In its business section this morning, the New York Times had a lengthy story about Angie’s List, the Indianapolis-based company that offers members access to reviews of service providers of various kinds. The reviews are provided by the members, and the article noted that–unlike sites like Yelp!–those reviews are not anonymous. While Angie’s list doesn’t publish the names of the reviewers, it does insist that evaluations come from identifiable individuals.
As the company’s public offering explained, they require this because it’s hard to trust anonymous statements and “facts” culled from the internet. The insistence that reviews come from verifiable sources is one way to increase the trustworthiness of the information being provided.
Lack of trust may be the signal characteristic of our times.
Angie’s List isn’t the only organization trying to deal with the wild west that is our current information landscape–far from it. I would argue that much of what ails America these days is either enabled by or a direct result of mis-information, dis-information and information uncertainty.
We are all being constantly bombarded with “news” that we aren’t quite sure we can trust.
The days when Mr. and Mrs. America tuned in to Walter Cronkite–and relied on the accuracy of his reporting–are long gone. Newspapers–with a few exceptions–fill the few pages they still publish with restaurant reviews and diet tips rather than fact-checked reporting. Cable “news” is anything but; it’s spin and talking points, and most Americans recognize that. It is increasingly difficult to determine the credibility of information we find online. No matter how goofy the perspectives or bizarre the conspiracy theories, you are likely to find confirmation of them in some fevered corner of the internet. (Just ask Rep. Bob Morris, who found “evidence” confirming his suspicions about those sneaky, abortion-loving, lesbian Girl Scouts.)
The problem is, when we no longer have authoritative sources and institutions we trust, societies don’t work very well. We lose an essential element of what social scientists call “social capital.” (Warning: shameless plug approaching.) I wrote about the causes and troubling consequences of diminished social and institutional trust a couple of years ago, in my book Distrust, American Style.
It isn’t just the folks who find internet confirmation that aliens landed in Roswell and the government covered it up. We’ve always had conspiracy theorists who are, shall we say, lightly tethered to reality. Today’s information landscape promises consequences far more pernicious than enabling the Holocaust deniers or encouraging the religious zealots convinced that the Rapture is imminent.
When ordinary Americans can’t be sure who is telling the truth, it’s easier to retreat into “us versus them” views of the world; easier to believe that a President who doesn’t look like you is really a secret Kenyan Muslim; easier to believe that an effort to provide healthcare is really an attack on religious liberty.
There is broad recognition that we have a problem.
The question is: how do we fix it?