Beyond Crypto Journalism: MySpace, digg And Trust Engines

I’ve had time to mull over the implications of my previous post on technological solutions to what ails journalism and have come to the conclusion that a solution based on high technology would ultimately fail for the same reason that PGP-based email encryption has failed to catch on in the world at large: it’s simply too complicated for the average user to interact with, let alone understand. The very notions of “key exchanges” and “signing” tend to be over users’ heads and questions such as “What do you mean, they have to send me a key first? Why can’t I just send them email and have it be encrypted without messing around with all that extra stuff?” While the concepts behind public key encryption are fundamentally sound and fairly easy to understand for computer science grads, they tend to be over the heads of average users. Still, I believe that the idea of using technology to enhance the trust relationship between the producers and consumers of news to be one within reach. If a high-tech solution is out of the question, though, what are we left with?
Then it struck me: simply leverage social network effects to make up for any technological shortcomings.
Three sites known for their exploitation of network effects immediately leapt to mind: digg, MySpace and Google. Each of these sites (and their corresponding technological underpinnings) rely upon users to build and make up for content and relationships that their systems would otherwise lack. digg allows users to both submit noteworthy content and vote for content that strikes them as interesting, allowing the stories that most people find interesting to “bubble to the top”. Blatant spam attempts, linkwhoring, repeat content, etc. tend to get “dugg” downwards, assuring that most digg readers never see the worst of the worst. MySpace offers users a chance to build a network of friends through simple invitations and gives a chance for all to see the networks each user has managed to collect. Google, through a set of algorithms they have spent millions of dollars and hundreds of thousands of man-hours in developing, peruses each site that it knows about, assigning each page a relative ranking (known as “Page Rank” – creative, I know) based upon the number and “strength” of links other Internet users have chosen to point to it. The cardinality of each link is used to give each page its own place in the hierarchy of the Web. Each of these models, particularly in some combination of the three, could be used to great effect in the furtherance of restoring trust in journalism.
Imagine a site where each reporter and source maintained a MySpace-esque profile page listing each and every user that has given their explicit trust to the news producer, couple that functionality with the ability for users to affect the actual news that gets top treatment ala digg, add in a distributed protocol of “trust links” or somesuch that would allow independant, average citizens (read: bloggers) to note their trust for certain authors. Bloggers and web content creators already obsess over Search Engine Optimization (SEO) – what would our news organizations look like if they similarly obsessed over their Trust Engine Optimization? Their Google Trust Rank? All of these notions use interface cues and concepts that are already widely-used by average Netizens of all stripes.
So, all that being said, how do we get the AP, Reuters, etc. to care about TEO?

Crypto Journalism

The recent spate of fake/unverifiable journalism (see: “Captain Jamil Hussein”, the Reuters fauxtography scandal, and the “fake-but-accurate” Bush TANG memos, among others) have gotten me thinking of how we, the average news consumers, can possibly trust the purveyors of information.
As Richard Landes put it in an address to the Herzliya security conference in Israel:

But all of this is not nearly good enough. The MSM are the eyes and ears of modern civil societies. Without them we cannot know what is going on outside of our personal sphere, with them we can make our democratic choices in elections, assess foreign policy, intervene humanely in the suffering around the globe. But as any paleontologist will tell you, any creature whose eyes and ears misinform it about the environment, will not long survive. So it is with our civic experiment: especially in this period, where predators grow increasingly bold: a MSM that misinforms us, betrays the very people it is supposed to serve.

We need to be able to trust our media to provide accurate, unbiased information. Since they have already done so much to lose our trust, what can they do to begin to earn it back? In the above-linked article, Landes suggests

[Our] advice to journalists, especially to the young ones. Be true to your profession – a noble one — not to your guild; to your standards and your readers – not your editors and your peer group. You move today in a drama akin to The Emperor’s New Clothes, where your guild plays the role of courtiers, insisting that the politically correct, post-colonial garment fits the situation magnificently. Your job is to provide information, as accurate and as relevant as possible. We, the citizens of a free society, will make our individual and collective decisions based on your reliable information. Do not prepackage and predigest our view of the world.
Break out of the pack. Pay attention to the compromises that violent intimidation demand, and be as honest as you can with your readers. And above all, blow the whistle. Break the shameful silence of omerta that has made of your “fourth estate” a rogue power that neither self-regulates nor accepts regulation.

In the wake of Landes’ article, I’ve found myself wondering: could there be a technological solution as well? I almost immediately thought of the public key encryption concept of a web of trust. The concept is simple: each user of public key encryption generates a unique ID, one that is inherently tied to their online/computing identity. Each user then seeks out other users (in many cases in “meatspace” at key-signing parties, as this increases the trustworthiness of the key exchange) to “sign” their key. As time goes on, each user’s key accumulates a great number of signatures, each of which inherently says that the signer trusts the signee. Each signature leaves what is essentially a watermark behind, allowing any future contact to verify the number and identity of the users that have chosen to give any individual their trust.
I think the applicability to the realm of journalism is evident, although it would most likely be incredibly difficult to implement, if not practically impossible. Still, I think it would be worth pursuing.
Each reporter ought to collect a PGP/GPG key (or a similar analog) from each of their sources, or, in the case of anonymous sources, assign them a key. Each of these sources could collect signatures from various and sundry journalists, other sources, etc. When the time came to post a story, the journalists responsible for the content ought to make the cryptographic key for each of their sources available to the public which would essentially allow the public to check the trustworthiness of a source almost instantly. Even if a source were committed to their anonymity, they could maintain a single key or a series of keys, each of which would obviously have a much lower “trustworthiness rating” than a named source, or at least one that has had enough time to collect a large number of signatures. Essentially, the public would be given a mostly fool-proof way to track not only the reliability of sources, but of the journalists themselves. Those prone to using anonymous sources (or sources with few key signatures) could have their own status as an unbiased observer immediately called into question.
Obviously, there are a lot of flaws to this sort of a plan, not the least of which is the fact that neither journalists nor sources would be very willing to undertake such a series of actions, but I think the upsides for news consumers are manifold. And ultimately, isn’t that what matters? Journalists should be serving the public, not an agenda. Otherwise, they’re nothing more than gussied-up propagandists, and that ultimately serves no one’s interests.
What do y’all think?