In our seminar on Monday, Professor Smith asked us each to name the news sources we trust the most. Aside from our parents, which most of us trusted (or have trusted at some point!), many of us listed crowd-sourcing sites such as Quora and Reddit. Robert and Jacob highlighted the stock market as a more “objective” representation of public opinion because people literally have to back their beliefs with money. As Professor Waldo pointed out in his latest blog post, surprisingly few of us—myself included—named legitimate news corporations. Assuming this wasn’t due to the tone set by the first few people who answered, but actually a widespread lack of trust in news corporations and even experts, I have been reflecting on why crowd-sourced sites were the first to come to our minds.
To draw again from his blog post, Professor Waldo argues that society has gone too far in mistrusting experts. He writes that, “…I find that there are people who simply know more than others, and are better able to solve certain problems. I trust climate scientists more than, say, Senators on the subject of climate change… It doesn’t mean that these people know about everything, or even that they are right in everything they say about their particular subject. But they are more likely to be right than someone randomly picked.” I am convinced by this argument and do not intend to disagree in this post. Indeed, it seems best to get the facts from those who are most qualified to present them. And although news corporations will present somewhat biased news, through cross-referencing and critical analysis, one is more likely to glean accurate news from them than through a random post by John Doe on an obscure subreddit. One cannot deny the training that journalists undergo to present a well-rounded story.
Nevertheless, crowd-sourcing has immense value in two ways. For one, it represents the idea that the common person holds institutions accountable, even beyond journalism. Edward Snowden is an example; After working as an employee of the NSA, he leaked classified documents to expose global surveillance programs that overstepped citizens’ privacy. If we put all our trust in establishments and experts, what’s to prevent us from being taken advantage of? This power of accountability is crucial to democracy.
Second, when it comes to the news itself, crowd-sourcing has value not so much in presenting or gathering facts—admittedly established institutions are more qualified to do that—but in engaging with them. A relatively intellectual thread on Quora will be a debate among people who have done their research and back up their claims with citations of legitimate news sources that I can go and verify for myself. This kind of a thread serves as a curation of perspectives with analysis by people who have far less of a stake in the news than those whose careers are built around the industry. This is why, ultimately, when asked what sources I trust the most, I thought of crowd-sourced sites. When done correctly, they wrap together verified facts, persuasive commentary, and, most importantly, multiple perspectives. Of course, this assumes that one can determine what claims are well-supported and factual, and admittedly that is not always easy.
Ultimately, trusting experts and institutions alone excludes the public from having a voice in the very matters that concern them. Sure, there will always be internet trolls and ignorant posts to sort through. But their net value far exceeds this trouble of filtering.