When faced with basic information like “Boston is in Massachusetts,” for example, humans easily limit the answer to “true” or “false.” This binary frame is simple and intuitive, but the world is much more complex, and humans require more nuanced categorical frames to determine the truth.
When technology companies and researchers go through the process of constructing and developing frameworks for categories of information, they may tend to become biased. However, companies hide these decisions from ordinary citizens who ultimately consume this information every day and ultimately shape their lives around it.
In Africa, where misinformation and misinformation campaigns often go viral online, especially in times of political charge, US-based technology and social media companies become arbiters of “truth.” Millions of Africans use search engines and platforms such as Google, Twitter, and Facebook, which filter information through their own biased glasses.
To complicate matters, these social media and technology platforms, which act as front doors for news and opinions, often adopt dissimilar frameworks for cataloging information.
For example, the search engine giant Google has developed a feature to check viral claims by categorizing news on a scale of False, Mostly False, Half True, Mostly True, and True. Facebook uses a similar rating, but focuses on the False, Partially False, or False rating in the reports sent to it. In the meantime, Twitter recently announced its framework with three categories: Misleading Information, Disputed Claims, and Unverified Claims.
Data verification organizations differ dramatically in their categorizations.
For example, Politifact invented what is called Truth-O-Meter. Although it follows the standard classification of “true, mostly true, mostly false, false,” it also uses a category of “outright lies” for statements that “are not accurate and make a ridiculous claim.” Snopes uses a very different method with 14 categories.
Instead, Africa Check uses eight categories. To guide their decisions, they qualify the statements as fact, leave the burden of proof to the speaker, focus on importance, use the best evidence available at the time, and commit to updating information and clarifying errors when “new ones appear. or better tests ”.
For its part, the British fact checker Full Fact does not make any categorization and lets the reader judge.
However, technology platforms that launch partnerships with fact-checking organizations often require that their partners adhere to their categorization framework. For example, Facebook has an expectation that its fact-checking organizations will rate reviewed content according to its framework posted on Facebook. Over time, this results in the dominance of a single worldview, and makes Facebook a central arbiter of truth.
Many other categorizations are published without counting the underlying reasons, but regular users are asked to adopt and adhere to them. When platforms change these categorizations, based on the opinions of few experts or engineers, society is expected to once again adapt and update its worldviews accordingly.
Researchers have tried to find solutions to the tangled problems of information categorization. Claire Wardle, a well-known student of the subject, created a categorization of seven types: satire or parody, deceptive content, imposter content, fabricated content, false connection, false context and manipulated content.
And Bill Adar, a professor at the Duke Reporters Lab, has taken a unique approach to categorizing information with his MediaReview Taxonomy, which involves a process of democratic deliberation to catalog information through public participation.
But categorization is not a mere technical issue, it profoundly influences how citizens think and reason about the world. Cognitive scientists have demonstrated the importance of categorization, with some arguing that “knowing is cataloging.”
Others warn of the danger of categorization. Derek Cabera, a professor at Cornell University, wrote an essay called “The dark sides of categorical thinking.” Bart de Langhe and Philip Fernbach wrote an article in Harvard Business Review titled “The Danger of Categorical Thinking.”
The categorization of information is the true authority, but in disguise. Those with the power to catalog information can unknowingly impose their own perceptions of reality on citizens.
The categorization of information is an irrefutable necessity, but citizens must remain vigilant as to who has the power to do it. The categorization process must be transparent and subject to constant rational and open scrutiny by society.