New ways of bringing back lost authority

The Noe-know-know trinity was too amusing to let go of: We forgot the philosophy lesson and made it a running four-year joke. We could not foresee, back in 1995, how great a role that question would play in our generation’s lives.

Today, isolating what we can know from mere noise is becoming the essential art of the educated: the skill, amid our convoluted and cacophonous digital-global conversation, to resolve for ourselves what so many gatekeepers of truth once resolved for us.

The government analyst who earlier relied on moles and covert operatives and newspaper reports now has uncountable millions of Twitter bulletins and Flickr pictures, submitted by genuine witnesses, ill-meaning rival governments and other interested parties. The canvas grows rich, but who is to know what is intelligence and what is distortion?

The adolescent preparing his first research paper has so many new sources at his disposal. The guidelines, though, warn him to use ‘authoritative’ materials only. What qualifies? Is it dishonest for him not to mention Wikipedia, as the guidelines caution against doing, even though it is that site that leads him to so many of his primary sources?

And so on with the investor picking up posts on Twitter about a bankruptcy, forced to decide whether to sell or hold; with the reporter who sees online that a dictator has resigned and wonders whether to repeat the news on Twitter or confirm it first; with the fair-minded ideologue whose sources all tell him that president Barack Obama was born abroad, because those sources rely entirely on one another.

Bringing back trust

As we all know, a major consequence of technology over the last many years has been to erode institutions of authority and shelter us in bubbles of personal truths. But now a contrary trend is forming: a number of groups working to bring back some of the authority and trust that has been lost.

A prominent attempt is SwiftRiver, which is affiliated with Ushahidi, an internet platform of Kenyan origin that allows users to crowd-source real-time testimony during crises and then mounts the bits of testimony on a Google map.

SwiftRiver grew out of a problem of plenty. When Ushahidi’s map for the earthquake in Haiti went up, for example, information poured in, but it was information of varying quality levels: many fruitful tips on where to find survivors; some well-meaning tips with bad addresses; spam; outright misinformation.

The solution, Ushahidi’s managers decided, was not to go back to the old way of making crisis maps, with five people around the conference table of a UN bungalow, but rather to invent tools to sift full-blooded digital truths from digital half-truths and digital lies.

SwiftRiver, which now operates as a start-up within Ushahidi, has gone on to create those tools and make them available to the public. They give users various ways of curating and adding context to the information that others put online through social media. You can find out who is talking about a particular subject; or eliminate people from a feed if other reliable people in their country or industry never echo them; or see long-term reliability scores for people you follow.

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