As part of a series of articles on the innovators tackling the filter bubble phenomenon, Andrew Brightwell interviews John Gable, founder and CEO of AllSides, a website that has devised its own way to present alternative perspectives on American news.
When a man who helped build the first successful web browser says there’s something wrong with the Internet, it probably pays to listen.
“The internet is broken.”
John Gable’s diagnosis has authority: he has more than 30 years in the tech business, including stints at Microsoft, AOL and as a product manager for Netscape Navigator.
Now he is founder and CEO of AllSides Inc, a news website with a distinct mission. Visit AllSides.com and it offers the news you’d expect on any US politics site, except that its lead stories include a choice of articles: one from the left, centre and right.
“The headlines are so radically different that even reading [them together] tells you more about that topic than reading one story all the way through.”
Not only is this disorienting – it’s unnervingly refreshing.
This is AllSides’ intention: to push the comfortably certain in new directions. With The Echo Chamber Club and Read Across The Aisle, AllSides is at the vanguard of a movement against political polarisation of the web.
When you click on one story you’re offered a range of alternatives. Browsing AllSides is like an odyssey through American political opinion.
“We think that the best way to serve humanity is a free flow of information. And when you talk about something that’s false, fake news or something like that, we have always solved it by showing the report that says it’s fake news right next to it.”
But it’s just the start. AllSides plans to fix the whole of the web, starting with news.
For John, the seeds of the Internet’s demise were evident even when hopes it would usher in a new era of openness and democracy remained unblemished.
Speaking over Skype from his office in the San Francisco Bay Area, he says:
“I gave a speech in January of ‘97 saying I was afraid it might not work out that way; that, as a result of the overwhelming information from the Internet and the way we connect, we may actually be trained to think in terms of categories or discriminate in new ways.”
So it has proved. Following Donald Trump’s election, critics have attacked Google and Facebook for their part in a breakdown of veracity and civility in public discourse.
At the heart of their critiques are the concepts of fake news and ‘filter bubbles’, in which social media users are insulated from views they’ll find disagreeable.
“We are less informed today than we were 10 years ago, even 200 years ago, on controversial topics. I’d say we are more confidently ignorant, because we hear a small piece of the answer so many times that we’re convinced that’s correct.”
The Dark Ages of the Internet
John tells me that by inferring authority from the number of links a web page attracts, the Internet is vulnerable to distortion.
“To deal with all this overwhelming information, Google started with the idea of references in libraries, so if this is cited by a lot of different sources, it must be a good one.
“Well, for controversial subjects it’s [polarised content] that becomes what is most popular.”
Those who shout loudest and rudest win out, because they are more likely to attract attention and, therefore, links.
“A third of the clicks from a Google search page go to the number-one result; 92 per cent go to the first page,” he says.
Recent history leaves us unprepared for the consequences. John mentions Walter Cronkite, a US news anchor of the 60s, 70s and 80s, who is synonymous with unblinking trust for the news.
“Walter Cronkite was the aberration. What people didn’t realise was that back in history we recognised that the media was biased. And if you wanted to understand, you had to look at different points of view. People understood that.”
John likens today’s age of Internet disruption to the arrival of the printing press, which he says also resulted in wild speculation, rumour and violence.
“Not until society had learned how to use that new earth-shattering technology did things get better and the Reformation happened.
“I believe we’re in the Dark Ages of the Internet, when it comes to controversial topics.”
The ratings game
AllSides has been going for a little more than four years; not long enough to start a new enlightenment, but enough to shed a little light.
That has started with the development of a patented ‘crowd-driven’ political bias rating.
Visitors to the site are invited to take part in a blind rating of news publishers’ politics, after their own bias is tested to enable a representative sample.
John says it took trial and error to arrive at the system, with AllSides first using a Wikipedia model that relied on crowd-sourced editing and writing.
“We found that that was too slow. That the information flow online is so quick that you can’t have a bunch of people write about it and think about it.”
The site identifies five grades of political view: Left, lean-left, centre, lean-right, and right.
In the interests of transparency, AllSides publishes its staff members’ ratings. (John, who once worked for the Republican party, is rated as lean-right.)
A system that makes bias transparent isn’t without controversy. Many journalists insist reporting is politically neutral. John says the chief editor of one prominent ‘liberal’ publication simply couldn’t accept that his output could be rated.
“His basic argument was that the news is either right or wrong. And the idea that there was any bias in anything they or anybody did was… I mean he really was sweating and turning red and stuff.”
Such encounters are uncommon, however, and away from journalism the bias rating offers advantages.
John explains that AllSides is used by teachers in 38 out of 50 US states.
“If [teachers] bring up politics, there are two big things that frighten them. One is that their class themselves will get very divided and angry of each other, so you create chaos in the classroom. The other is that parents and administrators will charge them for being biased in one way or another.
“And that’s a very big concern. We remove both of those problems.”
The site has also proved popular with visitors from outside the US, who John says come for a unique perspective on US politics by seeing all sides of the argument.
No doubt foreign visitor numbers grew in the wake of Donald Trump’s victory, and the preceding ill-tempered electoral race, which in turn has piqued interest in the site’s mission.
“Certainly six months before the election we had to explain filter bubbles, and how that was a problem. Now people explain it to us.”
This offers new opportunities. To date, the site has had more than 2.2 million unique visitors, but is sustained by donations, “thousands of hours of free work” and John’s own funds.
“Before [the election] we would go to some venture capitalists or funders and they’d be like, ‘oh that’s nice.’ Now we have them calling us, which has not happened before.
“So we are scrambling, frankly, to build a business model, to raise the money to take this big-time.”
But John says a long term income strategy is likely to include affiliate selling and advertising.
“It’s the old kind of mantra from news journalism early on, where news never made money, news was only used to sell classifieds. And we’ll do the same kind of thing.
“But there are lots of things we will not do. The click-baiting things that you see a lot of journalists do, I think that a lot of media companies have an addiction to bad media practices that help them make a little bit more money this next week or next month, but ultimately kills their credibility.”
Such a strategy will benefit from the site’s high Google rankings and build on topic-specific ‘evergreen’ content about political issues that AllSides writes itself.
Starting the conversation
John isn’t yet happy with AllSides’ mobile experience, but the site is already most popular among Millennials. He says young people are more likely to change their behaviour on learning of a bias, but are also more vulnerable to filter bubbles. That’s because they mostly get their news from Facebook and other social media.
“It’s kind of getting news by accident. When you get news by accident you’re getting bubbled. You’re in a serious filter bubble.
“If you’re just getting it as it comes to you, you’re being very brainwashed in one way or another.”
The site also has a dialogue section, where it allows readers to join debates on chosen subjects – and has been trialling video conversations with small groups.
“Now we’re trying to figure out a way to show it to the rest of the world and let other people in participate in it.”
John says AllSides wants to find partners in the UK and elsewhere to develop the website for different territories.
“It’s a big problem and we do have a unique way of solving it that other people haven’t figured out yet.”
Post script: The Facebook connection
After interviewing John, Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s CEO, publishes a 5,000-plus word broadside on ‘Building Global Community’. He shares some of his thoughts on how the company plans to tackle filter bubbles and fake news, warning there’s no quick fix.
“Research shows that some of the most obvious ideas, like showing people an article from the opposite perspective, actually deepen polarisation by framing other perspectives as foreign.
“A more effective approach is to show a range of perspectives, let people see where their views are on a spectrum and come to a conclusion on what they think is right.”
It’s striking how similar this is to AllSides’ approach, so I ask John if they have had any contact.
He says they have networked with some people at the firm and are hoping to have more in-depth conversations soon. He’s also pleased with Zuckerberg’s approach.
“We have seen other groups jump into this space recently and, despite good intentions, make the kinds of mistakes that Zuckerberg describes.
“We are happy to see Facebook taking this seriously and looking more deeply at the problem rather than just taking some short-term, knee-jerk steps that might not have good long term consequences.”