Two-day Trust Project Challenge hackathon in London

Dude, who stole my facts?

How publishers can build trust in a post-factual world

Some of you will be familiar with this widely-shared chart from BuzzFeed, which shows how easy it was for fake news to go viral during the US elections.

Source: BuzzFeed

Of the top 20 election stories, fake news reached more people on Facebook than mainstream news.


As someone who works with social media at a legacy media publication, it’s hard not to feel demoralised. Is this is the end of facts as we know it? Is mainstream news being undermined by the rise of social media, which facilitates the so-called “echo-chamber” effect where people read and follow only what confirms their views? And, more importantly, what is the role of fact-based research and news in a post-factual world?

Making matters worse, Americans’ trust in the mass media has fallen to its lowest level since polling firm Gallup began surveying respondents in 1997. At the time, half of Americans had a “great deal” or “fair amount” of trust in the mass media versus 32% today. Among younger people, trust in the mass media is even lower, at 26%.

Call me optimistic but I believe there are solutions. These challenges present many publishers including The Economist with a golden opportunity to reinforce the values that we believe in, and bring those values to the fore. In other words, there is a role for publishers to play, but the onus is on us to ensure that we’re as transparent as possible about what those values are.

So, what can be done to rebuild the public’s trust in mainstream news? That is the question that more than a dozen publishers tried to answer at a two-day hackathon in London as part of Santa Clara University’s Trust Project Challenge. The Trust Project aims to develop tools and technologies that can help news users differentiate between authentic and inauthentic news, and to help newsrooms to stand out from the noise online, primarily with the help of “trust indicators”.

Along with colleagues at The Economist, including a product manager, backend engineer and UX architect, we spent two days developing a minimum viable product (MVP) that builds on the Open Trust Protocol. Our solution: an open-source web page validator. See it here in Github.

Team members (left to right): Ana-Maria Bourceanu, Denise Law, Kathryn Jonas, Robin Raven and Colin Tate (guest member)

The main problem we want to solve is a lack of transparency about the organisation that produces the news. We believe that people and platforms would be more likely to trust a news organisation if they had greater visibility about its funding structure or founding date, for example.

Our prototype incorporates existing standard, which is basically shared vocabulary that developers use to make sure their web pages can talk to each other.

In simple terms, here’s how our idea works from the perspective of a news reader: imagine that you stumbled upon an article via social media or search. You’ve never seen this site before and you have never heard of the publisher. You want to be able to validate the page to make sure the organisation behind the news is legit. You simply enter the URL of the page into our tool and it produces a score based on how much information the publisher has disclosed about itself in the code of its web page (see below for mockups).

Likewise, publishers and developers could use the tool to find out what’s missing on their article page and what they can include to improve its “trust score”. Our UX architect produced a few wireframes that show what it would look like:

Wireframes of what this would look like by UX architect Ana-Maria Bourceanu

Because the code on these pages is machine-readable, platforms such as Google would also be able to verify the legitimacy of the organisation and potentially rank it higher in search.

Our solution is of course fraught with many challenges.

A news organisation could disclose a lot of information about itself but still be fake.

How can we make sure this system can’t be gamed? One way might be to publish previous transparency checks by other users, serving as a form of social proof.

Indeed, our tool is just a small step towards encouraging greater transparency within the media industry. If news consumers could easily validate an article page by accessing the publisher’s organisational details— and using an industry-wide standard understood by platforms — that puts pressure on the mass media to be as open as possible if they are to gain the trust of readers.

We’re pleased to say that our prototype won “best newsroom tool” for its simplicity and likelihood of being adopted by editors and journalists.

What do you think of our idea? Let us know in the comments below.