Recently, Microsoft announced that NewsGuard, a service that has helped over 500 news sites improve their reporting and journalism methods and employs professional journalists to create consumer-friendly ratings of the trustworthiness of news sites, will be available by design, but not by default, in its Edge browser for iOS and Android. Although NewsGuard has been available as an extension for the desktop version of Chrome, Firefox, Safari, and Edge for some time already, we believe that Microsoft’s latest move is a positive step in the increasingly important mobile news market.
In making NewsGuard available by design in Edge mobile, Microsoft created a consistent way for consumers to navigate the abundance of information online. As we explain elsewhere, platforms should fund independent tools and services like NewsGuard to support journalism and fight disinformation online. Not only can NewsGuard serve as a nutrition label for consumers who can be smarter about the choices they make with reading news, but it can also ensure the credibility of journalists, provide platforms with an alternative method to algorithms, and incentivize NewsGuard-like services to improve and expand.
Microsoft is creating a blueprint for others
Although we acknowledge Microsoft’s initiative, there are a couple of extra things we believe Microsoft could do to promote services like NewsGuard to become an industry standard. First, Microsoft should make NewsGuard available by design and by default in all Edge versions, to increase its reach. Research has shown that most people stay with the default options presented to them. The adoption and demand for services like NewsGuard would likely increase if users see it bundled by default with their browser.
Second, Microsoft should also incorporate NewsGuard by design and by default into the Microsoft-owned LinkedIn — both the web and app versions. Yes, we are aware that the abundance of disinformation is not as big of a problem on LinkedIn as in other social media websites, but the increasing challenge that the platform faces warrants such a proactive incorporation. More importantly, by embedding NewsGuard on LinkedIn, Microsoft would be providing proof that the concept of incorporating services like NewsGuard into social media platforms is possible, pressuring other players such as Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube to follow suit, while protecting LinkedIn from the spread of misinformation. The proof of concept is especially valuable in LinkedIn’s app version, given that most smartphone users access social media using dedicated apps instead of mobile browser versions.
Despite two years of social media platforms talking about solving the misinformation problems that surfaced in the 2016 election, Twitter and YouTube still don’t offer any tool to navigate online information to its consumers. And while Facebook has made some efforts, its approach is very limited.
The good news for Facebook, Twitter, and Google is that not only can they partner with NewsGuard, but they can also explore a variety of third-party services to incorporate into their services and assist their users in navigating information online; examples include NuzzelRank, a service that ranks news sources, and The Trust Indicators, a service that provides standardized disclosures about a news organization’s ethics and journalists’ backgrounds. Before adopting a new service, we expect platforms to do their due diligence and guarantee that these additions would not be unduly collecting people’s data and creating a log of their news consumption preferences, as that would be an undesirable unintended consequence of helping users avoid disinformation.
Conclusion: A good first step, and a long way to go
This does not mean that we solve the problem of disinformation online by forcing everyone to install NewsGuard. It doesn’t even mean that the answer is just NewsGuard or a NewsGuard competitor. First, NewsGuard has its limitations: It only covers English-speaking websites, it’s restricted to one kind of medium, and it doesn’t solve the problem of content that looks organically created by platform users without links to news sites. There’s plenty of room for NewsGuard to scale up with the support of platforms.
It could also be dangerous if NewsGuard doesn’t have independent competitors, as it would act as a single point of failure. Platforms and browsers should keep experimenting with independent services, competing to deliver the best possible product to consumers. Finally, we still need to find and fund ways to educate consumers on how to identify misinformation and create mechanisms to deter the common information attacks on democracies, including the Russian interference.
Nevertheless, NewsGuard and similar services should come by default and by design in social media platforms and browsers. Internet platforms have the obligation to help users navigate information and limit the spread of disinformation online, and they cannot do it on their own or simply with algorithms. When it comes to distinguishing information from disinformation, it’s clear tech companies need independent, professional journalists and editors. Microsoft has acknowledged this by supporting NewsGuard, and we urge other companies to follow suit.