What Elon Musk doesn’t understand about journalism – Thomas Malone

Thomas W. Malone Professor of Information Technology

From Salon

Elon Musk’s sometimes antagonistic relationship with the press is no secret. But last week, the billionaire chief executive of SpaceX and Tesla exhibited a new level of hostility.

In a series of tweets, Musk referred to journalists as “holier-than-thou” hypocrites, said that news organizations had lost their credibility and the respect of the public, and blamed the media for the election of President Trump.

Then things got interesting. Musk proposed creating a “media credibility rating site” where the public would be able to “rate the core truth of any article & track the credibility score over time of each journalist, editor & publication.” He suggested calling this site “Pravda”—the Russian word for “truth” and also the name of the longtime Communist newspaper. He likened the rating platform to Yelp for journalism.

Despite the bluster, Musk may be on to something. At a time when public trust in the media is at an all-time low, a reputation system that allows citizens to gauge the reliability and accuracy of news they consume could be a step in the right direction.

That said, there are at least three potential problems with the way Musk proposed to do this. For starters, readers’ and viewers’ opinions about the credibility of media sources is likely to depend, in part, on their pre-existing biases. For instance, if the country is so polarized that liberals only find liberal journalists credible, and conservatives only find conservative journalists credible, then the ratings on the site Musk proposes wouldn’t be a good gauge of what is true. They would just be an opinion poll of participants’ political preferences.  And it would be possible to game the system by encouraging lots of people (or even automated bots) who agree with you to register their opinions on the site.

This might be no better than the situation we have today. According to a Gallup/Knight Foundation survey, less than half of Americans say they can think of a news source that reports the news objectively. Republicans who can name an accurate source overwhelmingly mention Fox News; Democrats’ responses are more varied. Meanwhile, two-thirds of Americans say most news media do not do a good job of separating fact from opinion; in 1984, by contrast, only 42 percent held this view. Fifty years ago, if Walter Cronkite said it, then America believed it. There is no journalist or news organization with that kind of status today.

But if people took it seriously, a system like the one Musk proposes would provide motivation to individual journalists and news organizations to try to become broadly credible to both sides of political debates. Just as Yelp reviews provide incentives to the businesses that are being rated to get better and do right by customers, this system might compel journalists to report and tell stories in ways that will engender trust among a broad section of society—not just impress members of their own tribe. Naturally, this presumes that members of the media would care about their ratings. And even then this process would likely take many months or years to have a substantial effect.

A second potential difficulty involves how people would form their opinions of media credibility. It’s likely that most people wouldn’t do a lot of research on their own, but would, instead, rely on other people whose opinions they trusted. These trusted sources might include prominent politicians, business leaders, commentators, and even friends and neighbors. In this case, it might be useful to design a system that makes it easy for some people to make their ratings public and then for readers and viewers to find—and duplicate—the ratings of those they trust, thus creating a veritable web of trust of media credibility.

Read the full post at Salon.

Thomas W. Malone is the Patrick J. McGovern (1959) Professor of Management, a Professor of Information Technology, and the Founding Director of the MIT Center for Collective Intelligence at the MIT Sloan School of Management.

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