In the second keynote of the Neo-Journalism conference, Judith Donath from Harvard examined signals of reliability in networked news.
She started off by talking about how online and social media provided detailed information about the recent fires in southern California. It was a community of people who knew each other and turned to each other for reliable information.
Donath also cited Mexico as an example of how sites like Twitter are filling in a news vacuum, given the risk of reporting in the mainstream media.
But she also cited an example from Mexico where false reports of shootouts caused widespread panic.
To investigate reliability, Donath says we need to look at the relationship between the content and the identity of the sender of the information. Online, identity flows quite freely, she says, so it can give rise to false identities.
Donath cites signalling theory – for example how faster gazelles signal they are fast by jumping up and down. The message to predators is, don’t bother chasing me.
Reliable signals are affordable for honest signalers and prohibitively costly for dishonest signalers.
She cites 4chan as an example of where identity is proven by showing insider knowledge.
On Twitter, the number of followers is one measure of reliability.
She also talks about fashion as a sign of reliability. Being among the first to post about something is the fashion of the online world, says Donath. But being at the lead of a fashion can also be risky.
For journalists, knowing about signalling is important to be able to detect what is reliable.