Determining the trustworthiness of what we read online is important.

Yesterday I was informed that Senator Tom Coburn published a report entitled “Wastebook, A Guide to Some of the Most Wasteful and Low Priority Government Spending of 2011”, which included my NSF grant “Trails of Trustworthiness: Understanding and Supporting Quality of Information in Real-Time Streams” as example number 34.

I was not familiar with Senator Coburn’s publication and was surprised and curious to see what would characterize my project as “wasteful”. My colleagues and I have been working on the problem of information reliability over the last 5 years and we have published more than a dozen papers in refereed conferences and journals, three of which have received the “Best Paper” distinction. What was it that Senator Coburn found so unacceptable that reviewers and scientific audiences overlooked? After reading the relevant sections of his publication, I was even more confused as to what the Senator deemed objectionable. Everything he mentions regarding my project seems positive:

Do you trust your twitter feed? The National Science Foundation is providing $492,055 in taxpayer dollars to researchers at Wellesley College to answer that question.    Researchers cite “the tremendous growth of the so-called Social Web” as a factor that will “put new stress to human abilities to act under time pressure in making decisions and determine the quality of information received.” Their work will analyze the “trails of trustworthiness” that people leave on information channels like Twitter. They will study how users mark certain messages as trustworthy and how they interact with others whose “trust values” are known.    The NSF grant also includes funding for an online course to study “what critical thinking means in our highly interconnected world,” in which we might be “interacting regularly with people we may never meet”.

However, the proposal is condescendingly titled,  “To Trust or Not to Trust Tweets, That is the Question.” This suggests that the author of the report may think that trust in online communication is not worth studying, or that Twitter is unworthy to be mentioned in a scientific proposal. But to those who have actually read the details of the proposal, this is a superficial criticism. What we are proposing to do is to create semi-automatic methods for helping people determine the credibility of the information they receive online. From recent events in the Arab world, Russia, and Mexico, for example, we know that people look to online media to receive information they can trust, while oppressive governments and drug cartels try to confuse them by spreading misinformation. Even in the US, the cost of misinformation is high; investors have lost millions from untrustworthy online information and little-known groups are trying to influence our elections by spreading lies. Being able to determine what information can be trusted has always been important and will be critical in the future.

It’s unlikely that Senator Coburn himself actually read thousands of NSF grant descriptions to determine which ones appear wasteful. Furthermore, such proposals are written for a scientific audience and require specific expertise to evaluate. And I am sure that the Senator does not believe that critical thinking education and technologies for supporting trust and credibility are “wasteful”. So how did this proposal end up in his report?


On the Senator’s “Wastebook” web page, there is a link next to a picture of Uncle Sam inviting readers to “Submit a tip about Government Waste”. By clicking on it, one can suggest examples of wasteful spending to the Senator. I wouldn’t be surprised if someone with only a cursory understanding of our proposal recommended it as wasteful. In this case — and perhaps in many others — a provider of online information has misled Senator Coburn. Therefore, this report itself is proof that determining the trustworthiness of what we read online is important.


1 Comment »

  1. Harry Lewis

    December 21, 2011 @ 10:13 pm


    When the right puts you on one of these lists, it is a good indicator you are doing something important. We are proud to have you at Harvard, joining last year’s #1 prizewinner from Sean Hannity, Rob Wood’s incredibly amazing Robobees project:

    I can imagine what they would have had to say about the Internet: “Spending taxpayer money so computers can talk to each other??”

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