and also spaces where activists and researchers can meet and think togeth­er. And in that sense I believe today’s con­fer­ence has been a great start­ing point, so thank you for being here.

Further Reference

Truthiness in Digital Media event site


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