It’s harder to find news these days. On the one hand, there’s news everywhere you turn. Shrieking at you. On the other, we’re each in a bubble. Articles are rushed out to get clicks; everything’s got a political slant in one direction or another. This is not new. But it does feel like it’s getting worse.
It’s being recognised, though. Buzzfeed have just launched a thing called “Outside Your Bubble“, an admirable effort to “give our audience a glimpse at what’s happening outside their own social media spaces”; basically, it’s a list of links to views for and against at the bottom of certain articles. Boris Smus just wrote up an idea to add easily-digestible sparkline graphs to news articles which provide context to the numbers quoted. There have long been services like Channel 4’s FactCheck and AllSides which try to correct errors in published articles or give a balanced view of the news. Matt Kiser’s WTF Just Happened Today tries to summarise, and there are others.
(Aside: I am bloody sure that there’s an xkcd or similar about the idea of the quiet voice, where when someone uses a statistic on telly, the quiet voice says “that’s actually only 2% higher than it was under the last president” or something. But I cannot for the life of me find it. Help.)
So here’s what I’d like.
I want a thing I can install. A browser extension or something. And when I view an article, I get context and viewpoint on it. If the article says “Trump’s approval rating is 38%”, the extension highlights it and says “other sources say it’s 45% (link)” and “here’s a list of other presidents’ approval ratings at this point in their terms” and “here’s a link to an argument on why it’s this number”. When the article says “the UK doesn’t have enough trade negotiators to set up trade deals” there’s a link to an article claiming that that isn’t a problem and explaining why. If it says “NHS wait times are now longer than they’ve ever been” there’s a graph showing what this response times are, and linking to a study showing that NHS funding is dropping faster than response times are. An article saying that X billion is spent on foreign aid gets a note on how much that costs each taxpayer, what proportion of the budget it is, how much people think it is. It provides context, views from outside your bubble, left and right. You get to see what other people think of this and how they contextualise it; you get to see what quoted numbers mean and understand the background. It’s not political one way or the other; it’s like a wise aunt commentator, the quiet voice that says “OK, here’s what this means” so you’re better informed, of how it’s relevant to you and what people outside your bubble think.
Now, here’s why it won’t work.
It won’t work because it’s a hysterical amount of effort and nobody has a motive to do it. It has to be almost instant; there’s little point in brilliantly annotating an article three days after it’s written when everyone’s already read it. It’d be really difficult for it to be non-partisan, and it’d be even more difficult to make people believe it was non-partisan even if it was. There’s no money in it — it’s explicitly not a thing that people go to, but lives on other people’s sites. And there aren’t browser extensions on mobile. The Washington Post offer something like this with their service to annotate Trump’s tweets, but extending it to all news articles everywhere is a huge amount of work. Organisations with a remit to do this sort of thing — the newly-spun-off Open News from Mozilla and the Knight Foundation, say — don’t have the resources to do anything even approaching this. And it’s no good if you have to pay for it. People don’t really want opposing views, thoughts from outside their bubble, graphs and context; that’s what’s caused this thing to need to exist in the first place! So it has to be trivial to add; if you demand money nobody will buy it. So I can’t see how you pay the army of fact checkers and linkers your need to run this. It can’t be crowd sourced; if it were then it wouldn’t be a reliable annotation source, it’d be reddit, which would be disastrous. But it’d be so useful. And once it exists they can produce a thing which generates printable PDF annotations and I can staple them inside my parents copy of the Daily Mail.