Guardians of the (Online) Galaxy
“The amount of stuff that’s out there that’s just garbage,” says Steven Brill, leaning back in his chair, the Manhattan skyline arrayed behind him. His Midtown office is modest, befitting a junior accountant, not the 68-year-old mogul who famously launched Court TV (now truTV) and the era of gavel-to-gavel trial coverage. After the 2016 election, Brill was increasingly attuned to—and horrified by—the sheer amount of false information online and how effectively it had polluted our politics. As I peer across his desk, Brill demonstrates: He types what-is-fracking.com into his browser. The site looks professional and impartial, with a cheery backdrop of a rig shearing a giant blue sky. Turns out, the site is run by the oil industry. He shows me another, healthnewsnj.com, that isn’t a news outlet at all. It’s a campaign ad for U.S. Senator Bob Menendez.
Brill’s new venture, NewsGuard, is intended as an antidote to fake news. Launched this year, it’s essentially a rating system for the top 4,500 sites in terms of traffic, which he says constitute 98 percent of what we read online. His team of more than 40 journalists scours sites from The New York Times and CNN to sketchier fare like Infowars and evaluates whether they’re accurate and transparent. Brill, along with his business partner, former Wall Street Journal publisher Gordon Crovitz, even set up a SWAT team of sorts to respond to new URLs. “If you have something that goes up at 4:30 a.m. in Macedonia,” Brill says, “we try to wrestle it to the ground in an hour.” The ultimate goal is to help readers distinguish real journalism from its make-believe counterpart—a problem that didn’t end with the 2016 presidential election.
An added benefit: NewsGuard is simple and easy to use. You just download the plug-in for Google Chrome, Microsoft Edge, Apple Safari, or Mozilla Firefox. Then a green or red icon will appear next to links in both your search results and your social-media feeds. The icon serves as an online traffic signal: green means go—the site meets NewsGuard standards—and red stop. The site doesn’t penalize bias if it’s made clear to readers. That’s why the conservative National Review and liberal Nation both get green checks. If you want more information about how a site earned its rating, hover over the icon. A long “nutrition label” explains how NewsGuard reached its conclusion. For example, what-is-fracking.com is rated red because it masks its owner, the American Petroleum Institute (API), and cites suspect sources, such as anonymous posts. Like any piece of journalism, the nutrition label also includes the NewsGuard reporter’s byline—in this case, Steven Brill—and API’s no-comment.
Other plugins, such as Trusted News and Trusted Times, offer a similar service as NewsGuard. But they either cover fewer sites or offer minimal explanation about how they determined a site’s veracity.
In this age of trolls and bots, Brill sees truth-squading as a potentially profitable enterprise: Tech companies are paying to use NewsGuard ratings in search results and social feeds. But the company discloses this, and its investors, on its website under the blunt heading, “Why Trust Us?” That’s more transparent, Brill argues, than the mysterious algorithms that shape so much of what we see—and what we don’t—online. Take Facebook. Sure, it banned Infowars. But, Brill says, “I could show you half-a-dozen sites that would make Infowars seem like the Gettysburg Address.” They still have Facebook pages. (Facebook did not reply to a request for comment.)
NewsGuard won’t eliminate online trickery, of course. Still, Brill says, “It’s the logical alternative to two really sh**ty ideas. The worst idea of all is that the government regulate. And the second-worst idea is that you leave it to these companies to do non-transparent algorithms or whatever else they do, because that’s not working.”
At least if you don’t agree with a NewsGuard assessment, you can call them. Really. That’s another advantage of a fake-news detection system run by humans: They actually answer the phone.