HyperText Essay: Trust Networks

That the manufacture of consent is capable of great refinements no one, I think, denies. The process by which public opinions arise is certainly no less intricate than it has appeared in these pages, and the opportunities for manipulation open to anyone who understands the process are plain enough. . . . [a]s a result of psychological research, coupled with the modern means of communication, the practice of democracy has turned a corner. A revolution is taking place, infinitely more significant than any shifting of economic power. . . . Under the impact of propaganda, not necessarily in the sinister meaning of the word alone, the old constants of our thinking have become variables. It is no longer possible, for example, to believe in the original dogma of democracy; that the knowledge needed for the management of human affairs comes up spontaneously from the human heart. Where we act on that theory we expose ourselves to self-deception, and to forms of persuasion that we cannot verify. It has been demonstrated that we cannot rely upon intuition, conscience, or the accidents of casual opinion if we are to deal with the world beyond our reach.

– Walter Lippmann, Public Opinion, Chapter XV, 1922

Lippmann describes his belief in a class of people who are incapable of accurately understanding, by themselves, the complex “unseen environment” wherein the public affairs of the modern state occur, this environment could easily by the networked public sphere, Lippmann proposes that a professional, “specialized class” collect and analyze data, much as some Deletionists on Wikipedia proposed to exclude lay contribution, and present their conclusions to the society’s decision makers, who in turn, use the “art of persuasion” to inform the public about the decisions and circumstances affecting them. In essence Lippman argues for a top down system of control of information, hierarchical and centralised, this is the very ideology that is challenged by a vast networked sphere of media pro-sumers. The internet holds potential to erode the possibility of the effective manufacture of consent allowing for a decentralised distribution and production structure to the act of information, through the abolition of canonical control of information, it may usher in a more democratic and arguably anarchic public sphere.

In this environment we are, as media pro-sumers, bombarded by multiple sources of information contained in new combinations and sequences within user generated streams on social platforms. Those digital users with low levels of network literacy may have difficulty determining the validity of the information in their ‘Newsfeeds’ and placing it within broader contexts. This is not just restricted to those with low levels of traditional literacy or education, for example Australian MP Greg Hunt drew criticism for citing Wikipedia, while Senator Jacquie Lambie this week faces calls for her resignation after she issued warnings of Ebola-bearing suicide agents based on reports from the US parody site ‘National Report’.  There are obviously other factors at play beyond the sheer number of sources here, such as the type of sources, we see content shared by ‘friends’, who we may or may not trust on a personal level and who likely share information that supports their opinions and view without admission of bias, we may then apply our personal trust or distrust of the carrier onto the information they share.

As media consumers we rely on certain visual, graphic and stylistic cues to identify media outlets that are professional and therefore committed to a role morality. These conventions can be exploited too, and there are a long list of satire and parody news sites that do just this:

  • The Onion
  • News-Hound
  • The Spoof
  • Weekly World News
  • World News Daily Report
  • National Report
  • MediaMass
  • The Lapine
  • The Borowitz Report
  • Cream BMP Daily
  • The Daily Currant
  • Empire News
  • Global Associated News
  • The Shovel
  • NewsBiscuit
  • The Daily Mash
  • NewsThump

These sites can be so professional in their layout, so subtle with their humour that they are extremely convincing to some people, so much so that others have created whole websites just devoted to identifying if you’re reading Real or Satire information. http://realorsatire.com/

Meanwhile, Wiki platforms are often heralded as reliable as they offer transparency by recording edits and holding the information accountable to all other users, but still many hoaxes have found their way into the pages of Wikipedia. A list of these Hoaxes can be found on Wikipedia itself. Further debates have raged since the foundation of the platform as to how to verify and validate information and if indeed everyone should be allowed to edit Wikipedia, this is an area of great divide amongst contributors to Wikipedia. Deletionists and Inclusionists, two schools of thought amongst contributors of Wikipedia on the governance of the site both with different ideas about its purpose and identity. Wikipedia’s purpose is to produce an accurate crowdsourced encyclopedia, it’s identity or unique position is reliant on its perception as open but its purpose requires credible information, the two come to heads and present an interesting case for both an application of trust networks and on governance and democratic modelling. (Carr 2006)

The core problem or theme in all the pages of this hypertext essay is illustrated well in Wikipedia, how can you trust information is accurate, especially if you do not know anything about the source of the information? How can you determine or judge the trustworthiness of anyone you encounter online for that matter? How does the dispersed network, in the absence of centralised contol, monitor itself? How does it hold itself to account? How does it validate the information within it?

Wikipedia, and a host of other platforms from eBay to Uber, Torrent P2P sites to AppStore, use peer generated reviews to form webs of trust. Wikipedia describes their model as working on three key ideas: “giving users a formal way of declaring their confidence in other users, a way of seeing which users have declared their trust of a particular user, and the resulting structure of trust-relationships formed between all users.”

This is the idea of a trust network: a group of people connected by similar ties and interests whose “collective enterprise is at risk to the malfeasance, mistakes, and failures of individual members” (Tilly 2005). Here is a definition:

Trust networks, then, consist of ramified interpersonal connections, consisting mainly of strong ties, within which people set valued, consequential, long-term resources and enterprises at risk to the malfeasance, mistakes, or failures of others. (Tilly 2005)

According to Tilly the general idea is that there are numerous examples of networks of people who share substantial interests in common, and who have a high level of trust in one another that permits them to undertake joint activities that involve some level of risk. In the networked public sphere misinformation and disinformation are the risks, trust is what needs to be established in order for full participation and engagement.

Wikipedia highlights “the web of trust is neither a popularity contest nor a measurement or assessment of an editor’s trustworthiness or value. However, it provides an additional piece of information that may be useful when coming across another user for the first time… It is important that the trust network does not just become a popularity contest, and that the lack of an explicit statement of trust should never be interpreted as a statement of distrust”

Other trust network systems like online ranking systems (which admittedly the whole is not as seemingly subject to the failures of the parts as a wiki project) suffer from a number of inherent biases according to Eric K. Clemons, of the University of Pennsylvania. The perhaps most obvious is that people who rate purchases for example have already made the purchase. They, by virtue of having sought to buy it, are disposed to like the product and rate it highly. An extension on this, and a potentially more destructive bias is that people tend not to review things they find merely satisfactory. They praise what they love and degrade things they hate. This leads to a lot of one- and five-star reviews of the same product. Self-selected online voting creates a false reading; as in modern politics, only the loudest voices at the furthest ends of the spectrum seem to get heard. There is in some cases only two options for rating an item, like or dislike, thumbs up or down.

Despite this, a 2012 Nielsen[1] report surveying more than 28,000 Internet users in 56 countries found that online consumer reviews are the second most-trusted source of brand information (after recommendations from friends and family). In 2009, a study of some 20,000 items on Amazon found that a small percentage of users accounted for a huge majority of the reviews. These contributors were often rewarded with badges and competed to outrank one another, some contributed thousands of reviews, ultimately drowning out the voices of more occasional users. The intentional misdirection of review sites by people specifically involved with a product, or the manipulation of information by those who it is about—the author of the book on Amazon or a politician on Wikipedia—is one of the earliest and most challenging problems for online-rating communities to solve. Some sites try to remove suspicious posts using filters that search for extremely positive or negative language. But this editing and lack of transparency can breed mistrust. This is exactly what lead to a law suit against Yelp, it led to the perception that the company itself might be manipulating the playing field.

And so, even when other users have rated something or a site signals through it’s layout or style that it is a trustworthy source, diligence and fact checking across the network remain a fundamental skill required to be network literate.

[1] “Nielsen: Global Consumers’ Trust in ‘Earned’ Advertising Grows in Importance,” April 10, 2012

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