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Can Steve Brill’s Startup Safeguard News, Or Advertising, From The Fakes?

Leave it to Steve Brill  to suggest a way, maybe, out of the morass of manipulation and fraud that has characterized the Fake News Era in social media.

Bril is perhaps the most remarkable journalist-entrepreneur (don’t see those two words together often) of the past 30 years. He launched American Lawyer, Court TV and Brill’s Content, and had a part in some of the most in-depth and important investigative projects of our era as well.

Now Brill is launching SafeGuard, backed with $6 million from advertising giant Publicis Groupe and the Knight Foundation, funded by money from one of print journalism’s royal families. Safeguard wants to save journalism and advertising from the Fake News affliction eroding trust in what’s left of American journalism, rattling advertisers and undermining the seemingly unassailable economic bastions of  Google and Facebook.

Make no mistake. The Duopoly is throwing thousands of bodies and billions of dollars in artificial intelligence investments into the fray, trying to stem the KingTide of crummy fake stories, terrorist videos, extremist hoax videos and Russian troll farm posts flooding their feeds.

And for all the tech giants’ anti-crap investments so far (as well as those by Twitter), we’re still seeing plenty of missteps.

Just this past week, YouTube acknowledged new members of its content-oversight team wrongly killed some videos. Right-wing sites squawked, again, about a leftie “purge” of their content, though YouTube insiders told media the deletions came from sites across the political spectrum.

The problem was the new overseers misapplied the company’s community rules, YouTube said. Possibly true, given the prodigious challenges of hiring and adequately training up to 10,000 new content reviewers to review what’s getting posted at the rate of 300 hours per minute.

Brill is offering a different approach: Newsguard plans to hire dozens of journalists to review and research about 7,500 news sites and evaluate the trustworthiness of their content. Those 7,500 sites, according to Brill, provide about 98 percent of what Americans see online.The journalists (how odd that someone’s finally hiring journalists again) will create short descriptions of sites, and rate the trustworthiness of site contents.

Those reliability ratings, according to Brill and partner Gordon Crovitz (a former Wall Street Journal publisher), will run from green, for generally trustworthy, to yellow, for consistently biased or inaccurate, to red, for deliberately deceptive. The longer descriptions of each site are the journalistic equivalent of “nutrition labels.”

In an ideal world, this digital journalism of a Good Housekeeping Seal, or something like this, gets incorporated by the social-media giants and included alongside YouTube channels, Facebook posts, Twitter feeds and more.

This initiative gets ever more interesting when we ponder what could happen if it’s harnessed with the blockchain. Companies such as MadHive and LiveRamp are using blockchain-based technologies to clean up inefficiencies and fraud in ad tech, media buying and related areas. It’s possible that blockchain’s ability to track and identify unique content from unique sources can be usefully partnered with something like Brill’s human-driven initiative.

All of which isn’t to say Safeguard’s efforts  still won’t be controversial. The squealing noises from sites on either end of the political spectrum may hit ear-threatening decibel levels if their content is judged dubious/patently false. Others may see it as an attempt to impose Old Guard sensibilities on the Internet’s free-wheeling freedoms.

But in truth, if Brill’s group can find a way to remain independent while giving reliable judgments on which sites readers and advertisers can trust, independent of the Duopoly and other big media players with inherent conflicts, it could be a win for everyone.

Mainstream advertisers want to be able to reach mainstream audiences without worrying about what their brands will end up next to. And mainstream audiences, I suspect, are ready for real news from real organizations they can trust, and may even pay for.