Securing a Place for Fact

Democratic societies face a challenge today: How to sift reliable information from rubbish? How to ensure that public policy debates start with information rather than remain in paralysis as known information is denied?

Saturn, north view (Nasa-JPL: Cassini)

A Branch for Factual Accountability 

Some have proposed an extra branch of government. This branch would oversee objective standards. Style-wise it would remain rather low-profile. It would not be as much engaged with the public directly as with other branches of government, for whom it provides information and clarifies disputes.

In Taiwan we have something like this. The Oversight Yuan creates standardised entry exams for government employees. When in Taiwan you walk into, say, the Immigration Office, you can feel pretty confident that the person behind the counter won't confuse Slovenia with Slovakia. If you walk into the Environmental Protection office, the person who helps you won't confuse pesticide with dihydrogen monoxide. Not only is it the person's job to know what's what, the person was tested on it in order to get the job. No number of connected relatives can get the person a job in that office without the person passing the test.

This creates a situation where capable people tend to get government jobs and the jobs tend to have higher pay attached to them. Respect is preserved for government service and for education. Few feel tempted to discard all that and cram their heads full of 'alternate facts' that open no doors anywhere.

Creating a similar branch of government with a slightly different role could perhaps help other democracies right now. The goal of a Standards branch would be to give policy makers the means to base policy on objective data. It would seek to ensure that public policy is rooted in sound science. Such a branch could take on a few accounting tasks, too, such as those we see provided in the USA by the Congressional Budget Office. The existence of such a branch could help improve the quality of debate by squaring public discussion with verified fact.

Saturn, backlit (Nasa-JPL: Cassini)

Accreditation for News Sources

A compelling case can also be made for the accreditation of news providers. We are currently enduring the 'wild West' era of the Internet; some curation would be of enormous help to the homesteaders.

Accreditation of news sources would work something like the accreditation of schools, and perhaps a bit like the stars assigned to hotels. News providers would submit to a process and be evaluated for reliability. Those that prove solid are accredited,  with tier levels assigned based on content, resources and reliability. Such a system takes an approach to the Net that resembles what the American FCC did with radio and television. The regulating body could require, say, that all social media operating in the country provide X amount of solid material in every user's news feed from Tier 1-rated sources. Or something.

Accreditation would help bring market pressures to bear on behalf of the public interest. Publishers of news would see it as being in their best interest commercially to compete for principled journalists, develop news-gathering resources, hire qualified staff, and provide trustworthy content.

The entity performing this role would need some autonomy. After public discussion we may well feel that the accreditation role is best realised by an international organisation. If international, representation should still be limited only to those representatives of countries that guarantee speech freedoms. The goal of accreditation is not to regulate opinion or censor anyone, including the purveyors of tabloid rubbish. The goal is to meet a public need: to give consumers a solid place to start in determining what is factually reliable.

Kurt Andersen recently wrote in the The Atlantic of our 'need to adopt new protocols for information-media hygiene.' Above are some ideas, submitted for the good of the community.

(Reuters: Kevin Lamarque)