Writing for the New Republic in 2009 in a slightly different context, Lawrence Lessig stumbled onto a problem for American politics that has metastasized over the past 12 months.
His subject was transparency, the sharing of information about what the government was doing at a massive scale. "We are not thinking critically enough about where and when transparency works, and where and when it may lead to confusion, or to worse," he wrote. "And I fear that the inevitable success of this movement--if pursued alone, without any sensitivity to the full complexity of the idea of perfect openness--will inspire not reform, but disgust. The 'naked transparency movement,' as I will call it here, is not going to inspire change. It will simply push any faith in our political system over the cliff."
What Lessig worried might happen if huge amounts of information were made public was that people would either intentionally or unintentionally cherry-pick information to suit their political rhetoric. He used the example of people mis- or over-interpreting campaign contributions. A $2,700 contribution from an individual to a member of Congress is a drop in a very large bucket, but rarely implies any real sense in which the politician is beholden to that person. Nonetheless, every election cycle sees a raft of critiques based on that relationship. That was why faith in the system would be undercut, he figured, since public information could be cobbled together to make nearly any political point.
Lessig was writing only within the context of information produced by and about the government, but it's easy to see how the same concern ripples outward into the vast ocean of information that now exists online. It's easy, too, to guess what prompts our revisiting Lessig's essay: The release by BuzzFeed of a document full of unverified, sensational allegations against president-elect Donald Trump.
For weeks (or perhaps months) news outlets have been working to report on the claims made in the file (apparently compiled by a former intelligence officer) and to determine what the ramifications have been within the American intelligence community. BuzzFeed, arguing that "Americans can make up their own minds about allegations about the president-elect," dropped the file without context or clarification about what might or could be true. (At least one of the more explosive allegations, about a Trump lawyer meeting with Russians in Prague, appears to have been debunked.)
The document is full of a very particular type of information. Wired spoke with former agents who described it as human-based intelligence that is useful in raw form but requires a lot of sifting and validation. How trustworthy is the source? Has the source provided good information in the past? Is this someone with real information or just someone who reads the news and wants to pass along fabricated stories?
"In this case," a former British intelligence officer told Wired, "the doc gives no indication that the company has done work to rigorously separate the two…and consequently it’s really hard to tell whether any of the info is actually true, or just a very exciting and expensively produced fan-fiction novel."
There are clearly communities for whom that distinction is understood and not a reason to withhold the document from public view. The president of ProPublica defended its publication, in part because releasing it would "accelerate discovery of what in [the] dossier is true and what [is] not" -- as with that Prague meeting. A member of Congress told our Robert Costa that he was frustrated he only learned about the allegations after the BuzzFeed release.
But both of those parties -- the media and elected officials -- have some desire and ability to parse what's true and untrue, to apply the necessary caveats and evaluate what should and shouldn't be considered factual. Looping back to Lessig's point, not everyone does.
The Atlantic's David Graham points out that dumping the document without validation is an abdication of what BuzzFeed, as a media outlet, is supposed to do. Members of the press are provided with any number of rumors and allegations which they are then tasked with validating or debunking; it's rare when a rumor is published without that process having taken place. In the rush to compete in a splintered media environment, that process has often been curtailed, which is probably part of the reason why public confidence in the media has dipped. Report one-too-many incorrect or unverifiable rumors and trust in the rest of your reporting will decline.
That doesn't mean that individuals considering the details of the BuzzFeed documents are better equipped to evaluate them. BuzzFeed's claim that Americans should "make up their own minds" about the rumors is patently ridiculous (as our Erik Wemple noted) simply because there's no realistic way for Americans to do so. If CNN couldn't verify whether or not these events took place, how could a random person on the street? Even assuming they wanted to; the most salacious story from the document is currently trending on Twitter simply because it's embarrassing to Trump, not because anyone has any particular reason to believe it.
The broader problem for the media, though, is that many Americans feel as though they can evaluate information as ably as those who've spent decades immersed in the field.
You've probably heard of the Dunning-Kruger effect. It's the idea that you must have a certain amount of knowledge of a subject in order to know how little you know about it. In other words, the more incompetent you are at something, the less likely you are to be aware of that incompetence. We've seen a rash of amateur investigations of late, often motivated by political reasoning, that have had unwelcome results, with Pizzagate at the top of the list.
Pizzagate -- the nonsensical idea that Hillary Clinton staffers were involved in a pedophilia ring operating in or near a D.C. pizza joint -- rose to national attention when a man entered the restaurant with a rifle to free children that the internet had convinced him were being enslaved there. They weren't, and his investigation of the rumors demonstrated that to be the case. "The intel on this wasn’t 100 percent," the man later told a reporter, which is actually totally wrong: The intel was 100 percent, it just made clear that the thing he believed and hoped to be true -- that the conspiracy existed and that he could help curtail it -- wasn't accurate. His "self-investigation" of the rumors gave him unwarranted confidence in his ability to evaluate the information presented, though that information was the worst sort of cherry-picking: bizarre assumptions made on emails, weird assertions about iconography at restaurants and so on. So much information was available about the pizza place and the Clintons that amateur sleuths could draw a line from there to child slavery, if they wanted to.
Think of the shed in "A Beautiful Mind," where Russell Crowe's John Nash picks out individual letters from news articles and connects them with thread in elaborate patterns. Now imagine if he could post his results on the internet and build off of the threaded walls of thousands of other people.
Writing about that Pizzagate self-investigation, Jonathan Mahler of the New York Times noted that the distribution of information that defines the internet and allows it to get around roadblocks works for good and bad.
[S]omewhere along the way, the democratization of the flow of information became the democratization of the flow of disinformation. The distinction between fact and fiction was erased, creating a sprawling universe of competing claims. The internet can’t route around censorship when the people who use it remain in their own closed information loops, which is nothing more than self-imposed censorship.
That's what happened here. The media has long served as an imperfect gateway blocking bad information, but thanks to the splintered media environment and social media, those walls have washed away. The press was working to suss out what was and wasn't worth reporting from that dossier of claims, but the internet routed around that holdup, in the form of BuzzFeed. There are some benefits to that. That doesn't mean it was good to do.
At some point, we need to figure out how to solve this problem, how to better teach people to fairly evaluate information that's presented to them and to set aside, as necessary, their partisan inclination to believe the worst about their opponents. We're still new at this "everyone can access everything and draw their own conclusions" thing, clearly, and, for all of his frustrations today, it has largely served to Trump's benefit. The "fake news" ecosystem in which website publish nonsense to drive ad revenue is the most extreme version of the problem.
But it is by no means the whole problem.