Truth & Relevance, Missing In Action

A Monday morning, post-Thanksgiving rant…

I want to talk about truth and relevance (specifically, the lack thereof), by way of two examples.

93217843At the 10,000–foot level, let’s talk about Klout.  I am not going to go into the relative merits of Klout or other “influence measurement” schemes.  There are a ton of debates you can find about that issue, admirably summed up this past weekend in TechCrunch.  My own take is that Life is a high school cafeteria whether we like it or not; it’s in our primate DNA to create and cling to tribal leaders; Klout is just a convenient way to view the data behind a naturally-occurring (if shitty) process.

But here’s where the rant starts: Klout recently added WordPress to its algorithm … but only for blogs.  That means (for example), that PR-Squared’s success has zero influence on my Klout score, except via the ancillary benefits of its close connection to my Twitter feed.  The same holds true for any blogger who self-hosts their WordPress blog, like Chris Brogan.  Doesn’t feel right, eh?  Truth and Relevance are Missing In Action.  Klout aspires to be the singular arbiter of influence, yet cannot accurately measure such an obvious measure of “clout.”

For what it’s worth I did ask Klout about this issue; they responded quickly and acknowledged it was a problem.  Apparently the way WordPress handles auth tokens only works for blogs, so either WordPress needs to change its ways or Klout needs to come up with a solution.  Let’s hope it happens soon.  While I applaud Klout’s pioneering spirit and success to-date, IMHO making sure its algorithm is unquestionable should always be Job #1.

Fox-newsNow let’s zoom heavenward, to the 30,000–foot level.  We’re starting to enter the silly season in politics, and our cause as a civilization isn’t helped when it’s revealed that the #1 cable news source, Fox News, is quite simply misleading their viewers:

A poll released by Fairleigh Dickinson University found that people who get their news from Fox News know significantly less about news both in the U.S. and the world than people who watch no news at all.

“Because of the controls for partisanship, we know these results are not just driven by Republicans or other groups being more likely to watch Fox News,” Dan Cassino, a Fairleigh Dickinson professor who served as an analyst for the poll, said in the report. “Rather, the results show us that there is something about watching Fox News that leads people to do worse on these questions (of current events) than those who don’t watch any news at all.”

This study happened to come out at about the same time that GOP frontrunner Mitt Romney’s own people acknowledged that their recent campaign ad was blatantly misleading. And that they were okay with that.  (Please feel free to shake your fists with impotent rage at this point.)

What’s missing? Truth and Relevance.

Luckily future generations may benefit from “truth goggles.”  Check out this excerpt from a recent piece at the Nieman Journalism Lab:

You’re reading a wrap-up of the Sept. 22 Republican presidential debate when you land on this claim from Rep. Michele Bachmann: “President Obama has the lowest public approval ratings of any president in modern times.”

Really? You start googling for evidence. Maybe you scour the blogs or the fact-checking sites. It takes work, all that critical thinking.

That’s why Dan Schultz, a graduate student at the MIT Media Lab (and newly named Knight-Mozilla fellow for 2012), is devoting his thesis to automatic bullshit detection. Schultz is building what he calls truth goggles — not actual magical eyewear, alas, but software that flags suspicious claims in news articles and helps readers determine their truthiness. It’s possible because of a novel arrangement: Schultz struck a deal with fact-checker PolitiFact for access to its private APIs.

If you had the truth goggles installed and came across Bachmann’s debate claim, the suspicious sentence might be highlighted. You would see right away that the congresswoman’s pants were on fire. And you could explore the data to discover that Bachmann, in fact, wears some of the more flammable pants in politics.

How awesome would it be to have a trusted agent accompany your online reading, ensuring that you’re not unduly influenced by B.S.?  “Are you sure you want to tweet that article link? Looks like the author is trying to pull a fast one. Click here for details.”

So what’s the big takeaway?

In a world in which everything is online and everyone has an agenda, the survival of Truth & Relevance will all depend on algorithms.  And that’s scary.

End of rant. Hope you had a nice Turkey Day!

Posted on: November 28, 2011 at 10:59 am By Todd Defren
6 Responses to “Truth & Relevance, Missing In Action”


  • Rachel says:

    It’s great that Klout recognizes and acknowledges that it is missing out on important data, but it’s pretty shameful that they are putting themselves up as the standard measurement of influence and they aren’t able to provide an accurate assessment. This is the exact reason as to why we always need to be questioning our sources and asking “what information are you actually providing and on what data is it based?”

  • Erin says:

    Great article! I’m a senior in college and I’ve been struggling with the “influential about” aspect of my Klout score all semester as I begin paying extra attention to my established online presence. It doesn’t seem to matter what I write about, I can’t shake the being inexplicably influential about Moms and Beer. I just wrote a blog post about it and included a link to this post. Thanks for your thoughts!

  • When I was a kid I thought that if people just had the facts, they would make a rational choice. Now I know that, even with the facts, people seldom make rational choices. Looking for the facts is work and if you are in sympathy with what is being said, why would you care to double-check the facts? The revelation of truth through an algorithm is scary, but even more scary is knowing that even with the internet to hand, most people will choose to suit the facts to fit their emotional needs. Though it is harder to conceal the truth for long, given modern tools, it is also easier to gain a following before the truth is out. And the truth, whether or not dependent on an algorithm, has never been and probably will never be, what determines popular ‘truth’.

  • Bill Handy says:

    Great insight and post. Agreed that a world of algorithms is scary but it begs the question who made who. Others are serving up what we want and we will likely refuse anything which contradicts our current beliefs. As this process continues to evolve the only way to break out of the downward spiral is to take a proactive approach to our online behaviors – considering other points of view. This also means negating our own self imposed algorithms (of sorts). No more following people – instead follow key words which provides a more holistic overview of any particular topic. Of course that negates any value being placed on the number of followers a person has – I wonder if we can break free of ego as well.

    Had a great Turkey Day, hope you did as well.

    • Britney says:

      Great write up! It would be wonderful to have an online agent telling us what’s true and relevant online and what is not. It’s sad that writers, speakers, etc have their own agendas. Who knows what that agenda is and if he or she can be trusted? I love what Bill Handy suggests about following key words instead of people. I think this would definitely be beneficial because we could see more than one person’s view on a topic. This would ultimately help us to better understand a topic, too.

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