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I tested a new filter for fake and biased news and here’s what I learned

AdBlock Plus teamed up with fact-checking groups to build a browser plug-in and a database that flags suspicious news sites, but some calls are hard to make.

I tested a new filter for fake and biased news and here’s what I learned
[Photo: John Sting/Unsplash]

From alien abductions to 9/11 conspiracies, bogus news has been a staple of the media for generations, if not centuries. But “fake news,” which became a household word during the 2016 election, represents a dangerous new level of mendacity. Saying that Barack Obama was born in Kenya is nearly as silly as saying that aliens are secretly replacing humans with replicants. Except a lot more people believed the “birther” story, whose chief proponent became the U.S. president.

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As with hate speech and harassment, people are eyeing technology to help solve the fake news problem. The latest attempt, debuting today, is a curious marriage joining fact-check organizations like Politifact and Snopes with Eyeo, maker of online ad-zapping software AdBlock Plus.

Far right and left sites often get the Untrustworthy designation. [Screenshot: Sean Captain]
The Trusted News extension, now available in beta for the Chrome web browser (with others coming later), labels news (or “news”) sites with color-coded symbols, such as a green checkmark for “Trustworthy,” a cursor in a bull’s-eye for “Clickbait,” and an orange exclamation point for “Untrustworthy.” I tested the extension against news sites on the excellent Media Bias Chart maintained by the site All Generalizations Are False.

There weren’t many surprises at first. Infowars, whose founder Alex Jones has insisted that the Sandy Hook school massacre was a hoax, gets an exclamation point. The Wall Street Journal gets a checkmark.

My opinion is that you’re biased

Matters get messier with other labels, especially “Biased.” A pop-up in the Trusted News extension describes the term, saying, “This website contains politically biased content or promotes unproven or skewed views.” Breitbart–funded by the right-wing activist Mercer family–is labeled as biased, which seems reasonable. But highly opinionated Fox News is called “Trustworthy,” as are hard-left leaning sites like Daily Kos and MSNBC.

Despite his Rainman-like muttering of “fair and balanced,” Fox’s Bill O’Reilly showed little to no sign of either, but neither did MSNBC’s Keith Olbermann. The current top hosts of each network, Sean Hannity and Rachel Maddow, also come from diametrically opposed directions.

Can bias be legitimate or illegitimate? [Screenshot: Sean Captain]
“Biased” may be too gentle a term for Hannity, who is in constant contact with President Trump and infamously peddled the conspiracy theory that the Democratic National Committee assassinated one of its own, Seth Rich, for sharing internal emails with WikiLeaks. (Fox News, which has been sued by Rich’s parents, retracted the story last year and vowed to investigate the matter further, but has yet to issue an update.) That’s the hazard of having one label for an entire media company. Most of what Fox reports is true, and some of that news isn’t biased, but the network does sometimes promote “unproven or skewed views.”

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The Media Bias Chart has more nuance–for instance, putting MSNBC in the “Fair interpretations of the news” range (emphasis mine). However, it sits close on the chart to the “Unfair interpretations” section, home to Daily Kos and Alternet. Fox News, meanwhile, straddles the line between “Unfair” and “Nonsense damaging to public discourse.”

Buzzwords to the rescue?

In fairness, Trusted News is in beta, and it provides a mechanism for users who spot anomalies to help fix them. Eyeo is utilizing a collaborative technology called the MetaCert Protocol. It was originally created as a freely available database of websites and other online resources that pose security or scam threats, and is used to help plug-ins for programs like messaging apps prevent people from accessing dangerous content.

With Trusted News, the protocol expands to flagging websites that peddle bogus and biased news information. Trusted News uses the MetaCert Protocol to accept information from fact-checking groups like Snopes. But it also supports crowdsourcing, allowing individuals to help refine ratings–or simply create them. It could use that input: Trusted News returns the response “Insufficient Data” for several prominent sites on the left and right, from contentions ones like The Intercept and the Conservative Tribune, to more mainstream sites like Axios and the Weekly Standard.

Computers don’t always get satire. [Screenshot: Sean Captain]
This being 2018, there is, naturally, a blockchain angle. The MetaCert Protocol is moving from a traditional centralized database to a distributed, encrypted ledger. Contributors will be awarded cryptocurrency tokens that establish their status in the effort.

You’d be forgiven for thinking that the blockchain-ization of this system would fall under the “Satire” label, which Trusted News applies to some humorous sites, like The Onion. But the system misses several other satirical sites like the Business Standard News (prominently abbreviated “BS”), affixing the “Untrustworthy” warning to a site with bonkers headlines, such as “WH Leaker: Trump Wanted Judge Judy for Supreme Court Because She’s ‘Tough on Blacks.'” Remember, the project is in beta.

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About the author

Sean Captain is a Bay Area technology, science, and policy journalist. Follow him on Twitter @seancaptain.

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