The Noisy Channel

 

Information Accountability

September 15th, 2008 · 7 Comments · General

The recent United Airlines stock fiasco triggered an expected wave of finger pointing. For those who didn’t follow the event, here is the executive summary:

    In the wee hours of Sunday, September 7th, The South Florida Sun-Sentinel (a subsidiary of the Tribune Company) included a link to an article entitled “UAL Files for Bankruptcy.” The link was legit, but the linked article didn’t carry its publication date in 2002. Then Google’s news bot picked up the article and automatically assigned it a current date. Furthermore, Google sent the link to anyone with an alert set up for news about United. Then, on Monday, September 8th, someone at Income Security Advisors saw the article in the results for a Google News search and sent it out on Bloomberg. The results are in the picture below, courtesy of Bloomberg by way of the New York Times.

    For anyone who wants all of the gory details, Google’s version of the story is here; the Tribune Company’s version is here.

I’ve spent the past week wondering about this event from an information access perspective. And then today I saw two interesting articles:

  • The first was a piece in BBC News about a speech by Sir Tim Berners-Lee expressing concern that the internet needs a way to help people separate rumor from real science. His examples included the fears about the Large Hadron Collider at CERN creating a black hole that would swallow up the earth (which isn’t quite the premise of Dan Brown’s Angels and Demons), and rumors that a vaccine given to children in Britain was harmful.
  • The second was a column in the New York Times about the dynamics of the US presidential campaign, where Adam Nagourney notes that “senior campaign aides say they are no longer sure what works, as they stumble through what has become a daily campaign fog, struggling to figure out what voters are paying attention to and, not incidentally, what they are even believing.”

I see a common thread here is that I’d like to call “information accountability.” I don’t mean this term in the sense of a recent CACM article about information privacy and sensitivity, but rather in a sense of information provenance and responsibility.

Whether we’re worrying about Google bombing, Google bowling, or what Gartner analyst Whit Andrews calls “denial-of-insight” attacks, our concern is that information often arrives with implicit authority. Despite the aphorism telling us “don’t believe everything you read,” most of us select news and information sources with some hope that they will be authoritative. Whether the motto is “all the news that’s fit to print” or “don’t be evil”, our choice of what we believe to be information sources is a necessary heuristic to avoid subjecting everything we read to endless skeptical inquiry.

But sometimes the most reputable news sources get it wrong. Or perhaps “wrong” is the wrong word. When newspapers reported that the FBI was treating Richard Jewell as a “person of interest” in the Centennial Olympic Park bombing (cf. “Olympic Park Bomber” Eric Robert Rudolph), they weren’t lying, but rather were communicating information from what they believed to be a reliable source. And, in turn the FBI may have been correctly doing its job, given the information they had. But there’s no question that Jewell suffered tremendously from his “trial by media” before his name was ultimately cleared.

It’s tempting to react to these information breakdowns with finger-pointing, to figure out who is accountable and, in as litigious a society as the United States, bring on the lawyers. Moreover, there clearly are cases where willful misinformation constitutes criminal defamation or fraud. But I think we need to be careful, especially in a world where information flows in a highly connected–and not necessary acyclic–social graph. Anyone who has played the children’s game of telephone knows that small communication errors can blow up rapidly, and that it’s difficult to partition blame fairly.

The simplest answer is that we are accountable for how we consume information: caveat lector. But this model seems overly simplistic, since our daily lives hinge our ability to consume information without such a skeptical eye that we can accept nothing at face value. Besides, shouldn’t we hold information providers responsible for living up the reputations they cultivate and promote?

There are no easy answers here. But the bad news is that we cannot ignore the questions of information accountability. If terms like “social media” and “web 2.0″ mean anything, they surely tell us that the game of telephone will only grow in the number of participants and in the complexity of the communication chains. As a society, we will have to learn to live with and mitigate the fallout.

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