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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