Our New Arbiters of Truth: Google, Twitter and Cues of Online Credibility

In our modern era of splintered trust and millions of media niches, how do we decide that something is credible and trustworthy? A little funny episode of mistaken identity on twitter gave me an interesting view into these issues.

I come at this from several angles.

First, as a cognitive psychologist, I am interested in the thought processes that cause us to rate some sources or facts as true and trustworthy. I am always curious about the actual signals of credibility, rather than the stories we tell ourselves.

Second, as a teacher of students in college, I am interested in helping students gain skills in searching (as much as such skills exist) and hone their BS detectors so that they can leave college with the ability to not only recognize credible sources from hucksters and unscientific charlatans, but to see a spectrum of credibility and bias.

Finally, as a parent, I want to help my kids grow up savvy to a world of media where I won’t be there to tell them that chain letters on instagram are not true, whereas what they read on ESPN probably is.

I was reminded of the problems with teaching online credibility detectors recently, when after the Supreme Court handed down the Hobby Lobby decision, many people angry about the decision took to twitter to denounce the judges. Unfortunately, many did not realize that the Supreme Court has no twitter presence. These people surely did not realize that the Supreme Court is not exactly a high tech kind of place. These angry tweeters denounced what they thought was the Supreme Court, but was instead a blog which covers the Supreme Court. SCOTUSBlog, instead of correcting people, played along and mocked them mercilessly.

Of course SCOTUSBlog is not the official twitter feed of the Supreme Court.

Of course the Supreme Court does not have a twitter feed, they haven’t even “gotten to email yet:

By their own admissions, the justices on the highest court of the land, the US Supreme Court, are not the most tech-savvy bunch. But despite Justice Elena Kagan’s own acknowledgement that the court hasn’t “gotten to” e-mail yet—instead communicating with one another via memos printed on ivory paper—the justices have been tasked with solving some of the most thorny technology debates of our time.

But we shouldn’t mock these tweeters, but seek to understand why they were so misled. And when we do, we should be concerned that new arbiters of credibility have emerged, and they are not necessarily the ones we expect.

To begin, let’s look at the twitter profile of SCOTUSBlog. The bio says: A private blog about the Supreme Court of the U.S. Contact: feedback@scotusblog.com. 

So, that should be open and shut: “private” as in, not public. As in, not official.

But what about other indicators of credibility?

SCOTUSBlog has a shiny blue verified check. Twitter says this identities authenticity, but I think this spreads well beyond a simple: “This account is who it says it is.” That blue check means legitimacy and credibility to many many people.

SCOTUSBlog has 185,000 followers. Certainly follower count doesn’t equal credibility, but it sure helps.

What if we look at SCOTUSBlog’s webpage header? This is what our Hobby Lobby tweeters saw on June 30th:

Header of SCOTUSBlog on July 1st, courtesy of the internet archive
Header of SCOTUSBlog on July 1st, courtesy of the internet archive

This looks pretty official to me. Although the “sponsored by Bloomberg Law” should be a give-away that this is not an official government site, the name Bloomberg and the bureaucratic design make me think it is perhaps less of a give-away than it should be.

And now, they have changed the web header to:

Web header of the SCOTUSBlog today
Web header of the SCOTUSBlog today

Even more official looking!

I am pointing this out not to say that SCOTUSBlog is being misleading, I think they are doing fantastic legal journalism, and I applaud them for it. Their webpage is simple and well designed.

But this little incident of internet mistaken identity presents an interesting object lesson, and I would submit that follower counts, cues from professional web design, and that twitter verified logo can overwhelm other cues to credibility. It reminds me of a passage in Danah Boyd’s excellent chapter on “digital natives” in her new book “It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens:”

Everywhere I went, I heard parents, teachers, and teens express reverence toward Google. They saw Google as a source of trusted information in a digital ecosystem filled with content of dubious quality. More important, many of the people I met believed that Google was neutral, unlike traditional news sources such as Fox News or the New York Times. Most people take for granted that someone, typically the editor in chief, chooses what stories appear on the front page of a newspaper or which are covered in a TV segment.  Conversely, people naively assume that algorithms, procedural sets of instructions for calculating an output, such as the ones produced by
Google, must not have nearly the same biases as an editor.

When people don’t have specific knowledge, that the Supreme Court is famously untechnological, that SCOTUSBlog was a great journalistic source for interpretation of the fabulously complex decision about the Affordable Care Act, that an official government page will never use the words “sponsored by Bloomberg Law,” they trust other cues that are generally applicable to many sources. These general cues are now being provided by companies, like Twitter and Google, who have the reputation of passively transmitting communication, but are not passive, and indeed, are not even transparent in the ways that they provide this credibility:

If you think you meet the criteria for verification and have not yet received a badge, please be patient. We are working within key interest areas to verify accounts that are sought after by other Twitter users. We don’t accept verification requests from the general public, but we encourage you to continue using Twitter in a meaningful way, and you may be verified in the future. Please note that follower count is not a factor in determining whether an account meets our criteria for verification.

Rather than chuckling at the naivete of the angry Hobby Lobby tweeters, this all makes me even more resolved to teach such things to my students and my kids, and to do so in the context of all the misleading cues to credibility out there.