Credder Hopes To Crowdsource Away Fake News

Originally published in Columbia Journalism Review on May 31, 2019.
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AS FACEBOOK AND TWITTER grapple with misinformation and conspiracies on their platforms, a new crop of startups have emerged to try and use Yelp-like ratings to identify and amplify trusted stories.

These user-powered sites include Our.News andTrustedNews. Last year, even Elon Musk pitched the idea of creating a site he called “Pravda”—a media credibility site for ranking journalists and outlets.

Credder (they “dish out credibility”)—which launched its public-facing beta on Monday—is perhaps the most developed. “We were the first ones here,” co-founder Chase Palmieri says. And they did start thinking about this idea before the 2016 election, when fake news became more of an issue. “Pravda was an idea on Twitter, that’s all it’s been. Elon is a pretty busy guy.”

The Credder team wants to provide readers a solution to clickbait and sensationalism that “doesn’t involve outsourcing their critical thinking” to an algorithm or another person—like a Facebook moderator. They say that having news outlets and social media platforms censor untrustworthy content on readers’ behalf strikes them as fairly draconian.

When Palmieri and his two co-founders Austin Walter and Jared Fesler graduated from California State University, Chico, they knew they wanted to start a business, but didn’t know what kind. They kept in touch, pitched each other on ideas, and worked other jobs.

Palmieri moved to Italy, but also continued to own a restaurant back in Petaluma, where he managed its Yelp page from abroad. He liked the way the reviews got him to change his business’s behavior. At the end of 2015, alarmed by the “rising amount of clickbait,” they set about making a product to evaluate the “trustworthiness” of news articles in a similar way. They want news producers to “compete for trust, not clicks”—and aspire to help drive traffic and revenue “to the people who are winning that game.” Their first adviser was Patrick Lee, the co-founder and former CEO of Rotten Tomatoes. Instead of a tomato icon, Credder uses a picture of cheddar cheese.  (Golden cheese for most trustworthy, moldy cheese for least.)

Users assess individual articles by ranking them between one star, for least trustworthy, and five stars for most. The next step is to decide whether an article was “credible”, “illogical”, “biased”, a “mistake” or “not credible.” Each of those five then has additional options. “Biased” prompts new choices like “Hit Piece,” “Religious Bias,” or “Financial Incentive.” Users then can explain their review in a text box before submitting.

The co-founders wanted it to be more nuanced than a five-star rating system, but still convenient enough that people would actually use it. Like Rotten Tomatoes, you can read reviews both by the general public and by professional journalists.

Unlike Yelp, where restaurants are reviewed, but not individual dishes, Credder users rate articles, not the outlet as a whole. But outlets and journalists are then also given their own composite scores.

Credder’s founders hope journalists will use the reviews to inform their writing, and be motivated to increase their trust score. If a journalist gets feedback that their headlines are too sensational, and their editor won’t change their practice, well, Palmieri says, “maybe the journalist might think about working for a different outlet.” He also hopes Credder will “protect, empower and connect news consumers on the go” by providing a way to warn each other about stories they should avoid or approach cautiously. Right now, they say, news consumers have little recourse to hold an outlet or reporter accountable for low-quality content.

As of last Friday, 2,619 users had created accounts on Credder, and 41 journalists. The co-founders expect distribution to be their biggest challenge.

But even if the idea takes off, it remains to be seen whether journalists will care about the feedback they get. As a writer often in progressive outlets, how would I know that people who rank my articles as untrustworthy aren’t just right-wing diehards looking to professionally damage journalists they blame for left-wing politics? After all, much of the erosion of trust in the media is rooted in partisanship; Democrats see most news as unbiased, while Republicans believe the opposite. And while trust in media is still down from earlier decades, it’s been making a comeback since it hit an all-time low in 2016.

Credder hopes to have a solution for this, too. It wants to hold reviewers accountable, allowing people to up-vote or down-vote reviews based on how helpful they found them, like comments on Reddit. And you can see when a user joined the site, how many reviews they’ve left in total, and how many of their reviews were up-voted as helpful.

Credder hopes to entice journalists to spend their time reviewing fellow journalists, too, by offering additional exposure and new audiences. More intriguing, however, Credder is planning to add a tipping feature, so readers could reward trustworthy writers, either one-time or on a recurring basis.

Another issue, as the editor of Monday Note, Frederic Filloux, pointed out, is that the number of movies and TV shows released last year in the United States is dwarfed by the number of news articles, making the comparison to Rotten Tomatoes somewhat distorted. The sheer number of reviews required to comprehensively evaluate the news is just a considerable challenge. Credder estimates they’ll need about 10,000 people to review an article every day, in order to get enough feedback to accurately rate most of the news produced from the world’s top 70 outlets.

The co-founders argue that journalists don’t really have meaningful ways to learn how individual articles were received. Reporters can look at the number of clicks, shares, time spent reading an article, and monthly site visits as a way to quantify success — but these are admittedly imperfect measures. And of course, people who respond to an article directly are disproportionately people who loved or hated it.

Still, as comforting as it is to think that a new tech tool may be just what readers need to navigate a confusing and deliberately misleading news environment, I can’t help but think of the doctored video of Nancy Pelosi slurring her words that Donald Trump circulated last week and Facebook refused to take down. As a top Facebook official put it, they wanted to empower users “to make their own informed choice about what to believe.”

There are no articles on Credder about that incident, and given the site’s infancy, it’s hard to know how that would have been assessed. But as New York Times tech columnist Charlie Warzel recently noted, “whether repeating the lie or attempting to knock it down, the dominant political narrative” for days after focused squarely on Pelosi’s health. No amount of fact checkers, negative Credder ratings, or “dislikes” can really counteract that millions of people have now seen the viral Pelosi hoax, and consciously or not, embedded those images in their brains.  

Which is to say, welcome Credder, it’ll be interesting to see where you go and how you grow. But to combat the powerful lies flooding the internet and shaping our discourse, titans like Facebook should still take responsibility.

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An Examination of Press Access Policies for Solitary Confinement

Originally published in Solitary Watch on March 5, 2013

Journalists face serious obstacles to reporting on prisons–and even more to uncovering the truth about solitary confinement. (See James Ridgeway’s essay “Fortresses of Solitude.”)

Public oversight of governmental institutions, which can help to prevent corruption and abuse by those in power, is seen as a hallmark of an engaged, democratic citizenry. However, when it comes to obtaining information about individuals kept in solitary confinement, the press, and by extension the public, are often kept in the dark.

The Supreme Court ruled, in Pell v. Procunier, that the First Amendment does not guarantee the press special access to prisons beyond what is generally afforded the public. The Court reasoned that since other methods of communication feasibly exist, like letter writing, freedom of the press is not compromised by even severe limitations on access to prisons and prisoners. Suffice to say, these barriers to entry and examination, involving layers of bureaucracy as well as outright bans, help to minimize investigative inquiry and avoid close scrutiny of prison practices.

The Society for Professional Journalists recently published a study by Jessica Pupovac of press access policies to prisons in general, which vary greatly from state to state. Policies related to solitary confinement tend to be even more restrictive, and even more variable.

In an investigation of the prison systems with the largest numbers of prisoners in solitary confinement, Solitary Watch has compiled a brief summary of some notable differences and takeaways between the states’ policies.  We examined the Federal Bureau of Prisons, California, Florida, Illinois, Louisiana, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Texas.

Differences in policy are evidenced by–among other things–supervision of interviews, access to certain types of prisoners, access to certain areas of prisons, and the ability to use recording devices. Many states leave themselves the right to deny interviews if they feel it will cause “a disturbance” but none of the policies state what that would qualify or how that would be measured, and thus the bottom line is that in most cases, prison officials usually have considerable latitude in deciding whether a reporter may interview a particular prisoner.

Our hope is that this initial look will spark a wider conversation about public awareness with regards to U.S. citizens who are locked away for weeks, months, or years in solitary confinement.  While there are alternative means for obtaining information, these are often insufficient in eliciting the types of things that can be learned through a journalist’s first-hand observations, and through face-to-face conversation.

To be sure, what is written in the policy does not necessarily correlate to actions in reality, but it is a crucial first step in bringing prison conduct to light.

FEDERAL BUREAU OF PRISONS

Prisoners in “segregation, restricted, holdover, control unit, or hospital status” are limited to one one-hour interview per month. They have the right not to be photographed or have their voice recorded by the media, however if the press representative obtains written permission they may.

Although interviews are not subject to auditory supervision, there are two conditions for both the press and prisoners regarding interviews. For the press, “A representative of the news media is requested to provide the Bureau of Prisons an opportunity to respond to any allegation, which might be published or broadcast prior to distribution.” And for the prisoners, “As a prerequisite to granting the interview, an inmate must authorize the institutional staff to respond to comments made in the interview and to release information to the news media relative to the inmate’s comments.”

Lastly, the Federal Bureau of Prisons has the right to deny interviews if they feel it “would probably cause serious unrest or disturb the good order of the institution.”

In reality, no reporter has been granted access to the U.S. Penitentiary Administrative Maximum (ADX), the most secure federal supermax, since September 11, 2001.

(Full Press Policy here)

CALIFORNIA

Media representatives shall not enter security housing units, condemned units, (death row), the execution chamber, Administrative Segregation Units or any other area unless they obtain approval from a correctional official. Interviews with people in prison are at the discretion of the institution head, “including restricting the time, place and duration of interviews.” Phone calls are limited to fifteen minutes and may be recorded.

In reality, a few reporters have been allowed to tour Pelican Bay’s Security Housing Unit, but can only interview designated prisoners.

(Full Press Policy here)

FLORIDA

The state has strict press policies: Interviews are simply prohibited if the prisoner is “in disciplinary confinement, classified as close management, has serious psychological problems, is in a hospital or is an infirmary patient.” (It should be noted that according to the American Psychiatric Association, 20 percent of all people in prison are “seriously mentally ill.”) Prisoners may also be denied an interview, “If the warden or senior facility officer believes the interview will impair the security or normal operation of the facility.”

In Florida members of the press cannot enter security housing units, condemned units (death row), the execution chamber, Administrative Segregation or any area currently affected by an emergency without approval of the communications director or designee.  In lieu of these restrictions, Florida offers the option of “stock video footage” and still photographs of chamber, Death Row, Administrative Segregation and Security Housing Units available in the Public Affairs section of their prison website.

(Full Press Policy here)

ILLINOIS

Interviews with individuals in solitary confinement are not explicitly prohibited. The Director will determine whether an interview can be held based upon, “among other matters, the effect that an interview may have on the individual or other committed persons, and the effect upon safety, security, institutional order, or other penological concerns.”

In reality, journalists report that they were not permitted into Tamms supermax before its closure.

(Full Press Policy here)

LOUISIANA

The policy states, “All legitimate news media organizations shall be allowed reasonable access to the state’s correctional facilities unless security considerations dictate otherwise.” Another other notable condition is that offenders are not permitted to discuss the crimes they’ve been convicted of in interviews.

In reality, press access to Herman Wallace and Albert Woodfox, the two members of the Angola 3 who have been in solitary for more than 40 years, is severely restricted.

(Full Press Policy here)

NEW YORK

Individuals in solitary confinement are permitted one “non-legal” visit per week, and at the discretion of the Commissioner, they can substitute this for a media interview. However, prisoners in pre-hearing confinement status or serving a disciplinary confinement sanction, which includes Special Housing Units and Keeplock, are not permitted to have media interviews.

The interviews between news media and prisoners that are approved shall be supervised “by way of direct observation” by an assigned security employee. This is meant to maintain “appropriate security observance.” However the policy explicitly states that whoever is supervising cannot do so “in a manner that could reasonably be interpreted as having a chilling effect.”

Certain areas of the correctional facility will not be accessed during a press visit either for security reasons or for “the privacy of inmates.” They include but are not limited to disciplinary housing areas, arsenals, perimeter security systems, medical and mental health units, protective custody units plus any other areas deemed of a sensitive security nature by the superintendent and Public Information Officer.

In reality, since nearly all isolated prisons are ”in pre-hearing confinement status or serving a disciplinary confinement sanction,” they are off limits to the press, as are virtually all solitary confinement units.

(Full Press Policy here)

OHIO

In Ohio, the Managing Officer or his designee has full control over the number of reporters who may come into correctional institutions and the duration of their visits. They also may place “reasonable restrictions on the frequency, length, and starting time of personal interviews” as well as “visually monitor” them.  The Ohio policies state that the media must get permission for photographic, recording or broadcast equipment for interviews in advance, and must get secure clearance for pictures or recorded interviews. This is at least implies that the media can theoretically use those devices.

(Full Press Policy here)

PENNSYLVANIA

Pennsylvania’s press policy clearly states that under no circumstances may a prisoner’s face be photographed, videotaped, or filmed. In the case of audio recording, “the inmate shall only be referred to by his/her FIRST name.” Pennsylvania says they will select individuals for interviews based on several considerations including whether or not the prison feels confident or concerned about what the prisoner may say publicly, and whether there is a “level of notoriety attached to the inmate’s conviction or subsequent incarceration.” Their press document asks, “Will this inmate bring unwanted media attention to the Department? Does the inmate present a positive image of himself/herself, other inmates, and the Department at large?”

Pennsylvania’s policy was also the only one that threatened disciplinary action to prisoners based on receiving compensation for interviews.

(Full Press Policy here)

TEXAS 

It is made quite difficult to obtain interviews with individuals in Texas solitary confinement. According to their stated policy, “An interview may be prohibited when the offender is in Solitary Confinement or Administrative Segregation.” Additionally, a Warden may set limitations for media access to the unit when, in the Warden’s judgment, such media access “would disrupt the safety and security of the unit or cause serious operational problems.” On top of that, interviews with offenders who are diagnosed with psychiatric disorders are prohibited.

When it comes to photographs or videos of offenders, there must be written consent when the offender’s face can clearly be identified. It should be noted later how this contrasts with Pennsylvania’s policies which states under no circumstances may an offender’s face be identifiable.

(Full Press Policy here.)

‘Apolitical’ Israel Fairs? No Such thing

Below is an an op-ed I had published in New Voices Magazine about the troubling trend that exists on many college campuses in America when celebrating or discussing Israel. Full article can be read here: http://www.newvoices.org/opinion?id=0160

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Photo Credit: Rachel Cohen

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Photo Credit: Rachel Cohen

Two weeks ago we celebrated Yom Haatzmaut – Israel’s birthday. It’s an exciting time of year for those of us who care and advocate for the state of Israel. Celebrations commemorating Israel’s Independence Day happened on college campuses all over the country. And yet I observed two troubling trends surrounding many of these events that do injustice to Israel, to pro-Israel advocacy, and to the intelligence of college students.

Many of these fairs are framed as “cultural events” – an effort to create an apolitical space for the discussion of Israel. This goal is impossible. Whether the organizers realize it or not, Israeli society and the American Jewish conception of it is so heavily politicized that it is incredibly difficult to have, do or say anything about Israel that is totally apolitical. As a result, the organizers of these events end up presenting political opinions disguised as facts.

In January I read a powerful op-ed by Haaretz journalist Merav Michaeli. She wrote, “There is no such thing as ‘not political.’ Everything is political. Economics, culture, the media, fashion, consumerism – they are all political. The statement ‘I am not political’ is in itself political. It is a politics that accepts the existing order and reinforces it. It is the politics of not taking responsibility.”

Even though she was talking about Israeli citizens, her sentiments ring true for American Jews as well.

At Johns Hopkins University we recently held our annual Israel Fair, a large campus-wide event. The event was advertised as a day to “learn about the history of Israel and all the amazing accomplishments that have been achieved over the past 64 years.” The event was fun. The falafel tasted delicious. The music was happy and familiar. And yet, something about the event was disconcerting.

I am the leader of our chapter of J Street U – the college arm of J Street, the American pro-Israel pro-peace group. As a co-sponsor of the event, we were told explicitly that this event was intended to be apolitical. Meaning, in effect, that there should be no discussion of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, or the peace process in general. The goal of the organizers was to avoid creating an environment that could potentially elicit “anti-Israel sentiment.”

This type of event happens at campuses all across the country.

At the University of Michigan every year they have Israel Birthday Bash where the mainstream pro-Israel group sets up a big moon-bounce in the center of campus and distributes falafel and cake – along with facts about Israel’s achievements and history. Recently at the University of Maryland they celebrated Israel Fest, pitched as “a celebration of Israeli culture with free food, camel rides, inflatable activities, face painting, and more!”

There is nothing wrong with celebrating Israel’s successes, but doing so is only one part of the broader picture of how we should engage with Israel, and the way these successes are presented inevitably carries with it political implications.

All too often, events that are framed as “cultural” partner with national organizations that have explicit political agendas. I watched as pamphlets were distributed at our Israel Fair that reported on Israel’s human rights record, Israeli LGBT tolerance and Arab voting rights. Maps of Israel were disseminated. Fact sheets were passed out about the Israeli Defense Force and Israel’s humanitarian aid to other countries. I do not oppose these topics being discussed, however I reject the claim that these are somehow “not political.” They are.

One popular handout used on college campuses, including mine, is the StandWithUs “Pocket Facts” booklet.  Some “facts” from this booklet:

  • “Israelis resettled lands their families had owned in the West Bank, where Jews had lived for millennia until the 1948 War when they were expelled.”
  • “Iranian leaders are racing to build nuclear weapons.”

When the Chief of Staff of the Israeli military, Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz, says that Iran is likely not building a weapon, it is not a fact to say Iran is “racing to build nuclear weapons.” It might be a mainstream opinion, but it is certainly not a settled fact. When the Israeli Supreme Court has ruled repeatedly, in accordance with the law, that numerous settlements in the West Bank are built on Palestinian land, or land with contested ownership because it was not farmed by anyone for a certain number of years, it is not a fact to say that settlements are categorically built on land once owned by Jews, as implied by the StandWithUs literature. Let us be intellectually honest. These statements are opinions.

Israel fairs are great. We should have them. But they should also directly address the political situation Israel faces. And if they opt not to, we must acknowledge that these fairs are still political. Even when we engage in discussions about Israel’s technological achievements or their treatment of the LGBT community, we must be open about the political nature of these things. Politics does not have to be a dirty word.

More importantly, we’re not doing Israel any good by avoiding the peace process. We should be talking about the two-state solution, Hamas and the Palestinian Authority, Israeli settlements, and rocket attacks. All of these are crucial elements in envisioning and understanding Israel and its future. We should embrace the complexity, and give people actual answers instead of pretending that these issues don’t exist. This is how we can do justice to Israel, get more people involved in pro-Israel activism and show students that we trust them to be smart people.

Pro-Israel advocates cannot shield college students from the conflict. Students will read about it in newspapers. They will watch documentaries they find on Netflix. It is unavoidable. But let’s be proactive and embrace the challenges head on, precisely at a campus-wide event created to learn about Israel. We can provide people with the opportunity to develop a real, deep relationship with Israel, not just one that’s based on a universal love of falafel.

Military Controversies Must be Reported On

Here is an article I had published this week, 4/30/12, in our weekly political publication, the JHU Politik. 
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On April 18, the Los Angeles Times did the right thing when it released several photographs of U.S soldiers posing inappropriately with the remains of Taliban suicide bombers in the Zabol province of Afghanistan. The photos, taken in February of 2010, were purportedly of members from the 82nd Airborne Division’s 4th Brigade Combat Team. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta criticized the newspaper’s decision, arguing that it put innocent U.S. solders at risk and was a matter that should have been handled internally.

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Photo Credit: LA Times

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Photo Credit: LA Times

It is true that this is a particularly delicate time for U.S-Afghan relations. In January, a video went viral on the Internet showing four U.S. Marines urinating on the bodies of dead Afghans. The following month, several copies of the Koran were accidentally burned at a U.S base, which resulted in riots and deaths for both Afghan citizens and U.S troops. Then in March, a U.S Army sergeant massacred two Afghan villages, killing 17 people in a nighttime raid.

It would have been tempting for the LA Times to not publish these photos.  They might have argued that  from a national security standpoint, the timing was not right for such public knowledge. However, the newspaper took the brave route, and did its job.

In response to criticism, the LA Times released a statement that said, “After careful consideration, we decided that publishing a small but representative selection of the photos would fulfill our obligation to readers to report vigorously and impartially on all aspects of the American mission in Afghanistan, including the allegation that the images reflect a breakdown in unit discipline that was endangering U.S. troops.”

The Army launched a criminal investigation after the LA Times showed them official copies of the photos, which were given to the paper by a soldier from the involved division. The Army strongly condemned the actions in the photographs.

“It is a violation of Army standards to pose with corpses for photographs outside of officially sanctioned purposes,” said George Wright, an Army spokesman. “Such actions fall short of what we expect of our uniformed service members in deployed areas.”

The role of the press, is not in the job of doing PR. While of course editors will always have to make hard choices about what does and does not go to print, they do have an obligation to the American people to inform them of the truth, even if it is ugly or shameful.

Some alleged that the Times could have written about the event without publishing the photos. But  it is much harder for the government to dismiss such military abuses as abstractions when citizens are exposed to actual images of the crime.  The reactions to images of the My Lai massacre and the human rights abuses at Abu Ghraib prove as much.

White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said, “we’re disappointed” that the pictures were published. But criticism should be kept to the culprits of the abuse, not the journalists who shed light on it. The Obama Administration’s “disappointment” for the choices of the free press is troubling. The American people are paying for these wars and have the right to review evidence of abuse. They have a right to see these photographs, even if they are, as we’re told, exceptions to normal conduct.

It’s unclear how these photographs will impact US-Afghan relations or change future military training.  But what we do know is this: the American people should work to resist the increasing militarization of our American government, and continue to firmly advocate for our democratic free press.