The founders of NewsGuard, veteran journalists Gordon Crovitz and Steven Brill, say the internet has a branding problem.
Before the internet, they say, it was easier to judge the provenance and credibility of information. “You could go into a newsstand, look at what was on the newsstand and see the brand, the publisher,” Brill says. Today, the internet is “the equivalent of walking into a library where there are millions of pieces of paper just flying around in the air.” Take a look at one of those sheets of paper, and without any context, “you don’t know who’s financing who wrote it, what their background is,” or even if what it claims has any truth at all.
According to the duo, NewsGuard, their anti-disinformation browser extension, aims to introduce accountability and credibility to the internet. A team of human arbiters assign a green or red rating to websites based on several publicly-available criteria, including not regularly publishing false content, making a clear distinction between opinion and news writing, and being open about its ownership and funding. (Satirical websites are assigned a separate classification.)
Crovitz and Brill stress that NewsGuard does not favour websites with a particular ideological bent, but rather those which are consistent, honest, and transparent. A story from the left-wing Nation might appear below one from the conservative National Review in a Google search. “They’re quite likely to have two vastly different views. You will benefit from reading both of those articles. But you’re only going to benefit if you know where they’re coming from and who they are.”
NewsGuard’s policy is to offer websites a right of reply, both before and after the publication of their rating. Crovitz and Brill present this as an advantage to their rankings being determined by people, not computers: “Algorithms don’t call people for comment.” Importantly, sites unhappy with their rating can enter into a dialogue with NewsGuard to improve their rating. Most recently, the UK’s MailOnline, a branch of the Daily Mail tabloid, was upgraded from a red to a green rating after responding to NewsGuard’s criticisms in depth, forcing the startup to admit that “we made a mistake”.
NewsGuard say their rating system is superior to competitors’ because their criteria are transparent and open to criticism. “The Daily Mail is rated for its reliability by Facebook, Google, and Twitter. How does it make Facebook, Google, and Twitter rate them? You have no idea.”
The browser extension is now included by default in the mobile version of Microsoft’s Edge browser, which NewsGuard interprets as a sign of the startup’s credibility among Silicon Valley giants keen to regain trust among consumers and lawmakers. Predictably, those sites assigned a low rating—including the alt-right website Breitbart, the Russian government-funded RT, and InfoWars, have strongly criticised the initiative, characterising it as an effort to stifle dissenting voices in the media. The two founders reject that charge, however. They claim their aim is not to censor but to inform: “Our red label says: ‘proceed with caution’. It doesn’t say: ‘don’t read’”.