SpinSpotter is a new browser plug-in that hopes to arm online news junkies with the power of pointing out when the media has a dog in the fight.
It works like this: users install the plug-in, which currently is only available to FireFox users, though an IE 7.0 plug-in is coming down the pike. While browsing news stories, you flag instances of media bias or spin, using the guidelines of what the company calls the “Seven Deadly Spins” as defined by an advisory board of professional journalists. These no-nos are: personal voice, passive voice, a biased source, disregarded context, selective disclosure, lack of balance, and over-reliance on press releases. Read an article with some spin, and you can use the plug-in to mark and label the offending passage as such. All other SpinSpotter users will now see the text marked in red, with an explanation of why it was tagged, who tagged it, and a suggested edit to correct the spin. Think of it as a cross between del.icio.us and factcheck.org.
I downloaded and attempting to use the plug-in today, but SpinSpotter found absolutely no instances of bias for me to investigate. While the reason for this is obvious — the plug-in was released just yesterday, and so there are still very few users to flag spin — it could lead one to the hilarious conclusion that left-wing community Daily Kos and right-wing magazine The National Review are both completely free of spin. I expect this will rapidly change as more users come on board.
Once a core group of users does begin using the plug-in, there will also be a group of “referees,” i.e. journalism grad students. The referees will function roughly in the same way an admin or moderator might on an online message board, trying to ensure text marked as spin is actually spin. In addition, fellow SpinSpotter users can vote a marked passage up (i.e. this is definitely biased) or down (i.e. actually, this isn’t biased). SpinSpotter algorithms can look what users are agreeing is biased reporting, and will attempt to predict what similar items would possibly declared biased. John Atcheson, CEO and co-founder of SpinSpotter, gives the example of “Bush’s third term” as a phrase that may be likely to get flagged repeatedly. SpinSpotter would then automatically begin to learn that the phrase is likely to be biased.
Users of SpinSpotter also get a Trust rating. Accurately mark instances of bias, and users will vote you up and increase your Trust rating. Inaccurately mark statements of fact as media spin, users vote you down and your Trust rating plummets. SpinSpotter gives much more weight to an experienced and reliable user — a trusted user’s down vote can counteract thousands of up votes from untrusted users.
The company is also taking great pains to maintain objectivity itself. It cites its two co-founders as examples of this — Atchenson supports Obama, while fellow co-founder and chief creative Todd Herman is reports that he is “conservative in most things.” The SpinSpotter team has also listed all of their political contributions and stated potical viewpoints, as well as maintaining a page disclosing any potential conflicts of interest. Their six-member journalism advisory board also nicely spans the political spectrum, including both Liberal Fascism author Jonah Goldberg and The Nation contributor Brooke Allen.
SpinSpotter plans to generate revenue by selling advertising on their site, as well as collecting and selling the back-end data their (hopefully) thousands of users will generate to ad agencies, marketing groups, political campaigns, and possible even news outlets.
While the idea has a certain amount of promise, Atchenson readily admits that SpinSpotter was rushed to market in preparation for the presidential elections this November, and it shows — I had repeated browser errors while using the plug-in.
More problematic is that the nature of political journalism is changing. For at least the past decade, people increasingly seem to want their news from implicitly biased sources, whether it’s readers devouring scoops from bloggers of their particular political persuasion, or right-wing political junkies tuning into Fox News while their left-wing brethren flips to MSNBC. As Atchenson himself points out, people do not turn to a Maureen Dowd op-ed looking for clear-eyed objective insight, but this growing division of media outlets makes a company like SpinSpotter’s job more difficult. One man’s spin is another man’s truth. It may or may not be great for democracy, but it is a market reality.
That said, it’s easy to admire SpinSpotter’s goal of bringing transparency to journalism. As a journalist myself, I’d welcome SpinSpotter or something similar taking off, even if it means getting beaned with the accusation of bias from users. The question is whether SpinSpotter can manage to obtain a critical mass of users, avoid attempts to game the system, and maintain the appearance of objectivity as partisans flag differing political viewpoints as spin.
The five-month old company is based in San Diego, and its lead investor is Epic Ventures.