SpinSpotter Lets Community Fight Spin
Here’s a site destined for greatness and future abuse: SpinSpotter, now in “very” beta, and their Spinoculars toolbar. Tired of the liberal media being in the tank for Obama? Maybe you’re sick of the corporate media suppressing important news about their in-the-pocket Republicans. Or maybe you see how the 24/7 news cycle has turned once diligent and tenacious journalists into copy-and-paste-and-post PR hacks.
If any of the three preceding scenarios match your particular slant on things, you and your like-minded friends can install the SpinSpotter tool bar to collaboratively trash the news. Downloading the “Spinoculars” toolbar—like x-ray vision for BS, the promo reads—only works currently if you’re running Firefox, but Internet Explorer-compatible versions on the way. Right from the start it’s tech-liberal biased, right?
So they don’t have to rely on Bill O’Reilly’s spin on what spin is, users can highlight language in an article indicating spin with a red marker and post their opinion online to share with others who’ve also flagged spin when they’ve found it. The community can vote spin results up or down and discuss online. An additional layer is also present, just to control for mob rule: A panel of journalism graduate students at the University of Missouri randomly select articles and critique the critiques the masses have voted up.
Individual users also receive a trust rating, which is unknown to them and determined by community votes, the opinion of that panel of graduate students, and how often they agree with other users with high trust ratings. An individual might be able to guess at his or her trust rating, though, by how often (or seldom) their comments reach the collective purview.
CEO John Atcheson (you might know him from MusicNet, Ads.com, RealNetworks, Adobe), who helped bring into existence the brainchild of conservative talk-radio show host Todd Herman, isn’t idealistic enough to believe SpinSpotter will eliminate spin, but he does think it will help make things more transparent.
This New York Times article about last night’s debate between Barack Obama and John McCain is an example of community spin-marking. The community has been pretty vigilant in marking language that could be construed as “editorializing,” or straying from the journalistic ideal of just-the-facts reporting. In this case, words and phrases like “made clear,” “withering attack,” and “showing clear anger” have all been marked as spin, suggesting the reporter and editor of the article don’t put much stock in the myth of objectivity.
(Just a not-so-quick quick note about journalism: There are never just two camps on either side of an issue, but for our purposes, we’ll pretend there are. One camp says journalism adheres to an ideal—even if it is not entirely reachable by human hands—of pure objectivity and reserves editorializing for the editorial page. The other camp thinks objectivity couldn’t possibly exist if humans are in charge of it, and reporters naturally and unintentionally bias their articles by how they structure information—the order in which they present it and what information they must omit for the sake of space and time. This second camp is far less likely to bother themselves with the requirements of such an ideal and instead focus on a secondary, more reachable responsibility, which is to shape the news into what they deem is closest to ultimate truth. Besides, just-the-facts reporting is really, really boring. People alternately upset with Fox News and the New York Times are witness to news organizations who are ironically in the same lack-of-objectivity camps, just on opposite sides of the creek.)
SpinSpotter and the Spinoculars toolbar seem like great additions to the ever-changing journalism landscape, one that includes swarms of bloggers, columnists, pundits, egg-heads, hate-mongers, fear-mongers, Joe Six Packs, and community-edited everything. Tim Berners-Lee recently bemoaned the state of the Web, and the impossibility of knowing what’s true and what’s not because of all the misinformation out there. Maybe something like this—which seems to echo his centralized truth squad idea—will help fix that.
Or maybe we’ll see it abused and tarnished as masses point fingers at elitists, and elitists point at the mob, and Digg.com selectively chooses the truths that emerge with as much frequency and as little context as campaign managers have done—the same as has happened with FactCheck.org this election season—and we’ll be back in the same ignorant boat together in four years time.
But here’s to trying and to silly ideals! Nobody ever made progress without them.