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On the Future of Journalism. On the Future of Trust.

The issue of trust and credibility in journalism has experienced a revitalization in recent weeks.

It first gained momentum as western journalists were forced out of Syria, and our only sources of information from inside the violence-ridden nation’s borders became the citizen journalists and activists, such as CNN’s source, Daniel. Then, of course, Public Radio International’s This American Life came out with its now-famous ‘Retraction‘ episode, in which host Ira Glass walked us through the fabrications and exaggerations of monologist/actor Mike Daisey’s trip to China, where he claimed to find obscene abuses of employees in the nation’s Apple supply-chain factories.

Now, as things continue to heat up in Syria and international attention remains fixed on the nation’s events, it is perhaps more important than ever that external news organizations find new ways of verifying the material they wish to use in their coverage.

Last Friday I spoke with Mike Giglio, a Newsweek reporter writing a story on the difficulties foreign correspondents face in trusting citizen journalists and activists in Syria, especially in light of some of the controversies arising in recent weeks. We chatted a bit on how so much of journalism and the relay of information is built upon a complex web of trust, and how, when one person is exposed as a fabricator, the entire web is shaken. And weakened.

This is an issue to which I’ve dedicated a good amount of time and attention in recent years. As a graduate student at Arizona State University’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication, I spent almost the entirety of my Capstone semester at the Knight Center for Digital Media Entrepreneurship, where I researched the determinants of trust and credibility under the instruction of the Silicon Valley technology writer, columnist and professor, Dan Gillmor.

My research eventually led me to online social networks, where various systems of trust and ways of quantifying social capital have already started to take shape. Most of us have participated on a social network in which each bit of information a user puts out there — be it a comment, a link, or a video — is given a vote of confidence or agreement from fellow users who respond positively to it, or a vote of mistrust or disagreement with those who do not. On YouTube, for instance, users can ‘like’ or ‘dislike’ videos that they watch. On Facebook, posts and comments can be ‘liked’ by fellow users. Look at the bottom of this page, in fact, and you’ll find that you can give your vote of agreement or disagreement with this article.

Now, in most social networks, users merely vote on the credibility (or, more often, the agreeability) of each fact/piece of information posted on the network, as opposed to voting on the credibility of the user actually posting the information.

But should that be the case? Or could we take it a step further? Can’t the credibility of each particular fact/piece of information a person puts out into the world serve as both a stand-alone, verifiable fact, as well as a single element in the entire body of work that helps to define the credibility, or social capital, of the person who put the info out there?

Take a look at the “Karma” system on Reddit, or “TEDCred” on TED.com.  These are perfect examples in which votes of confidence from fellow users can serve as a reflection of each user’s entire body of work in that network.

This kind of system in which we can quantify one another’s social capital is, to me, quite promising, and I don’t think that we have fully explored the benefits that it has to offer. We’re talking about the potential to literally quantify one another’s trustworthiness within a particular community. On a more granular level, we’re talking about the potential to determine the most trusted voices (and to visualize the flow of information and trust) on every particular topic — from fly fishing to global economics.

Now, I understand that we’re still faced with the difficulties of verifying each particular piece of information (or, for journalists covering Syria, each particular video) we receive, but I believe that, as we develop more advanced methods for verifying material, the real potential will lie in how these verified bits of information reflect on the people who create them.

One of the main problems with the Internet and trust has always been that, in a sea of voices, it’s only the screamers who are ever heard. When I look at these systems for quantifying social capital, I see a tool that that will allow us to reward those who put out the most factually accurate/pertinent information by raising their voices up from the screaming ether of the Internet.

A lot of the recent dialogue on credibility brings to mind the idea of ‘branding’, and of any one person’s ability to accrue social capital through his or her Twitter account and/or Facebook posts. Syrian activists dedicated equally to their cause and to the facts are finding that their following continues to increase. This comes very much hand-in-hand with the systems of social capital outlined above.

The most well-versed of Twitter users and citizen journalists know that their credibility is contingent not just on any one-shot bit of information they put out into the world, but on the entire body of their work. Many also understand that, while it can take a very long time to build up one’s credibility, it only takes one slip to lose it all.

As we continue to explore different methods for quantifying credibility in social networks, it is my belief that journalists are going to start to find that they can put these very tools and methods used on every-day social networking sites to their own goals in determining the credibility of their sources.

Social Media Chimps is dedicated both to improving upon networks of trust in social networks and journalism, and to improving the generalized sense of trust in society as a whole. If you would like to join us in these efforts, please feel free to comment below, or to contact us

For those of you interested in reading more on credibility and trust, I would suggest Cory Doctorow‘s exploration of social capital, called ‘whuffie’, in his sci-fi book, “Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom.”

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