When the Follow-Up Compounds the Problem

Inadequate journalism often leads to worse journalism. A case in point is Wired.com’s follow-up on a dubious Wall Street Journal story about alleged “deep packet inspection” (DPI) — an invasive digital surveillance method — on Iran’s mobile-Internet users.

Here’s how the Wired Threat Level blog posting, “Deep-Packet Inspection in U.S. Scrutinized Following Iran Surveillance,” begins:

Following a report last week that Iran is spying on domestic internet users with western-supplied technology, advocacy groups are pressuring federal lawmakers to scrutinize the use of the same technology in the U.S.

The Open Internet Coalition sent a letter to all members of the House and Senate urging them to launch hearings aimed at examining and possibly regulating the so-called deep-packet inspection technology.

Two senators also announced plans to introduce a bill that would bar foreign companies that sell IT technology to Iran from obtaining U.S. government contracts, legislation that is clearly aimed at the two European companies that reportedly sold the equipment to Iran.

The Wall Street Journal reported last week that Nokia Siemens Networks, a joint venture between Germany’s Siemens and Finland’s Nokia, recently gave Iran deep-packet inspection equipment that would allow the government to spy on internet users.

According to the Journal, Iranian officials have used deep-packet surveillance to snoop on the content of e-mail, VoIP calls and other online communication as well as track users’ other online activity, such as uploading videos to YouTube. Iranian officials are said to be using it to monitor activists engaged in protests over the country’s recent disputed presidential election, though the Journal said it couldn’t confirm whether Iran was using the Nokia Siemens Networks equipment for this purpose or equipment from another maker.

Nokia Siemens has denied that it provided Iran with such technology.

But similar technology is being installed at ISPs in the U.S.

The piece goes on at some length to discuss the reasonable concern about the threat posed by deep-packet inspection by ISPs, acting on their own initiative or for government-mandated surveillance.

But wait. The Journal’s weasel-worded original story itself (buried far down in the piece) acknowledges that the DPI may not be happening at all, at least not in the way the story strongly suggests or by the company it implicates. Read David Isenberg’s detailed explanations (here, here) to understand why the Journal story is so problematic.

Consider the sequence in the Wired follow-up:

1. Cite the Journal story and describe its contents with no hint that credible outside observers, such as Isenberg (a friend of mine), have major questions about its accuracy.

2. Add a sentence saying that the company accused of providing the gear to the Iran dictators flatly denies the report. (Don’t bother to mention that the only named source in the original Journal piece loudly denounced it on his own blog.)

3. Then pivot: Talk about US companies that are installing DPI equipment at ISPs, as if this proves the original point.

If Wired wanted to write about American ISPs using DPI — a topic that deserves wide attention — it shouldn’t peg the story to a Journal report that is so open to question, at least not without noting that people who understand the technology have raised serious questions about it.

Iran’s dictators are a murderous bunch; I have no doubt about that. Nor is there doubt that western telecom companies are selling dictators surveillance tools; they’ve been doing it for years — and in my view they are morally culpable in the misuse of those technologies. In the matter at hand, we don’t know for sure what’s going on.

For what it’s worth, I consider Wired’s Threat Level to be a normally credible and well-reported blog. But journalists should try harder to be careful on matters like this. Sloppiness in these circumstances can undermine our trust in everything else they report.

Making Reputation Measurable, Usable in Emerging Media Ecosystem

In an era where we have nearly unlimited amounts of information, one of the key issues is how to separate the good from the bad, the reliable from the unreliable, the trustworthy from the untrustworthy, the useful from the irrelevant. Unless we get this right, the emerging diverse media ecosystem won’t work well, if at all.

I’ve long believed that we’ll need to find ways to combine popularity — a valuable metric in itself — with reputation. This sounds easier than it is, because reputation is an enormously complex problem. But whoever gets this right is going to be a huge winner in the marketplace.

What do we mean by reputation? In this context, we mean many things. If someone points to a news article, for example, we have to consider reputation at many levels. Among them:

  • What “media outlet” — traditional, blog, whatever — is behind the article? If it’s the Economist, the reputation starts at a high level. If it’s Joe’s Blog, and I have no idea who Joe is or what he’s (if the poster is a he) has been doing for the past few years, the reputation starts lower, much lower.
  • What is the reputation of the writer/video-maker/etc.? I give a generally high rating to New York Times reporters, but I can name a few who’ve wrecked their credibility with me over the past few years. This can vary even within organizations.
  • How about the sources of the information cited in the article or broadcast or whatever? When the Times quotes unnamed sources who have clear axes to grind, I actively disbelieve what the Times is reporting. When it quotes a person I believe to be generally trustworthy, I put it in a different place on my credibility scale. Too bad newspapers don’t use footnotes; and way too bad they are so reluctant to link on their websites to more directly relevant source material. Bloggers don’t have this problem.
  • Then there’s the reputation of the person recommending that I pay attention to the report. If David Weinberger suggests that I read something, I have much more reason to trust that it’ll at least be interesting, because I trust David so much, and this trust goes exponentially higher when he’s recommending something about which I know he has domain expertise.
  • Other reputations of interest in this sphere could include the collective reputation of the readers or followers of the publication or person. The readers of the Economist know a lot about a lot of things the magazine covers, and the fact that they pay the high subscription price tells me I should give the publication more of my trust.

Measuring reputation is another rub. It’s incredibly hard, and currently the tools for measuring are at best crude.

In a world of Web APIs and other emerging tools, however, there are glimmerings of hope. I’ve been begging people at eBay for years — to no avail — to make people’s reputations as buyers and sellers portable. By that I mean let people create a badge of some kind, with some real data behind it, and let them post that badge on their own work and make the data available in a granular way.

Your eBay reputation is not an exact proxy for your general trustworthiness, as a person or as an information creator. For one thing, we know that people are constantly gaming eBay’s system. For another, how you behave in buying and selling goods online doesn’t say how you’ll behave in other situations. But at the very least it’s a useful thing to know.

Your Karma at Slashdot are another useful metric. So are the individual users’ contributions in the collaborative filtering at Digg and Reddit. Useful, but clearly not sufficient by themselves to let you make big decisions about someone’s overall integrity.

But combine a bunch of reputation systems and you’re getting somewhere — and a world of APIs and interactive data suggest at least the possibility of finding a way to blend various measures into something that is more useful than what we have. At least I hope so.

Make that ‘Prisoners’ — not ‘Detainees’

Something interesting appeared in a recent New York Times “Editor’s Note” and today’s Public Editor column— an honest word to describe a group of people, not the Orwellian word the paper and virtually all other journalistic outlets have used in the past.

The topic of the editor’s note and column was the newspaper’s abysmal journalism in an earlier story about a Pentagon report that made claims the newspaper wrote down and reported in the typically stenographic style of Washington journalists. Then the paper made things worse by overstating the military’s unverifiable claims.

The honest word in the note and column was “prisoners” — describing the people we have been holding for years at Guantanamo: terror suspects who include some guilty men and some who are not guilty of anything but being in the wrong place at the wrong time. The word the paper’s editors didn’t use (though their news columns have been littered with it in recent years) is the one the government favors: “detainees.”

The difference is profound. Being detained has two common meanings. Being held involuntarily is one of them, and even in that context the holding is usually for a short period. The other meaning is to be delayed, a kind of inconvenience.

The people we’re holding indefinitely in the Guantanamo prison – with few or no rights, and no proof of their bad acts, yet in many cases with little or no hope of ever being freed – are not merely being detained. They are prisoners. Period. We shame ourselves not to call them that, but if we did they’d certainly have more rights, because prisoners of war do have rights.

“Detainee” is one of those words governments have come to deploy in their Orwellian efforts to justify their own worst behavior. Thus torture becomes “enhanced interrogation techniques,” and “waterboarding” has the ring, not coincidentally, of a theme-park ride despite the fact that the World War II allies won war-crimes convictions against people who’d used that very method of torture.

You expect this abuse of language from government. What we should expect from journalists is truth.

America has tortured people. Journalism should have the honor to use the word and not let government lie with such impunity.

We have imprisoned people — many of them quite innocent of wrongdoing, by our own account — at Guantanamo, not detained them by any common-sense definition. Journalists should use the word “prisoner” because it would be the truth, and the Times deserves a small kudo for doing it this time. Let’s hope it’s the beginning of a trend.

Note: I’ve asked the Times’ public editor whether this represents a change in policy and, if so, whether it applies to the news columns as well as editorial pages and notes. I’ll let you know if he responds.

(A short portion of this posting comes from a piece I wrote in 2007 for PR Week magazine.)

Twitter to Factor Reputation in Search

CNET: Twitter Search to dive deeper, rank results. Twitter Search will also get a “reputation” ranking system soon, Jayaram told me. When you do a search on a “trending” topic–a topic that is so big it gets its own link in the Twitter.com sidebar–Twitter will take into account the reputation of the person who wrote each tweet and rank the search results in part based on that.

This is important, even if it’s just a promise. Perhaps the key missing link in our ability to sort through the mass of information now cascading over us is how we combine popularity and reputation. The former is easy to measure, but the latter is a hugely complex task.

But when we figure this out — and it’ll take the combined brainpower of technologists and social scientists alike — the result will be one major step toward where we need to be going.

Trusting Unsourced Quotations

Irish Times: Student’s Wikipedia hoax quote used worldwide in newspaper obituaries.

A Wikipedia hoax by a 22-year-old Dublin student resulted in a fake quote being published in newspaper obituaries around the world. The quote was attributed to French composer Maurice Jarre who died at the end of March. It was posted on the online encyclopedia shortly after his death and later appeared in obituaries published in the Guardian, the London Independent, on the BBC Music Magazine website and in Indian and Australian newspapers.

Wikipedia logoThere are any number of lessons to draw from this situation. No doubt, the main lesson for many critics will be to blame Wikipedia, not the person who tried to pull off a hoax or the many people who fell for it.

Certainly the site’s open nature was instrumental in the student’s ability to pull off the hoax in the first place. But a closer examination, as we see in this piece by the readers’ editor of the Guardian (one of the publications that fell for the hoax — here’s the corrected original obituary), the Wikipedia community performed well in a) discovering the lie and 2) fixing the article.

Still, the invented quote was widely used — by people who should have known better. In the Guardian, there was apparently no citation, even to Wikipedia, which would have been a tipoff in the first instance.

As the Guardian notes in the follow-up:

The moral of this story is not that journalists should avoid Wikipedia, but that they shouldn’t use information they find there if it can’t be traced back to a reliable primary source.

That applies to everyone, not just journalists. I say this again and again, to students and anyone else who’ll listen:

Wikipedia is often the best place to start — but the worst place to stop.