In this installment of our Interweaving project, I speak with two of the founders of Tribeworthy, a new media startup based in northern California. I met Jared Fesler and Chase Palmieri at the 2016 Media Freedom Summit and subsequently integrated the beta version of the Tribeworthy platform into one of my undergraduate classes. They recently launched a new version of the platform.
JC: The first question I have is, what is the problem that Tribeworthy is trying to solve? Because as you know, the whole conversation about media now is just so polemical, and there are so many people talking about the horrible problems we have in our media ecosystem, right? And there are many of them. So what’s the problem that you are seeking to address with this startup?
CP: Tribeworthy solves two very important problems. The first is that news consumers need a way to hold authors and outlets accountable for their work, so we’ve created tools that empower news consumers to review online articles. The reviews identify logical fallacies, biases, mistakes, and even why the user trusts a particular article. The aggregated reviews solve the second problem, which is how we as news consumers can quickly find the most trusted and newsworthy stories of the day amidst a sea of information to choose from.
JC: In terms of the newsworthy part, I was wondering if you could say a bit more about that, because I think there are differences of opinion out there. For example, some people would argue that we live in a time when it’s easier than ever to find newsworthy content – it’s everywhere, it’s all around us, we’re bombarded with it. So it’s about more than just finding the newsworthy content, right?
JF: We look at two different criteria when we consume news. Is it newsworthy - significant, important and timely - and, is it trustworthy?
CP: The idea is that by reviewing and identifying articles with logical fallacies, overt bias, or outright mistakes, we can help people find the least problematic and least contested news articles.
JC: And there I see the influence of something like the concept of ‘junk food news,’ which comes from the founder of Project Censored. I can definitely see the ways in which you’ve been shaped by that school of thinking – trying to separate out what is serious, important, publicly relevant news, from all the other stuff that’s out there.
CP: Right. We’re essentially trying to offer news consumers a place to go and find the articles that people across the internet agree are newsworthy and reliable. So instead of gathering your news based on whichever articles your Facebook friends share with you, you can come to Tribeworthy, filter articles by subject and rating, and begin reading the highest quality news stories of the day.
JC: In some of the other materials that I’ve seen, including a piece that was published recently about your startup, you’ve talked about the concept of what you’re calling ‘Crowd Contested Media.’ And to me that phrase implies that you sort of want to go beyond traditional notions of crowdsourcing, but also beyond the idea of people simply expressing opinions. And as you know, all of us are constantly being asked to express our opinions about so many things, and so my question is, how can you make sure that Tribeworthy is expecting more of people than simply expressing opinions? And what, exactly, are you expecting from your users in terms of their skills, their habits of mind – you know, the things that would enable them to do more than simply express an opinion?
JF: It comes down to logic. If you look on Facebook or Reddit, people are actively critiquing news stories and leaving explanations for how they came to their conclusion. Tribeworthy differs from commenting platforms like Facebook and Reddit because our users have to first identify a problem from a list of options before explaining their review with a comment. It then becomes the responsibility of each user to defend their review with a well-reasoned explanation. These reviews can then be up and downvoted by other users on the platform.
CP: For example, I would visit an article’s rating page to see how it’s been reviewed. I would then see that Jared reviewed the article as having a Strawman Fallacy, and then I could move on to reading his comment which would explain how he came to that conclusion. It’s then up to me to determine if his conclusion is valid, and whether or not I trust the article in question.
JC: I’ve seen you describe Tribeworthy as a kind of social network for news consumers, which is a slightly different way of looking at it. To follow up on what you were just saying, to what extent do you see the platform as seeking to promote dialogue and debate among users? And I ask this because many news organizations have begun to close their comment sections because they feel like there’s nothing useful happening there, or it’s difficult to handle the moderation issues when people are engaging in personal attacks or other kinds of bad behavior. So do you want people to be engaging directly with one another through Tribeworthy, or is it more a site where people can just read what others have said?
CP: It’s about empowering news consumers to work together, but not necessarily to interact with each other directly.
JC: Referring the ongoing public discussion debate about ‘fake news’, one of my concerns has always been that what’s left out of that discussion is the whole concept of ideology – the ways that our perceptions of the world are shaped by socialization, by our social location, by race, class, gender, nationality, and the construction of taken-for-granted ideas that reflect the interest of dominant groups. So part of what I’m wondering is, are there ways in which a platform like Tribeworthy can help to make the functioning of ideology more visible so that people can recognize it? Because ideology doesn’t often announce itself, right? It’s there underneath, it’s shaping everything about the questions we ask. Are there ways a platform like yours can make that more visible so that people can reflect more critically on their own worldview?
CP: Absolutely, that is our goal. We’re bringing in news consumers from anywhere on the political spectrum. If users review an article as having a ‘Political Agenda’, they are tagging that problem to the article itself, as well as the author and news outlet responsible. Right now we only have rating pages for articles, but soon the ratings will also apply to an author’s rating page and an online outlet’s rating page. So you can look at an author’s rating page to see their overall rating, as well as the problems most found within that author’s reporting. People will begin to question their own sources more rather than playing defense, because they can see how many other people trust or distrust a particular author or source.
JF: Ideologies are based on the conclusion of a statement or argument. It’s why we see news consumers focused less on the process of supporting the claim and more on the claim of the article itself. By focusing on the process - the writing style, the supporting arguments, the sources - we can begin to break down someone’s ideology through logic.
JC: In terms of ideology, I think I was using the term a little bit less to refer to political bias, and a little bit more to refer to bedrock assumptions in our worldviews. So an example would be something like this: Robert Jensen wrote a great piece a while back about what he called ‘news fundamentalisms.’ He talked about this sort of ‘national fundamentalism’ in the US, this basic assumption that the US is a benevolent actor in the world. And that is an assumption that is shared by MSNBC, CNN, FOX, right? And even if the article is perfectly well constructed with good sources or whatever, the bedrock assumptions are deep ideological assumptions that are often very hard to make visible because it’s just the water we’re all swimming in. And that, I think, is a much harder thing to get at, although I think there are ways of doing it, and I try to do it in my own teaching. But that’s one of the reasons why I was asking about ideology.
CP: We actually have a review option for what you just referred to, which is ‘National Bias.’ Any time that an article is speaking from a nationalist perspective, you could review it as such and explain your thought further. Our platform is going to allow smaller, independent news outlets to rise in prominence if they’re writing objectively because it will be the first truly level playing field. We don’t censor or hide any articles – even the most satirical article will live on our platform because it needs to be reviewed and then referenced by users, just as you’d reference a film on Rotten Tomatoes.
JC: At Weave News we have this project called Big Questions, and one of the questions we ask people is, where do you get your news, and why? And to some extent I think you’re already addressing that. But the other question that I’m really interested to get your take on – and it’s probably the one that we’ve asked the most over the years – is what is today’s most underreported story?
CP: Today’s most underreported story, I believe, is the attempt to repeal Dodd-Frank, which is the only piece of legislation we have to protect against Wall Street speculation. Its repeal would bring us back to a financial system similar to before the Great Depression, and I think sets us up for another taxpayer bailout and global financial crisis. I think the most underreported story over the last few decades is the United States growth in military bases around the world. I believe we’re in more than 170 countries. The spread of our military across the globe is not necessarily a good thing, especially when you account for the costs of doing so.
JF: I think the most underreported story is business’s ability to influence politics. Soon business influencers will try their hand in politics because it’s become so socially acceptable. You see it with people like Donald Trump, Mark Cuban, and now Mark Zuckerberg. It’s a fundamental change in politics that’s worth paying attention to.
JC: It reminds me of some of the stuff that Naomi Klein has been talking about recently in terms of how she reads the significance of the rise of Trump in relation to processes of branding. Before we finish up, can you give us a quick summary of what’s coming next for Tribeworthy?
CP: What we’re working on that I’m most interested in is the browser extension. It will allow users to review articles and view ratings, all without even visiting our website. If they land on an article that’s been rated in our database, they’ll get a pop-up window displaying the article’s rating. News consumers will have Tribeworthy’s protection and review tools wherever they go online.
JF: We’re working to create the IMDb style rating page for journalists and news outlets. These profiles will include the journalist’s contact information, work history, published articles, and most notably, their Tribeworthy rating and user reviews. Journalism is becoming increasingly entrepreneurial, and we think this will help the best journalists stand out from the rest.
Follow John Collins on Twitter @djleftover. Follow Tribeworthy @Tribeworthy. If you’d like to know more about the Tribeworthy project, you can contact Jared and Chase at email@example.com and firstname.lastname@example.org, respectively.