If Truth Is Complex, Why Is Fact-Checking So Simplistic?

Larry Sanger

For the last several years, powerful media and government organizations have been sounding the alarm with increasing urgency about what they are pleased to call “disinformation.” Defined in various ways, the main thing about disinformation is that it is somehow obviously, provably false, and this falsehood matters—if society continues to believe “disinformation,” bad things will happen. So it has to be stamped out forcefully. Hence the rise of the “fact-checkers,” a whole industry of them, deputized by major media outlets, Big Tech corporations, and governments to declare what is officially true. Those who call these inquisitorial truth squads into question are themselves branded as biased, ignorant, or purveyors of disinformation. You just don’t disagree with the experts and The Science, if you want to be part of the mainstream conversation.

I’m in a fairly unique position to comment on this trend. I’m a Ph.D. philosopher actually trained in epistemology, and I am co-founder (or “ex-founder”) of Wikipedia and other reference and education projects, which are used to articulate and check facts. I was also the first and most vigorous proponent of Wikipedia’s neutrality policy, and I have long been philosophically opposed to relativism, i.e., the view that the truth essentially depends on your (or your culture’s) point of view.

In plain terms: the objective truth is out there. For real. In my well-considered opinion, the objective truth is simply too important not to be left up to us to decide individually. If our supposed betters are permitted to propagandize us with what they arrogantly declare are the unassailable facts, we will quickly slide into authoritarianism. Or rather, heavy-handed, manipulative Establishment dogmatism is a symptom of authoritarianism that is already here and growing daily.

I actually think there can be such a thing as reasonable, reliable fact-checking. Let’s compare it to the often bogus versions we are presented with today. Sometimes the facts are, on some questions, practically beyond reasonable dispute—namely, when the facts are relatively simple, on anyone’s view, and the means of ascertaining them are also well agreed. Big media companies sometimes hire people to do this sort of relatively straightforward fact-checking; I once spent over two hours on the phone with a fact-checker from The New Yorker for a story written by Stacy Schiff. But public fact-checkers, the ones that are used to “debunk false narratives,” frequently comment on quite complex questions. And there are some earmarks of reasonable, rational, non-manipulative fact-checking of complex questions.

For one thing, especially in inherently complex topics such as geopolitics, economics, and cutting-edge science, there are rarely simple yes/no answers. This is not because the truth is relative—quite the contrary. It is because the objective truth, the mind-independent truth, is almost always messy and complex, and requires considerable background information and careful verbiage to lay out with any accuracy. Reality emphatically does not have “a bias,” as when people say, “Reality has a liberal bias.” To say so is merely to point out your own ideological blinkers smugly. Good journalists and “fact-checkers” shine the light of reason on reality in its full splendor; they show it by turns to be confounding, stunning, pedestrian, stranger the fiction, rigorously rule-following, random and unpredictable, admirable, heartwarming, bloody and cruel, and dismayingly politically incorrect. Any sufficiently large chunk of reality never fits simplistic journalistic narratives.

If you dogmatically insist on the results of quick, simplistic, and one-sided “fact-checks,” you are showing you do not care about objective truth. Objective truth and the process of demonstrating it are rarely quick and simplistic. A fact-check—or for that matter, any encyclopedia article or textbook—is irresponsible if it offers up one definite “true” or “false” bottom-line answer for a complex question, even if it proceeds to defend its point of view, if it does not acknowledge the complexity of the question. Good fact-checkers instead break inherently multi-part questions into their components, acknowledging matters of opinion, ruling definitively where there is broad agreement on narrow questions, and when there is inadequate evidence on a question, then leaving it, yes, entirely open. It is a travesty that so many fact-checkers (and journalists, encyclopedists, and educators) so rarely say “we don’t know” or “it is up to you to decide.”

Another earmark of responsible fact-checking is openness to radically divergent points of view during the process of information-gathering. You cannot shut yourself off from sources because you think they are “biased.” Anyone who is not self-consciously following the (difficult) canons of neutrality is bound to be biased, and generally speaking, there is absolutely nothing wrong with taking a point of view when building a case in science, research, law, policymaking, and punditry, and many other disciplines.

In fact, if you want to see what happens to the neutrality of a reference work when certain sources are eliminated for their supposed bias, look no further than Wikipedia. Amazingly, sources of staunch conservative opinion and reporting are all verboten. The vast majority of permitted sources are progressive or radical, and what few centrist and center-right sources are permitted represent the “loyal opposition” that rarely strays far outside the Establishment’s Overton window. As a result, Wikipedia’s articles are so badly biased that, on topics relevant to the Culture War, it is no great exaggeration to call them “propaganda.”

Here then is one more earmark of good fact-checking: neutrality. If I can tell your party alignment, position on a controversial issue, or approval or disapproval of a politician, how on earth can you expect me to take you seriously as a fair arbiter of truth? I cannot. Public fact-checkers often pretend to play the role of impartial judge of truth. Yet just as often it is easy to infer the writer’s bias from the title and first paragraph; even if fact-checkers conceal their bias that far, it typically comes out farther down.

I am not saying there is something wrong with a fact-checker asserting one side is right and the other is wrong when it comes to a relatively simple factual question, if indeed the facts are clear and well-documented. That can be OK. What I am saying is that, frequently, it is glaringly obvious how the article could be improved in point of even-handedness. Many mainstream media fact-checks of statements by Republicans, for example, make only the thinnest, briefest explanation of what motivated a statement put under the microscope. They then proceed to strike down a straw-man version that bears only a passing resemblance to the original statement in context.

The irony is that the sort of people who claim to be so concerned “disinformation” routinely follow a simplistic and unobjective approach to fact-checking. Yet they point to the results of such fact-checks as unassailable evidence of objective truth.

And this is surprising, isn’t it? Twenty or thirty years ago, when I was teaching philosophy, I remember complaining about students who were steeped in the relativism of the dominant culture. I constantly had to fight against this notion that it’s all just a matter of opinion (so why should we bother studying philosophy at all?). Yet now, with the Establishment deciding they need to get a firmer grip on public opinion, all that relativism seems to have disappeared like a morning fog under the hot midday sun.

Don’t get me wrong; I still hate relativism, and in fact, the current shoddy methods of fact-checking show that these supposedly sober journalists still do embrace relativism—but, being close to power, now they say that the truth is whatever The Man says it is. And then they merely lie that this is the objective truth.

Why Neutrality

Larry Sanger

I drafted this article for Ballotpedia.org, where it first appeared December 2015. I since published a slightly updated version (not the one below) in Essays on Free Knowledge.



As a teenager, I habitually scanned encyclopedias, newspapers, and textbooks—angrily. I was on the lookout for bias. I had discovered, to my frequent irritation, that writers of authoritative texts would present only one side of a dispute, as if it were uncontroversially true. Honest and important debates were treated as if they didn’t exist. An encyclopedia writer, for example, was supposed to be an objective source imparting facts. Where a dispute existed, the writer was supposed to represent a broad range of opinions fairly, and anything controversial should have been left up to me to decide for myself. Instead, these writers were indoctrinating me, or trying to. What an abuse of a position of authority! How infuriating!

Later in life, given the opportunity to start an encyclopedia, I was a zealot for neutrality. My teenage ire at shamefully biased writers and editors found expression in Nupedia’s neutrality policy, which in turn became Wikipedia’s. I defended these policies at length against criticisms, but I never carefully articulated or defended my views on neutrality in a paper. Finally, I have an opportunity to do so. Ballotpedia has asked me to write this paper as part of their effort to adopt more formal, systematic principles and practices surrounding neutrality.

In this essay, I will defend neutrality as the preferred policy for some types of writing. I will define neutral writing, lay out four arguments in favor of a policy neutral writing, and refute some common criticisms. I will conclude by suggesting that publishers adopt both neutrality guidelines and editorial processes to make sure that the guidelines are followed.

Criticisms are lurking in the background throughout this essay, and let me tip my hat slightly at them before I dive in.

I concede that neutrality is a headache. It is so difficult to achieve that bias is the norm, and it will continue to be the norm unless it is deliberately eradicated.

Neutrality, even if it is a writer’s aim, can be very hard to achieve. Neutral writers have to have mastered their subject and then be extremely careful and fair-minded. Otherwise, they are almost sure to display bias. In my experience, neutrality doesn’t come easily to any of us, but is a discipline that must be practiced. Some of us don’t even seem to have the concept, or rather we confuse it with objectivity or being scientific or describing a middle ground or taking the most mainstream position. Even if we understand the ideal of neutrality—understanding it does make it easier to achieve—and our writing is successfully unbiased, others may misunderstand what we have achieved. Partisans might think we are soft on “the other side” (meaning the one they’re opposed to) or even biased in its favor. Neutral writers might even be accused, perversely, I think, of “false balance.” So, as difficult as it is, a neutrality policy might seem more trouble than it’s worth.

Besides, not everyone is on board with neutrality. Bias (in the sense of tendentious, one-sided communication) has its apologists. Some claim that neutrality is not just difficult but actually impossible. We are each hopelessly biased and we simply cannot keep our biases from coming out, they say. Some go further to claim that neutrality is simply wrong or unreasonable in many cases. Some points of view do not deserve any expression. And where the truth is known, it is wrong to pretend it is not.

I disagree. What if I were to tell you that, if you write biased encyclopedia and newspaper articles, you’re doing a moral wrong, and what you’re doing is on a par with propaganda? Ridiculous, you say? But it’s true, as I’ll argue further down.

What is neutrality?

1. Defining “neutrality”

First, let’s define neutrality.

Here’s the basic idea: if you’re neutral, you don’t take a position. You present all sides fairly and let your reader decide which is correct.

A disputed topic is treated neutrally if each viewpoint about it is not asserted but rather presented (1) as sympathetically as possible, bearing in mind that other, competing views must be represented as well, and (2) with an equitable amount of space being allotted to each, whatever that might be.

On this account, neutrality is a concept dealing specifically with disputed topics, and it has three basic requirements.

First, if an issue that is mentioned in the text is disputed, the text takes no position on the issue. Neutrality is not some midpoint in between competing options. A political moderate’s positions are not “the neutral positions”: they are positions as well. Neutral writing takes no position, left, right, or middle.

Second, there’s the requirement of tone, or the strength of the case made for a viewpoint. Basically, if you’re going to be neutral, you have to represent all the main views about the topic, and you have to represent them all sympathetically, i.e., according to their best, most convincing arguments, evidence, and representatives.

Third, there’s the question of how much space it is fair or equitable to spend in a text on the different sides. Prima facie, it would seem that spending a numerically equal amount of space on both (or all) sides is fair, but it doesn’t always work out that way. Exactly how to apportion limited space is a complex question I’ll address further down.

Basically, to write neutrally is to lay out all sides of any disputed question, without asserting, implying, or insinuating that any one side is correct. If a debated point is mentioned, you represent the state of the debate rather than taking a stand.

As I will explain below, it is probably practically impossible to achieve perfect neutrality, if that were understood to mean neutrality with respect to all cultures and all historical eras. I will also mention the notion of a “good enough” neutrality. One observer noticed that these concessions seem to commit me to the proposition that neutrality comes in gradations or aspects—which is something I happily admit. What I advocate might be described as a strict or professional standard of neutrality.

2. Some principles of neutrality

Here are some general principles that are more or less implied by this definition. I don’t claim that these principles have no exceptions but only that they give a fairly good idea of what neutrality entails.

It is impossible to tell reliably what side of a disputed issue the author of the text is on, if the text is neutral with respect to that issue. The text avoids word quantity, choice, and tone that favors one side over another. Both or all sides agree that their side is fairly represented. Barring that, the text will tend to anger or dissatisfy everyone equally, although for different reasons. Generally, there is a focus on or preference for agreed-upon “facts.” If an opinion is included, it is attributed to a source. The debate is not engaged but rather described and characterized, including information about proportions of people on the different sides, where available. Controversial claims—i.e., claims that a party to a dispute might want to take issue with—are all attributed to specific sources. The author does not personally assert such claims. Biased sources are either eschewed or used in approximately equal numbers on both or all sides throughout a document. A document that uses many biased sources on only one side looks biased itself. When there is a “significant” (this word admittedly glosses over an important problem) ongoing debate and a source implies a definite stand on it in an article that is not about that debate, at the very least there must be some acknowledgment in the text that a disagreement exists. When it makes no sense for articles to be individually neutral, reporting and publications that are neutral with respect to a debate, or a field, will publish in equal amounts on both or all sides of an issue. If a publication favors one side because more papers are received on that side, or because more of the research community embraces that side, that might appear fair and reasonable, but it is not neutral and equally balanced: it will tend to make one side look better than the other.

3. Neutrality distinguished from rationality, scientific writing, and objectivity

Let’s get clear about one thing: neutrality is different from being rational, scientific, or objective. People often use these terms as if they were synonyms. For example, at least one journalist has argued that “ ‘neutral’ journalism can’t die fast enough,” but only by glossing over the distinction between neutrality and objectivity, and his piece simply did not consider the notion of neutrality discussed in this paper.

Rationality means (roughly) following the rules of logic and careful observation and proportioning belief to the amount and quality of the evidence. Being scientific (also roughly) means following the scientific method and, again, not believing a hypothesis unless it has been well established by the canons of science. Objectivity means deciding what to believe (or write) not based on mere feelings or prejudice, but strictly based on substantive considerations of evidence that are supposedly independent of our personal views.

Rationality, scientific method, and objectivity all concern epistemology or methodology, i.e., they are standards of knowledge, or else methods we use to determine our beliefs in an attempt to arrive at knowledge. Neutrality is in a different category altogether: it’s a standard of exposition, of expression. If I write neutrally, I am simply refusing to take a position. As I am neither evaluating or staking out a claim, the rationality, scientific merit, and objectivity of my claim are not at issue. It is true that in writing neutrally, I might help others to be objective. But neutrality is a style of writing, while objectivity is a state of mind. Expression is neutral; people and their mental states are (ideally) objective.

Neutrality and those other qualities are orthogonal. You can have one without the other. In fact, if you have written much in a neutral way, then you’ve probably represented views fairly that you believe to be irrational, unscientific, or subjective. You have simply not taken a position. Similarly, you can write a perfectly rational, scientific, and objective treatment of a topic—which takes one particular position in a hotly-debated dispute.

For example, suppose in a piece of writing, you discuss the measles vaccination controversy. If you’re going to write in accordance with the canons of science (and also rationality and objectivity, no doubt), then in my opinion, you will support the view that children should be vaccinated, period. But if what you write is going to be neutral with respect to current American society, you will have to withhold any such forthright claim. Rather, you’ll report that while a very large majority of doctors and scientists strongly advise vaccination, something like 9% of the population thinks that the measles vaccine is unsafe. You will not take or project any stand one way or another, although, to be fair to the vast majority of the public in favor of measles vaccination, in some kinds of articles you might spend only about 9% of the article on the anti-vaccination position.

4. Does equitable division of space always mean equal space?

You might well disagree with the latter sentence. Even if it is a minority view, why should the anti-vaccination position get only 9% of an article? It does not seem obvious that that’s fair. If we’re trying to help people make up their minds, why isn’t 50% fair and neutral? If neutrality means, ultimately, that the reader cannot guess your position as the writer, then a case can be made for 9%, and a case can be made for 50%.

I suggest that it depends on the type of writing. Consider two examples.

First, news reporting of scientific studies: each time a news service reports a new study on a scientific controversy, neutrality does not require that the journalist give equal space to all competing theories. That would be unreasonable. Neutrality, then, is not an article-level concept but a service-level concept. For example, the news service might have a rule to the effect that major studies supporting competing theories should be covered in proportion to how often they appear in major journals. Perhaps the journalist is obligated to acknowledge briefly that there are one or more competing theories, and if there happens to be a debate or disagreement about the study itself, that debate should be covered neutrally.

Second, articles introducing policy debates: surely we do expect an encyclopedia or debate website article on the vaccination issue to be scrupulously even-handed, and perhaps that really does mean giving approximately equal time to both or all sides. But why? Why should a description of the debate give 50% of the space to the anti-vaccination side if only 9% of the public (and probably less than 1% of doctors and medical researchers) are on that side? Why not give something like 9% to the anti-vaccination side? Wouldn’t that be fair? Why should the minority position be dignified to that extent?

I think the answer stems from the premise that the major purpose of reporting on a controversy is to enable people to come to their own conclusions about it. In that case, devoting more space to one side, even if it is the majority side, would suggest that that side is correct. This in turn would interfere with the mission of supporting readers in deciding the issue for themselves. Scrupulously presenting both or all sides in approximately equal proportions, and with the best available arguments, etc., gives readers no clues as to “the right” answer, requiring them to fall back on their own critical thinking skills. In other words, covering the debate in a strictly even-handed way enables readers to be more rational.

Advocacy journalism, I am well aware, rejects my premise that the purpose of reporting on a controversy is to enable people to come to their own conclusions about it, though. Still, that ought to clarify at least somewhat better what I mean by the third part, on fair apportionment of space, of my definition of “neutrality.” It gets more complicated, as I will explain in sections toward the end of this paper.

5. Traditionally neutral texts

There are at least three categories of text that are traditionally neutral: encyclopedia and reference writing, straight news writing, and basic textbooks. These aren’t always neutral, of course, but they are generally expected to be. Why? Why should they be expected to be neutral when opinion pieces, art, documentaries, scholarly papers and monographs, and various other forms aren’t?

Lower-level textbooks (through the junior high school level, say) are expected to impart facts and avoid controversy in order to give a student a basic foundation of knowledge. If an elementary school textbook is full of opinion, theory, and controversy, it’s less likely to be used, because students are expected to begin their studies with commonly known facts, which are more than enough to learn. At higher levels, a range of opinions and controversial theories may and indeed should be included, but even then, if they are not neutrally presented, the text runs the risk of alienating students and their parents. By making textbooks neutral, we make them satisfactory for everyone in a diverse society. Of course, there are biased texts—especially at the high school and college levels. Thoroughly biased texts, which inculcate only one political or religious view, are used especially by highly ideological teachers and professors, at religious schools, and in home schools; but such texts and teaching generally earn the contempt of many of us because the students who emerge will not be so well prepared for life in a more intellectually diverse society. Besides all that, texts that are biased are more likely to get the facts wrong, as I will argue with respect to journalism.

Not all journalism is or is expected to be neutral, of course. We think of journalism as straight reporting, but it also includes outright opinion pieces, advocacy journalism, and opinion and debate broadcasts. These biased forms have become dominant in 21st century society, especially on cable news shows, opinion websites, blogs, most news magazines, and talk radio. Yet even in our modern, cynical news consumption societies, “straight news” is still a fairly well-understood category and is generally expected to be neutral, even if it comes from Fox News or MSNBC. In a straight news story, the journalist’s opinion is irrelevant and distracting. Partly this is because there is typically a lot of news to report and reader time is quite limited as well. In addition, there are a lot of people—I am one—who simply don’t like any opinion mixed with their straight facts.

But a deeper reason is that ideologues seem to get the facts wrong so often when reporting the news. Reporting the straight facts speedily and readably with a maximum of accuracy and relevance is surprisingly difficult. Seeing the world always through red- or blue-colored lenses makes writing easier, but the hard job of accuracy on a deadline harder: it tends to blind writers to facts that sit poorly with their filters. So we naturally and rightly distrust the factual claims contained in reporting that strikes us as biased (cf. the “backfire effect”).

Finally, the function of encyclopedias and other reference material is to serve as highly relevant compendia of searchable facts. They are expected to be neutral for similar reasons to the foregoing. On the one hand, mixing opinion with straight factual writing wastes our time and distracts us from what we’re using reference materials for: learning the basic facts of what is known and believed about a topic. On the other hand, again, we don’t trust a reference to catalog complex facts reliably if it is also trying to persuade us of a particular point of view. Getting the facts right is hard enough as it is.

So, for the rest of this essay, I’ll refer to “traditionally neutral texts,” meaning encyclopedias, straight news, and textbooks.

By the way, there have been societies in which the news, encyclopedias, and textbooks were, all three, expected to reflect a single point of view, as if none other were possible: totalitarian societies are like that. The old Soviet Union—with its Pravda newspaper serving as the voice of the Communist Party, its Great Soviet Encyclopedia the source of state-approved facts, and its notoriously propaganda-laden textbooks—is perhaps the most famous historical example. Such openly, complacently biased publications strike us in the 21st century West as deeply problematic subversions of their traditional forms, serving as especially pungent illustrations of why totalitarian societies are so problematic.

Four arguments for neutrality

6. Neutrality respects personal autonomy

So, why neutrality?

I have attempted to explain why, traditionally, we expect certain texts to be neutral. Next, I will advance four arguments for neutrality that apply equally to all traditionally neutral texts.

My first argument is the longest and most important, and it’ll take several sections to go through.

Consider some examples of neutrality and objectivity:

  • a science textbook fairly explaining competing theories
  • a detailed encyclopedia article breaking down competing narratives and explanations of the Great Depression, and you can’t tell what side the author is on
  • a scrupulously balanced news article clarifying the latest policy debate, with all sides fully and sympathetically presented

I admire such approaches. Probably, you do too. But why do we?

It’s because neutral writing respects the reader. It shows the author is treating us like adults who wish to make up our minds rationally, using reason, logic, and evidence. If somebody is being conspicuously neutral, it inspires confidence that we are getting the facts, all the relevant facts, with emotion-driven rhetoric left out. We’re being left to decide the matter for ourselves, rationally.

Someone who writes neutrally supports our natural desire to be rational and thus puts us on the road to truth. The choice of belief is left entirely up to us.

Neutrality, I’ll argue, respects our personal autonomy.

Autonomy can be roughly defined as the capacity to govern oneself freely, independently of other influences generally (metaphysical autonomy), of the moral dictates of others (moral autonomy), of law and government control (political autonomy), of religious dictates (religious autonomy), and of the pressure and indoctrination of authorities such as educators (intellectual autonomy).

It is our intellectual autonomy that neutral encyclopedists, journalists, and educators respect. They leave us free to make up our own minds for ourselves. Naturally, we appreciate that—assuming we value our autonomy, as we should and typically do.

Propagandists, by contrast, sometimes insist that neutrality is impossible or wrong, and they use such assertions as an excuse for taking definite, controversial positions in traditionally neutral forms. Hacks try to control their readers. They don’t want to leave them free to make up their own minds. They don’t respect their autonomy. Propagandists aren’t interested in giving readers the tools they need to decide rationally, for themselves; they want to indoctrinate or trick them into believing precisely the way they believe.

7. Independent, rational deliberation respects autonomy

In my mind, autonomy is bound up with two good things: free will and the Enlightenment.

Autonomy is essentially the same as freedom—as in the freedom of the will—and therefore it is deeply important to morality. My view is that to act with free will is simply to act with an unencumbered, mature ability to think our decisions through. Our ability to deliberate rationally on what we ought to do is what gives us our freedom, or autonomy. It is also what gives us our dignity as individuals: it is our own intellects—our independent, reflective minds and our ability to make them up for ourselves in a mature, adult fashion—that command that basic level of respect we call dignity.

Now, our beliefs themselves are frequently out of our direct control. For example, if I am an atheist, I cannot simply up and decide, “Today I’m going to believe in God.” But we can control the inputs of our beliefs. We can control whether our beliefs are informed by facts and reasoning, or instead by emotion and rhetoric. We can control how long and how carefully we think a view through, before we accept it or that we are committed to it.

If we carefully think through the issues, especially if we consider all sides and all the evidence, then we embrace, as genuinely our own, whatever conclusion we come to. That we have reasoned our way to a conclusion means we accepted it freely. By contrast, if we simply find ourselves with an opinion after idly, passively receiving messages from our friends and from mass media, we are less likely to take responsibility for that view. It seems to be less “our own” and easier to reconsider.

If that’s true, then the more independently deliberative we are, over the course of our lives, the freer we are. This is the conclusion that Spinoza came to, famously, in his Ethics (e.g., see this). The more that we guide our beliefs by our own careful reasoning and observation, the more freedom or autonomy we have.

Intellectual autonomy was naturally a key feature of the Enlightenment, and it remains robust and important to this day; we’re still encouraged to think for ourselves far more than we were in the Middle Ages. Immanuel Kant opened his essay, “What is Enlightenment?” with these ringing words: Enlightenment is man’s emergence from his self-imposed nonage [immaturity]. Nonage is the inability to use one’s own understanding without another’s guidance. This nonage is self-imposed if its cause lies not in lack of understanding but in indecision and lack of courage to use one’s own mind without another’s guidance. Dare to know! (Sapere aude.) “Have the courage to use your own understanding,” is therefore the motto of the enlightenment.

We like and admire neutral writing because it fosters our personal enlightenment. Bias, by contrast, treats us like immature children—who are in “nonage”—who cannot be trusted to arrive independently at the beliefs some authority wishes us to have.

8. Neutrality fosters autonomy

I say neutrality respects autonomy. It also fosters autonomy. So, how does it, exactly?

Neutrality has at least two features: (1) it involves presenting competing positions, and (2) it presents them sympathetically, according to their strongest arguments. Let’s take these in turn.

(1) If various competing views are presented, then we must naturally fall back on our own resources. Neutral writing removes the crutch of simply accepting the single view that the author informs us of. If we are simply “told the One Truth” about a topic, then we do not engage our own brains or curiosity, and we become dependent on the author and less autonomous or free in how we think about the topic. By contrast, if we are given several options, our natural curiosity and desire to settle upon the truth will impel us to reflect on those different options. That is just what intellectual autonomy requires of us.

(2) Moreover, if the competing views are all presented sympathetically, in their strongest forms, we will be given the best data, evidence, and arguments—the tools needed to make up our minds rationally. Armed with those tools, we will be more likely to deliberate rationally in an attempt to arrive at the truth.

This, again, is exactly what intellectual autonomy requires of us: fully adult, intellectual freedom isn’t simply a matter of choosing a view by whim, emotion, or social pressure, but only after carefully examining and comparing the competing arguments and evidence for ourselves.

Bias, by contrast, frequently encourages us simply to leap to a view based on our prejudices, on emotional and social appeals, without thinking the matter through. Even when one side is presented in great rational detail and the other is not mentioned, the lack of mention itself implies without argument that the view is not worth spending any time on. In any event, we are made dependent on whoever propagates a single view. To the extent that we are subject to emotional manipulation or other kinds of fallacy, we are less autonomous or free in how we think about the topic. In short, bias is a tool of control, especially but not only emotional control.

Bias more generally dulls the brain. In an educational setting, it actually discourages people from forming, and exercising, the habits that constitute intellectual autonomy. In civil society generally, it dulls the practice of individual reason, encourages groupthink, and devalues the coin of rational debate.

To sum up both points and to put it metaphorically, neutrality does not give us a free ride. It throws us into the issues and requires us to swim through them under our own power. This can be difficult and frightening (thus Kant’s injunction, sapere aude) but it also makes us feel empowered to decide for ourselves. Neutrality supports us both intellectually and emotionally in the act of exercising autonomous judgment by presenting us with all the options and providing us the tools to judge among them for ourselves.

9. Bias makes us less morally responsible

A case can be made, though I can’t make it here, that there is no more to autonomy than doxastic (belief-related) autonomy. In other words, the only real sort of free will we have stems from our ability to deliberate, to think things through for ourselves. That’s what Spinoza argued in the Ethics, and (after long reflection, of course) I agree with him. But free will is what makes us morally responsible; if we aren’t free when we act, we aren’t responsible for what we do. If that’s true, a surprising consequence follows: bias has a tendency to make us less morally responsible. The more that we are simply told what to think, the less our beliefs are our own, and the less morally responsible we are for our own actions.

Perhaps that just sounds strange. But on reflection, we can see that it is true. Consider the infamous Milgram experiment, in which a browbeating scientist presented his subjects with exactly one option: to deliver what they believed to be (but in fact were not) painful electric shocks to other subjects. There was a doubly shocking bias at work—in favor of continuing the experiment. Think of any number of cults in which the leadership, possessing ultimate religious, moral, and intellectual authority, issues not-to-be-questioned rules and commands, impelling members to do things they would otherwise never dream of doing. The leaders’ injunctions were presented in a thoroughly biased fashion. Reflect on how powerful Nazi and Communist propaganda campaigns made it possible for the hapless citizenry to demonize the “enemies of the state,” dissociate themselves from their own appalling behavior, and act as informants and tools of the state. These are all particularly appalling examples of bias.

If bias can have such horrifying effects on our moral autonomy, then our obligation to strive for neutrality is very strong, indeed. Neutral writing makes us more reflective and therefore more capable of taking moral responsibility for our commitments.

10. Bias as a moral failing

If I am right, neutrality is not just being kind and respectful to readers; it is a positive obligation. When we write neutrally, we help others to be free, and so neutrality is a virtue. Bias, by contrast, is revealed as a moral failing.

Perhaps it should not be surprising that Kant—champion of the Enlightenment—also believed we have a fundamental obligation to respect others’ dignity, their basic, irreducible value as human beings. We should treat others as ends in themselves, Kant famously wrote in his Foundations of the Metaphysics of Morals, not as mere means to our own ends. And what is it that gives us our dignity as human beings? Again, I, like Kant and other philosophers, maintain that it is our autonomy or free will, our ability to deliberate rationally, as adults should, that gives us this basic value, this right to be considered not as a mere means to others’ ends. (Cf. the Second and Third Formulations of the Categorical Imperative.)

When you write with bias, you are treating your readers as your pawns, as mere means to your ends. You are not treating them as autonomous agents, capable of making up their own minds rationally. You are not respecting their dignity.

This is especially the case when you are writing in a traditionally neutral form, one in which people expect to learn the whole story or debate. Admittedly, if you are writing an opinion piece, it is up to the reader to find alternative points of view; while you should still be fair-minded, it is not necessarily your job to make your opponents’ case for them. But if you are writing in a traditionally neutral form, then your audience expects you to lay out everything relevant. If there is some dispute in the relevant community, and you take sides, you’re putting one over on your audience, for your own purposes. I say—though it might sound like hyperbole—that’s morally wrong.

I mean it. But let me clarify. When I say you’re treating your readers as pawns or as mere means to your ends, I don’t mean that you think that way consciously. Maybe what I’m suggesting never occurred to you. But the fact of the matter is that, if you’re writing in a traditionally neutral form, and if you give your readers just one out of various possible views to consider, or only one is presented sympathetically or with all the most convincing evidence and argument, then you are in fact treating your readers fraudulently: you are falsely portraying a controversial issue as if there were only one view that an uninformed person would want to be fully and fairly informed about. Neutrality respects people as autonomous individuals, capable of hearing all sides and judging the evidence fairly for themselves.

Encyclopedists, journalists, and textbook writers should all take note: neutrality is the best policy for free people.

11. Neutrality as adversarial, bias as inquisitorial

The phraseology “hearing all sides and judging the evidence fairly” suggests an analogy: an encyclopedist acts as a fair and impartial judge, enabling the dueling sides to call their witnesses and present their cases as forcefully as possible. Presented with a full airing of all evidence that both sides deem relevant, the jury will, we hope, arrive at a just verdict.

In an analogy with neutral writing, the judge, who organizes and oversees the proceedings, is the author. The counsel are the partisans on the sides of some issue discussed, the witnesses are experts and eyewitnesses, and the evidence and arguments are precisely analogous in both cases. The jury is the reader; the jury’s verdict, the reader’s judgment of the truth. The analogy, then, is that just as we trust that a fair presentation of both sides will result in a fair verdict in a court case, so also we may trust that a neutral account of a dispute will maximize the reader’s chances of believing something true.

What, then, is the analogy to biased text? I propose that it is the elimination of an adversarial jury trial altogether. In the inquisitorial system, the judge leads the trial, never engages a jury, and determines the verdict from the bench, speaking from authority. And this is essentially what biased texts do: the ultimate judging role of the individual reader is dismissed. How justice plays out depends on the abilities of the judge, but generally, the details of a position are not covered if the judge deems that position implausible. Perhaps justice, or the truth, will be arrived at. However that might be, the judge, or author, decides for us all, thereby infantilizing us and failing to respect our autonomy and dignity as free people.

12. The evil of totalitarian propaganda as takes the badness of bias to an extreme

There is yet another way into the same argument.

We agree that totalitarian propaganda is wrong. We resent totalitarian personality cults and indoctrination in schools and mass media. The Nazi propaganda minister, Joseph Goebbels, is generally thought to have been among the worst of the worst Nazis. There is surely something deeply alarming and oppressive about being expected not only to say certain things but also to believe a certain way, on pain of punishment by the authorities.

We in the liberal West regard these episodes with horror. Their horror is not just a reflection of the horror of mass killing and the threat of concentration camps. There is something soul-killing about the propaganda, the cults, the indoctrination itself.

I think the Goebbelses of the world, the puppetmasters who perpetrate totalitarian propaganda, have tremendous contempt for our right to make up our minds for ourselves. The propagandists do not want us to think for ourselves; they want to do our thinking for us. An independent mind—an enlightened one, in Kant’s sense—threatens the regime.

Totalitarian propaganda seems obviously bad; but why is it?

The answer, my arguments suggest, is that propaganda offends against human dignity because it does not respect our intellectual autonomy. If it is an essential part of human nature to be able to deliberate and reach our own conclusions, if that gives us our freedom, our dignity as human beings, then totalitarian propaganda is a deliberate and systematic attempt to totally deny us our dignity and our full humanity.

But if this is correct, then the error of more ordinary bias—journalistic, encyclopedic, and pedagogical—is no different, except in degree, from the crime of totalitarian propaganda. Nazi propaganda strikes horror in us because, in treating us as mindless drones, its offends against human dignity. If so, shouldn’t we be horrified, albeit to a smaller degree, when a journalist comes out in favor of a certain proposal, repeating only one side’s most persuasive talking points and failing to interview anyone on the other side?

13. Neutrality’s democratic consequences

There is one last variant on the theme of autonomy: it is that neutrality fosters democracy, a system in which power is ultimately vested in individual citizens. The consequences of neutrality are not just epistemological and moral, but also social and political.

Journalists have the franchise like everyone, and naturally they individually favor one party or another. Fully and fairly stating the evidence and arguments of all political parties, not just their own, doubtless harms their own party’s chances in an election. Still, the practice of neutrality is very important, for it has deeper and more important consequences than the temporary victory of this party or that.

I want to maintain that the robust practice of neutrality by the fourth estate strengthens democracy itself. It keeps power more firmly in the hands of independent, individual citizens, and out of the hands of an elite. It does so in remarkably many and diverse ways.

Neutrality requires that political journalists give a fair and colorful account of the drama of policy debates. This practice informs voters, allowing them to make fairer choices. It makes voters more anxious, as they should be, about the necessity of actually being informed when they do vote. It calls attention to and raises interest in substantive policy debate, causing more of such debate to occur. It calls attention to the details of policy and the evidence for and against positions and thus, one hopes, improves everyone’s quality of reasoning. It causes voters to reflect on that substance and not just react to slogans and personalities. It raises expectations that politicians ought to be serious thinkers and not just empty suits. It causes us to take our leaders and our fellow voters more seriously.

Last but certainly not least, it makes the practice of politics more intellectually complex, making us better appreciate the sort of critical, liberal arts education that is necessary to a robust democracy. It gives us an added incentive to mold our young citizens into well-prepared participants at all levels of the process, which can only be to the good of everyone.

All of this is contrary to the ethos of an authoritarian society. Journalists, encyclopedists, and teachers all bear a very heavy responsibility to fight against the authoritarian tendency—by being scrupulously neutral as they report the debate and not just the horse race.

14. The argument from the Golden Rule

My second argument is much simpler: the Golden Rule holds that we should treat others as we want them to treat us. (For philosophers, I might just as well put this in terms of Kant’s First Formulation of the Categorical Imperative, for example. Interestingly, perhaps, my first argument may be cast in terms of Kant’s Second Formulation.)

Suppose you’re writing an encyclopedia article about some topic on which you have a strong opinion, such as politics, religion, or sports, and you have to represent an opinion you think is completely wrong.

Well, the Golden Rule asks, how would you want to be treated in this situation? So let us imagine that someone else is doing writing the encyclopedia article, and you are the reader. The issue is one you are fanatical about—but the writer takes the other side. Perhaps you’d like them to ignore their own opinions and repeat yours. But that isn’t going to happen: they disagree with you. You wouldn’t want to put aside your own opinion and repeat theirs, either. At the very least, you’d like your opinion represented in this encyclopedia article, not ignored. Indeed, you want it explained fully and fairly. In fact, you want the best arguments and the strongest evidence offered. But you’ll grudgingly admit that other opinions have to be given the same treatment, as long as yours is as well.

So the Golden Rule says that that’s how you, too, should lay out opinions you disagree with. As a result, you’ll paint the whole dialectical landscape in its most vibrant colors, and not just one part of it.

In short, when people set themselves up to be authorities, condescendingly telling you The Truth when you might want to disagree, you naturally find it irritating. You want to be treated like an adult, presented with all the best arguments, so you can make up your own mind. So, since that’s how you want to be treated, the Golden Rule would have you treat your readers that way, when you sit down to write a traditionally neutral text.

15. The argument from cooperation

So far, I have given two main arguments for neutrality, which are conceptually related: first from autonomy and second from the Golden Rule. A third, from cooperation, and fourth, from reliability, I can state much more briefly.

Here’s an argument from cooperation.

Wikipedia’s predecessor, Nupedia, originally adopted a neutrality policy, which Wikipedia inherited, partly because neutrality provides a way to defuse potential problems when people collaborate. If people are working together on the same text, the text can’t take a controversial position without potentially alienating some co-writers. Of course, if the collaborators share the same views, this is not a problem. But if the collaboration is, as on Wikipedia, open-ended—if you don’t know who, in the future, will be working on it—then the prudent way to avoid conflict is simply not to let the text take a position on controversial issues. Insisting that shared text in a collaborative project remain neutral provides the basic diplomatic framework that enables such projects to exist without permanent ideological warfare.

But since this argument is relevant only to open wikis and other collaborative works, that’s all I’ll say about that here.

16. The argument from reliability

Let’s consider one last argument, from reliability. The basic claim is simple: neutral writing is truth-conducive. Neutrality makes it more probable that readers will arrive at true and nuanced beliefs. (Compare the following argument to Chapter 2 of J.S. Mill’s On Liberty.)

The conclusion here is that the exercise of rationality is truth-conducive: we are more likely to have true beliefs if we base those beliefs on cogent arguments and solid evidence. Neutral writing supports the exercise of rationality by presenting us with, ideally, a full battery of arguments, with all the relevant evidence on all sides. This better equips us to determine what is true than if we receive only one side ex cathedra.

We’ll be more likely to have true beliefs if, as a matter of policy, we are presented with neutral writing. The more points of view we consider, and the more fairly and sympathetically the arguments for the various competing views are represented (even if they are wrong), the more likely we will be to arrive at true beliefs as a result.

17. A shotgun has a better chance to hit a fuzzy target

Some people might find this to be wrong or puzzling, in cases in which the truth is known. Ideally, they’ll say, of course the best way to ensure that a reader has the truth is to determine in advance what the truth is and then present it and only it in all its glorious detail. Generally, I find nothing wrong with that, as far as it goes; however, it doesn’t go very far, as it assumes the truth to be known and—this being the sticking point—uncontroversial. What if there is significant disagreement about what the truth is, and undecided readers know this?

In such cases, undecided readers have no rational grounds on which to prefer one source over another, everything else being equal; if they wish to follow Kant’s advice, sapere aude, they must make up their own minds. If they see different experts and credible resources saying different things, which are they to believe?

What if there are five different expert views on a question, each having adherence of 20% of the expert population and a similar chance of being right? Suppose an article advocates only one of these, and it turns out to be the wrong one. Then the chance of the article’s readers reaching a true belief, based on this biased account, is 0%. But if we canvass all five views, at least those readers who settle on the correct view will have a true belief.

More generally, if one side is ignored, or made to look very bad, and that side turns out to be correct, readers are discouraged from learning it. That is what my young friends would call a “fail.” And even if the truth happens to be presented with a favorable bias, it won’t be presented in its strongest, most rationally persuasive form if the reader can’t compare it to the other, wrong side.

Suppose instead that I have indeed made up my mind about something and, fortunately, I am correct; still, neutral sources inform me about other, incorrect views. That often helps me to understand and support my own position better.

In short, a neutral presentation at least exposes readers to the truth (if anybody has it) and, by comparing it with false views, enables them to understand it better.

18. A complete map of the dialectical landscape

It’s more complicated than that, though, of course.

Frequently, there are not just two bare claims on some narrow question; instead, there are various competing webs of interdependent claims, which are best weighed at the same time. The claims, taken together, make up what I might call the “dialectical landscape” surrounding a position: all the arguments, facts, details, attacks on the other side, rebuttals to their attacks, history, and context of some core proposition. For example, the dialectical landscape of a typical Democratic Party approach to the Affordable Care Act is very different from that of the Republican Party. Whatever you think of them, both are complex, both involve many subtopics and specialized claims, and they don’t even always address the same questions.

Truly neutral text, then, fully maps out the dialectical landscape on both, or all, sides of an issue, in a way that the sides can recognize as fairly representing their views.

A map of the opposing camps provides an invaluable service to us undecided interlopers. This isn’t just because we have a better chance of deciding rationally whether the core claims are correct, but also because the quality of our understanding is greatly improved the more familiar we are with all parts of the landscape. Even if we finally embrace some false claims, our minds are improved by being exposed to the context of all the claims. After all, in the dialectical landscape surrounding all competing claims are typically many others that are uncontroversial and yet very important to evaluating both sides.

Biased writing, by contrast, tends to be comparatively simple, too often appealing to emotion and employing fallacies and simplistic versions of arguments. Even if a piece fully and fairly canvasses one side, a biased account that mentions the other side makes a caricature of it, often simply to make its own side look more reasonable. Such caricatures propagate falsehoods—they are false portrayals of what the best representatives of the other side actually believe. But the point is that such caricatures actually stand in the way of improving the sophistication of our acceptance of our own side.

Arguments against neutrality

19. Examples of “good enough” neutrality exist

I want to deal with some objections. There are two big ones: (1) neutrality is impossible, and (2) in some cases, it is simply the wrong approach.

When defending neutrality as a policy, I often hear the following. We all have our views; nobody is unbiased. Those views are bound to come out, one way or another, in any exposition of a controversy. We can try to be unbiased, but we will always fail. It’s inevitable.

Yet many of us have had the experience of taking a class from a teacher who presented both sides of controversial questions sympathetically, and at the end, the teacher asks, “So, what do you think my view is?” And nobody could tell. I taught a philosophy of religion course once and at the end of the course asked for a show of hands: “Who thinks I believe in God?” About a third of the class put their hands up. “Who thinks I believe God does not exist?” About the same number of hands went up. “Who thinks I am agnostic?” Again, about the same number of hands. That was a proud moment for me.

Similarly, many of us have—I certainly have—had the experience of reading a news or encyclopedia article covering some debate, and it occurs to us that we cannot tell what view the writer endorses. The article seems admirably even-handed.

Perhaps it is true that one can always, in any text above a certain length, find something to improve as regards neutrality. Neutrality is extremely difficult to achieve—a point I will elaborate toward the end of the paper. But “good enough” neutrality, neutrality robust enough to earn our praise, plainly exists because we have seen many examples of it.

There is a different way into the latter objection. One of the main insights that motivate some people to say that neutrality is impossible is that objectivity is impossible. We all have a point of view, goes the objection, and this makes claims that certain propositions are “objectively true,” or true independently of any observer, very problematic—perhaps indefensible. (This issue is discussed in Thomas Nagel’s well-known book The View from Nowhere.)

I doubt that this is a problem for claims about neutrality, however. As I said above, “objectivity” and “neutrality” are two quite distinct concepts. The first is a quality of beliefs or attitudes; the second is a method of or constraint on exposition. I can be as subjective and “biased” as you like, in my heart of hearts, even as I am crafting a supremely neutral text. Similarly, the claims made in such a text can be neutral, fair, balanced, or untendentious without being objectively or subjectively true or false. The point of neutrality is to be fair to what people actually believe. One can be fair despite taking a side.

20. Chomskyan cynicism

Some people claim that neutrality is impossible basically because they have a cynical view of the world. To them, neutrality is always a front, a show—never sincere. Politics, like life, is nothing but a power struggle, they believe, and any claims to neutrality are instead just a cynical device for smuggling an ideology into a reader’s thought-world under cover of such precious epithets as “fairness,” “objectivity,” or “neutrality.”

Given the abundance of examples of apparently neutral writing, such a cynical stance seems unwarranted and merely puzzling. How can these people justify their cynical attitude in the face of such seemingly obvious examples to the contrary? What are they thinking of? They seem too cynical. Perhaps this is how they think; but it is most assuredly not how everyone thinks.

I find in conversation that the cynics frequently defend their views in terms of Noam Chomsky’s influential book Manufacturing Consent. Chomsky and his followers state that the news media may be given a “propaganda model,” i.e., the news serves merely propagandistic purposes for our corporate masters. They argue that the various “filters” that make up this model put the lie to pretensions of journalistic neutrality. Basically, the news is filtered: some legitimate stories are excluded, and others are distorted by mechanisms of “money and power,” including such things as the size of mass-media firms, advertising, reliance on establishment sources, “flak,” and “anti-communism.”

The most common thing one hears, along these lines, is that the big news media organizations are owned by corporations and thus inevitably biased in favor of corporate interests—for example, ABC is owned by the Walt Disney Company, Comcast owns NBC, and National Amusements is majority shareholder of CBS. If corporate interests are in control of the news media, how could the news fail to be biased in favor of such interests and of capitalism generally?

21. Chomskyan cynicism is unconfirmed and doesn’t establish the thesis

There is no brief way to address Chomsky’s argument head-on, so I won’t try. Instead, I’ll simply discuss this type of argument. The difficulty with it in this context is that it is a hypothesis formed more or less a priori—the news must be “filtered” because it is subject to the mechanisms of money and power—and while the hypothesis might be true (although, frankly, I doubt it), it can be confirmed only empirically.

What would go into confirming the claim? At a minimum, one would have to find some way to identify instances of bias and then confirm that that bias tends to be significantly associated with Chomsky’s “filters” such as corporate interests. The question then devolves from the rarified, abstract air of “systemic bias” to the more humdrum, concrete instances of bias that can be detected in actual reporting. Even if Chomsky and his followers were able to marshal some convincing examples of bias in corporate-sponsored reporting, the fact remains that there are plenty of examples of unbiased reporting. At least, in my opinion, there have been lots of news articles that lack any significant amount of bias.

Even if it is completely correct—and falsifiable—Chomsky’s cynical hypothesis appears to be that there is one source of thoroughgoing bias due to the influence of “filters.” It does not follow that neutrality is in principle impossible. In other words, even if we can identify something like “systemic” bias, or the bias of the whole (unreconstructed capitalist) system, it does not follow that there is bias in every instance of every publication, every article, every paragraph, and every sentence.

Another response is simpler: Chomsky’s criticisms concern only corporate news. What about private, independent media, individual and small bloggers, academic and independent encyclopedias, and various non-corporate textbooks? Even supposing that corporate news is hopelessly and systemically biased, that would not establish that neutrality per se is unachievable.

22. Is neutrality relative?

Next I will address a different sort of argument that neutrality is impossible. Its basic premise is that neutrality is relative.

This is hard to dispute: it seems to follow from the very definition of neutrality. If neutrality is a matter of fairly representing the various opinions on a question, one is right to ask which opinions should be included. We routinely exclude the extreme minority, idiosyncratic, and personal opinions from traditionally neutral texts, and we don’t call them biased for this reason. But we also routinely exclude (or fail to weight) opinions from foreign cultures. And for this reason—I will have to agree—our texts are typically biased in favor of our own cultures.

New York Times article about the American policy debate over gun rights and gun control, which is remarkably even-handed in its treatment of Republican and Democratic approaches, correctly looks extremely biased to a Briton, for whom the very idea of “gun rights” seems ridiculous and horrible. And so it is. The Times article is biased: it carries an American bias. One may also say that an encyclopedia article for the Catholic Encyclopedia might be unbiased with respect to liberation theologians and conservatives, while remaining biased, as one would expect, in favor of Catholicism generally. And the same may be said for textbooks and encyclopedias and so forth: even if they are neutral with respect to a particular community, they are biased in favor of the more distinctive aspects of the community’s outlook.

This is interesting, but it is not very obviously a serious objection to a neutrality policy. It might cause us to review the arguments in favor of the policy. Indeed it seems we are indoctrinated, by our newspapers, encyclopedias, and textbooks, into our community’s basic assumptions. Are we less free for that indoctrination? Cosmopolitan philosophers like Descartes (Discourse on Method, Part 1) and Spinoza (his Ethics again) certainly thought so—to say nothing of contemporary philosophers like Martha Nussbaum and Kwame Anthony Appiah. I think so too. But it is surely too much to ask that writers somehow take account of the enormous range of views from across the whole globe when they write in traditionally neutral forms—or even always to care about those views. Arguably, it is human to be part of a culture, and, globalism notwithstanding, there is really no such thing as a “global monoculture” with respect to which writers should be expected to be neutral. Maybe that will exist someday, but it doesn’t yet.

I suppose a committed multiculturalist or relativist might want to take me to task for this, saying that it would surely be a grand thing that we be exposed to the broadest range of views from across the globe and across all ideologies, religions, and philosophies. (But what about eras? Shouldn’t we canvass historical views as well? We are surely present-biased.) Such a perspective is what one hopes to gain from international travel and a broadening, liberal education. But with the possible exception of remarkable polymaths, probably none of us has such a global perspective that we could make sense of a globally “neutral” newspaper, encyclopedia, or textbook—one that comprehensively takes account of an entirely global range of views.

Wikipedia itself might be thought to be committed to such a completely international neutrality, and in places, its policies have seemed to hold it to that utopian ambition. But of course it cannot be and it is not. The English Wikipedia’s articles about science most clearly betray its Western and especially Anglo-American provenance, and articles about, for example, philosophy are mostly about Western philosophy. I see nothing really wrong with that. There are many pages that report comparative information about conditions all over the world; but I have never seen a page that actually tries to synthesize and compare opinions from around the world, about controversial questions. It might, perhaps, be a worthy goal to create a new version of Wikipedia that is fully committed to being internationally neutral. If it succeeded, it would be the world’s first and only encyclopedia (or traditionally neutral text of any sort) that is fully neutral. I’m not claiming that many people would find it to be very useful. Maybe it would, but I might instead prove to be a curiosity of interest only to a few scholars.

23. Are some positions unworthy of inclusion in a traditionally neutral text?

The last major objection to a neutrality policy that I will consider is perhaps the most potent for many journalists: sometimes, certain points of view simply don’t deserve inclusion in a traditionally neutral text. Surely, some opinions are simply wrong—scientifically disproven, grossly offensive, or just plain idiotic.

Journalists sometimes make this objection. They react with exasperation at accusations of “liberal bias” from conservatives, arguing that sometimes, since one side of a dispute is clearly false, any balance would be “false balance.” The mission of journalism is to uncover the truth, and its first commitment is to accuracy. Accuracy, these journalists say, forbids us to strike a spurious balance between what are in fact two very unequal views.

I think some journalists can use this device as a cover for naked partisan bias: if there is a legitimate debate and an activist journalist refuses to find a “false balance,” that’s a fallacy. Whenever journalists choose a side, on grounds of avoiding “false balance,” they owe us an argument that the disfavored side really does not deserve neutral treatment. What sort of argument would do the trick?

Consider some points of view that mainstream journalists often find unworthy of uncritical coverage: global warming skepticism; creationism, intelligent design, or creation science; the anti-vaccination movement; homeopathic medicine. Those examples are from science, and similarly controversial examples might be drawn from recent events and history: Holocaust denial; “birtherism”; the 9/11 conspiracy theory; the Bilderberger or Jewish banker conspiracy theory.

The popularity of such views combined with the relative silence about them in the media suggests that journalists would find neutral coverage of such topics to be “false balance.” These also suggest at least two different variants of the argument to consider: a moral variant and an epistemological variant.

On the moral variant, the reason we should not fairly represent certain positions is that the positions are morally reprehensible, harmful, and/or dangerous. This is a common German attitude toward Holocaust denial. Moral concerns, therefore, outweigh society’s interest in neutral reporting.

On the epistemological variant, the reason is that the positions are so unscientific or otherwise ill-supported that it simply insults readers’ intelligence for a writer to treat them seriously. This is a common scientific attitude toward homeopathy and global warming skepticism. Here, epistemological concerns outweigh society’s interest in neutral reporting.

In either case, the argument is simple: certain views are either morally or epistemologically bankrupt to an extreme degree. So, the claim goes, traditionally neutral texts are under no obligation to include them. Therefore, since there are exceptions, neutrality is not a universal, absolute principle. It has its place, my journalist friends tell me, but it operates within ethical and epistemological constraints—which they determine, of course.

24. The relevance of morally repugnant views depends on the context

This all seems reasonable. Heroically, I shall proceed to disagree.

Let me begin by conceding that there do seem to be instances of positions that I would want to exclude from an encyclopedia, for example. It it does seem I would want to do so on grounds that they are thoroughly (morally) reprehensible or utterly (epistemologically) ridiculous. Is shoplifting to be represented as a legitimate hobby? Do the attitudes of child molesters or sociopathic killers toward their crimes merit serious discussion? Do we really need to spend any time on Holocaust denial? For some, these seem to be rhetorical questions; but I won’t treat them that way.

In a list of hobbies covered by an encyclopedia, we wouldn’t include shoplifting, even though it serves as a hobby for some people. But there are perspectives in psychology or sociology that consider shoplifting that way. And while a general encyclopedia might not include shoplifting among the hobbies, probably we can justify that exclusion not on grounds that it is immoral or criminal but because it simply is not ordinarily classified among the hobbies.

Similarly, in news reports of crime statistics, crime’s impact on communities, and police and legislative strategies to defeat it, discussion of the attitudes of child molesters and sociopathic killers is an unnecessary and unwelcome intrusion. That is because they are irrelevant to the concerns of news readers. But criminal attitudes are certainly a focus of sociologists and criminal psychologists, who need to understand the motives of criminals; in criminology textbooks, criminal attitudes are crucial to include in chapters about criminal psychology. And sometimes, criminal motives are newsworthy. For example, we all wonder what impels a handful of inner-city blacks to shoot white police officers without provocation—and vice-versa.

Even Holocaust denial is open to the same sort of context-based analysis. There is no need to include Holocaust denial as an “alternative theory” about German history in WWII, for the simple reason that it is an extreme minority position; textbooks are under no obligation to include extreme minority positions. Of course it is repugnant, but its repugnance is not why it is not covered in textbooks. After all, there are circumstances—e.g., the politics of modern Germany, or German sociology—in which the views of Holocaust deniers, and getting the facts about them correctly and even sympathetically stated, might be important.

This discussion should make it plausible that it is not the moral bankruptcy of certain views that would lead us to exclude them from traditionally neutral texts, after all, but just considerations of relevance. It depends on the purpose of the texts. In some sorts of texts, thoroughly reprehensible things are described in stunning detail. In others, they simply aren’t relevant.

25. The same sort of analysis given to teaching creationism in schools

So much for the moral argument. What about the epistemological version? Is such an analysis possible for those cases in which a position seems legitimate to exclude because (on the view of many scientists or scholars) it lacks any sound intellectual basis?

I can’t sidestep the issue when it comes to, for example, creation science or creationism in biology textbooks. I won’t pretend to be able to adjudicate this politically charged issue in a short space, but I will make a few germane remarks and draw some limited, tentative conclusions.

On the one hand, the public and their representatives in Texas certainly have the right to ensure that public school children are exposed to views about what fundamentalist Christians believe about the creation of the world and the origin of species. In the U.S., they do not have the legal right to teach only those views in public schools, because that would run afoul of First Amendment prohibitions of the state establishment of religion. But it seems perfectly unobjectionable that those views, if placed among others, are canvassed in public schools.

On the other hand, scientists have an excellent point when they maintain that creation science is an extreme minority view among scientists. Even scientists with a Christian point of view generally endorse evolutionary theory, as does the Catholic Church. If the purpose of teaching biology is to impart facts and theories that biologists stand behind, then biology classes should do so.

A policy of neutrality would have us determine what the relevant community is. In science class, that would seem to be the scientific community. But science class is taking place in the larger context of enculturation by the school system, and there the relevant community is the general public, not just scientists.

Bearing this in mind, I think adopting a policy of neutrality would entail the following recommendations:

  1. Insofar as biology class is canvassing the views of actual biologists, creation science has no place there; for better or worse, the vast majority of scientists simply do not consider it to be a scientific theory at all, but a theological one. So it is simply incorrect to represent it as one view among many.
  2. Insofar as biology class takes place in the context of a broader schooling context, however, the people of Texas (and other such places) have the right to insist, not that the science be taught a certain way, but that students be informed that a large number of citizens disagree with the science. Little time need be spent in informing them of this disagreement in science class, because the disagreement is not a topic in science but in the broader culture. But the dignity of students and their parents is best respected when their disagreement is officially and respectfully acknowledged.
  3. In the interests of neutrality, in addition to evolution as taught in biology, students should be taught about (neutrally, of course) a variety of religious, philosophical, and scientific views about cosmology, creation stories, and other topics that religion, philosophy, and science all speak on. Such an interdisciplinary class or unit would be the place in which creationism would be canvassed. Needless to say, perhaps, students in that class whose parents do not want a neutral approach to this subject should not be forced to endure it.

This is a compromise solution, and I hope a neutral one as well.

I could give similar treatment to other issues. What I want to maintain is that for all the issues listed earlier, there exist sophisticated, often multi-part neutral solutions. In some cases I might seem to favor one part or another; but taken all together, the result will be fair. Journalists, or the state, will not unduly favor one position over another, affording readers and students the dignity and tools to decide important, controversial issues for themselves.

26. Neutrality and global climate change

A few comments about how to write neutrally about climate change should clarify some more issues.

A majority of climate scientists believe in anthropogenic global warming (AGW); exactly which scientists to include as “experts,” and thus which surveys to consider and what percentage endorse it, is a matter of debate. In any case, while there are some distinguished climate science experts who are skeptics, a decided majority are not.

When explaining the science itself—so, in science textbooks and science research news—understanding the controversy is not the primary aim. Understanding the state of the science is. So, presumably, in that context, most of the issues and most of the evidence will appear to be on the AGW side, not because the writers are biased but because most of the actual science happens to be on that side. In other words, if the mission of the text is to canvass the science, the text will appear biased but it will not really be biased; any bias is to be found in the subject matter itself. Besides, there are many skeptical qualifications and objections that will be worth covering, even if they are dismissed by most experts. One justification of covering them, apart from the requirements of neutrality, is that it helps the mastery of any very complex subject (like climate science) to consider objections and qualifications.

But matters are different in a political context—political journalism, or encyclopedia articles or textbook chapters about the politics of global warming. There, as important as understanding the science is, understanding the controversy is even more important. Coverage of such a controversy cannot be done without apportioning space at least roughly equally.

Climate change scientists and activists have dismissed the idea that journalists ought to report neutrally on climate change skepticism by arguing, “If you’re going to give equal space to climate change skepticism, you should also give equal space to Holocaust denial—which is absurd.” But I hope it’s clear how I would respond to that argument: while among the American population, climate change skepticism appears to be a (large) minority position, Holocaust denial is a tiny fringe phenomenon. In an American context, reporting neutrally about the climate change debate does not entail that reporters must so much as mention Holocaust denial. In certain other countries, however, things might be different.

I realize this section’s discussion is just a lot of hand-waving on my part, and more needs to be said. Beyond this, the issues are to be taken up by the experts themselves (those who really care about neutrality). That, as we will see next, is the point: the specific requirements of neutrality in any particular case can be discovered only by careful study of the details of the case. The devil of bias and the angel of neutrality are in the details.

The difficulty of neutrality and how we might eradicate bias

27. Neutrality is complex and difficult

After this long discussion, I hope it will be abundantly clear that neutrality is not a simple concept. “Why can’t journalists just be more neutral?” readers ask, complaining about “media bias.” But this assumes that neutrality is something simple and straightforward to fix, like a spelling mistake. It might appear simple, if you think of neutrality as no more than giving an equal amount of space to each position and avoiding obviously controversial judgments.

Apportioning space evenly and avoiding words that imply judgment is a good place to begin, especially when you’re reporting about a policy debate. But if your purpose is to construct a narrative about a multi-layered, developing situation, neutrality is instead a matter of relaying, while reporting the basic facts, that there are alternative views, mentioning them in the right places, providing different possible explanations, and so forth.

The failure to understand or acknowledge the complexity of neutrality is widespread, even among writers. That failure in turn leads many writers, even of traditionally neutral texts, to underestimate the challenges and fail to take practical measures to meet them head-on. Writers often fail at this and end up writing biased stuff without realizing it, even when they sincerely believe and intend otherwise. The sheer difficulty of neutrality is at the root of this failure.

When we learn to spot instances of bias and look hard for it, we can see it everywhere. For some, this in turn causes cynicism about the very possibility of neutrality.

28. If bias is the norm, it must be eradicated deliberately

Cynicism is understandable. We should expect bias to be the norm, if it isn’t deliberately eradicated.

That bias is the natural state of affairs became obvious to me after I attempted to herd the many biased cats of Wikipedia and Citizendium, and later compared those experiences to what I learned about how the admirably even-handed ProCon.org operates. (Disclosure: ProCon’s publisher is an investor in a startup of mine; but we got to know each other some years before that due to the very issue of neutrality.) ProCon’s executive team told me they have detailed rules about neutrality as well as a thorough process in which people from a variety of ideological perspectives give brutally honest feedback on the fairness of drafts. The result is remarkably even-handed articles.

Well, if ProCon has to invest so much time and attention to make their pages neutral, what makes the rest of us think we can do it without spending a similar amount of time and attention?

29. How publishers can improve neutrality

Publishers, I propose, need to add two features to combat bias: first, detailed neutrality guidelines, and second, specific procedures for making writing more neutral, including specially assigned people.

We would need a complex set of neutrality guidelines to identify neutrality problems and adjudicate issues. I haven’t included such rules in this document. To a great extent, the rules will resemble a style guide. Wikipedia has an extensive guide, and I have developed a guide for Ballotpedia. Other publishing organizations that claim to be neutral or fair ought to be able to articulate exactly what guidelines they follow in identifying and resolving neutrality problems.

Beyond simply having rules, staff need to follow some procedure to ensure that the publication as a whole, as well as individual articles and their components, are all neutral. Some publishers invest money into copyediting and fact-checking, presumably on grounds that it makes their publications more readable and accurate. Similarly, I propose that publishers of traditionally neutral texts ought to care much more than they apparently do about neutrality, and they might wish to assign editors and writers to handle the most difficult neutrality issues and otherwise implement their neutrality methodology.

ProCon goes further, constantly worrying about the issue and following arduous procedures to achieve it. Ballotpedia, too, has hired two people for a new sort of position that will help with neutrality issues.

30. The discipline of neutrality

Let me elaborate the second point here.

I am proposing that publishers add what would for many be a new layer of oversight: not just vague expressions of commitment to neutrality, but specially assigned neutrality editors, or some other way to more actively and aggressively edit for neutrality, in addition to the traditional disciplines of copyediting and fact-checking.

Ballotpedia recently hired its first writers specifically tasked to work on neutrality. I helped hire them. We had the top candidates evaluate the neutrality of a report Ballotpedia had recently done. I immodestly prided myself on my ability to spot problems with neutrality, and the Ballotpedia piece struck me (on a too-casual reading) as having only a few problems—nothing too bad. But after the candidates got through with it, it was clear that the report had many more neutrality issues than I had noticed. The problems were mostly subtle and perhaps understandable, but the criticisms all made sense. And more to the point, they were all fixable. If the writer of that study had had feedback from a neutrality editor, the piece would have been substantially more neutral and better-written as a result.

Similar instances of surprising, “hidden” bias are rife in most news reporting, textbooks, and encyclopedia articles. If we choose to view neutrality as a discipline similar to good spelling, then the bias of today’s journalism, textbooks, and encyclopedias looks clumsy and backward, like the weird spellings one finds in books published before spelling became standardized.

Professional publishing operations already take the time for the traditional disciplines of copyediting and fact-checking, because publishers and readers value readability and accuracy. For traditionally neutral forms, shouldn’t they also value neutrality just as much? The moral and political arguments in favor of a new discipline are as strong. If you do not take the time to edit for neutrality very explicitly, you will simply fail to be neutral. How could you not? The same can be said of copyediting and fact-checking: if you don’t take the time to edit explicitly for correct mechanics and accuracy, you’ll probably screw up. To err is human. If you try hard and are conscientious, you might do a decent job—maybe. If you want to be sure, hire some professionals and set up a neutrality editing process.

31. No newspaper has ever been neutral

If I am right that bias is rife and yet we have good reason to value neutrality, there is a great latent demand for reporting that is neutral in the sense described here. I know that I would take great interest in any news, encyclopedia, or textbook publisher that credibly announced a claim to neutrality in the sense I have defined.

The emphasis here is on “credibly.” Obviously, claims to being “unbiased” or “objective” have long been a cheap but meaningless selling point for various clearly biased publications. Idle claims to the effect of “we are already neutral, of course” are simply not credible.

After all, the reply is simple: No, you aren’t. No newspaper has ever been neutral. No newspaper has ever even tried properly, as a matter of policy.

Again, this isn’t a complaint about “liberal media bias.” Fox News claims to be “fair and balanced” but of course very few people believe they are. Traditional news broadcasts project a tone of objectivity and generally claim not to be biased. But nobody really believes they’re neutral in the sense defined in this paper. Again, I say this not because I’m accusing them of liberal bias but because neutrality is difficult and simply will not be achieved except deliberately, recognizing the perhaps surprising complexity and difficulty of the job and devoting the effort needed to get it done.

A publisher’s claim to neutrality could be substantiated by (a) publishing a statement of neutrality principles, (b) taking proactive measures to ensure that they are followed, (c) doing studies of reader and external neutrality auditors vouching for success, and finally (d) publishing the results of the audits.

32. There is an unmet latent demand for neutrality

There’s a great latent demand for neutral content, and the demand is unmet.

There will always be a market for biased reporting and opinion. But publishing operations that can credibly state that they embrace neutrality would have an unusual advantage over others. So I speculate that startups in a new “neutrality niche” might do well. There could be newspapers, weeklies, wire services, and more.

I can also imagine startups in reference and textbook publishing that could credibly make similar claims. As an encyclopedia aficionado and former college teacher, I know I’d be extremely interested.

Finally, I can imagine firms offering external audits of the neutrality of publications and research organizations.

Readers can help make this happen, too, simply by making their preference for neutral texts known. You simply need to promote the proposition that publishers should adopt both detailed neutrality guidelines and procedures for ensuring the guidelines are followed.[1]

  1. For discussion and other help, thanks to Kamy Akhavan, Courtney Collins, Angela Consani, Anthony DiPierro, Scott Duryea, Stephen Ewen, Mike Forsythe, Leslie Graves, Sara Key, Greg Lukianoff, Geoff Pallay, Terry Phillips, Jay Rakow, Gerry Sanger, Kristen Smith, Jason Swadley, Anton Sweeney, and Bryan White.

Social Media Meets RSS, v2

Larry Sanger

What Is Minifeed?

YOU want to control your social media feed. You want to own your follower lists. You don’t want to have to please the poor, pitiful moderators at some giant, cynical Silicon Valley behemoth. Just like on your blog, nobody should be able to shut you up—though, to be sure, they can shut you out of their own feed. In fact, if you leave Twitter, or Facebook, or whatever, you’d like to be take along your content and your followers and still have them, with just as much impact as they were having before. How could we make that possible?

Well, why not use the same open network that connects our blogs together—RSS—to connect our social media? That was the thought I had last January, when I posted “We Want to Pay for a Good, Functioning WordPress Microposting Plugin.”

The Knowledge Standards Foundation took on the project, and the first example microblog—or, as we call it, “minifeed”—was StartThis:

The new Minifeed theme turns a WordPress blog into a social media feed. StartThis happens to run on my own NAS sitting in a box at home and backed up offsite. It’s pretty cool to be able to control my own social media feed literally from the comfort of my own home. There are over a dozen other Minifeed installs, including one for the Minifeed project itself. You’re going to see a lot more popping up when we finish version 2. When v2 is ready, we’ll make it fully open source (both libre and gratis). It might just change the world…for the better. We’ll take back what’s ours.

v2: General Requirements

Just as I posted the requirements for Minifeed v1 on this blog, I’m going to post the requirements for v2 here too.

In the following, “mini” is short for “Minifeed”.

The first step of v2 is to create a social media reader. This is a big enough job that it might occupy all of v2, but we do want to go further to support cross-mini (or inter-mini) conversations as well as a notification feed. We will build the reader first, anyway. The basic requirements can be briefly listed:

  • Follow and unfollow an RSS feed.
  • Display only my (i.e., this mini install’s) posts—as at present.
  • Feed reader: display my feed with posts from followed feeds (i.e., from other mini installs) intermixed with mine.
  • If this is different from the foregoing, which it might not be: display other RSS feeds formatted as minis.
  • Add inter-mini discussion threading.
  • Support account mention features.
  • Display mentions in notification feed.

Assorted feature requests associated with the above:

  • The format for a mini account mention should be as in the Fediverse: @[email protected] Thus my Twitter address is @[email protected], while my StartThis address is @[email protected], and my mini address is @[email protected]
  • If I type a well-formed mini address, the software should attempt to find the associated RSS feed and account information. It should pop up the account information in a box, as Twitter does at present. I should be able to follow and unfollow the account from that interface.
  • I should also be able to follow a feed simply by pasting it into a form (i.e., this is what you have already started developing).
  • If I type @id with no domain, the software should attempt to identify that person and complete (shown on mouseover) the address if it is unique. If it is not unique, I should be forced to type the whole address.

I will continue to work on this post over the next few days to weeks, so let me know if you have any special (related) requests or ideas.

Following RSS Feeds

Requirements

In these requirements I distinguish between the act of following a feed and the display of the feed (the latter is covered below under “Feed Reader”). The basic requirements here are simple:

  • Form allowing people to add a feed; verify that a feed is readable.
  • Construct “followers” list from RSS messages that such-and-such is now following.
  • Count, list, search, and delete items from a list of followed feeds; make these public by default, but include an option to make them private.

1. Add feeds to, and display, followed feeds list

  • Design
    • On desktop/wider screens, the form should be near the top of the page in the sidebar.
    • On mobile/narrower screens, there should be a prominent button/link near the top of the screen (not at the bottom, at any rate). The form should popup/slidein (whatever we use).
    • The list of followed feeds should be linked from near the top of the account’s poster page, using the number of such feeds.
    • The list should be public by default, but should be easy to make private (like an obvious toggle switch)
  • Functionality
    • Form should verify well-formed URL first, and give feedback to the poster, if there’s a problem.
    • Form should also verify that account is not on “blocking” list (i.e., list of accounts that have requested that you not follow; see “block self” just below). If the account is on that list, tell the poster.
    • The software should attempt to locate the RSS feed first at the given address, and then, bearing in mind that the poster might have supplied an incorrect path, in various locations using the poster-provided domain.
    • If no readable feed can be found, the poster should be told so.
    • If the feed is added, a notice to that effect should be given…maybe a slide-in from the bottom saying “@id was added” with a link to the followees list.
    • If the feed is added, an RSS message to this effect should be sent to the blog (see next).
    • Basic search.
    • “Unfollow as requested”: if account receives an authenticated RSS message from a followed feed, reporting that your account is blocked, respect this by unfollowing the feed.
      • Remove feed info from list of followed feeds.
      • Add same info to an always-private list of “feeds blocking me”. The link to this should probably be located at the bottom of the followed feeds (I guess?).
    • Eventually, allow accounts to respond to messages that they are now un-blocked.

2. Construct followers list

  • Design
    • The button/link to the followers list should be prominent and near the top of the account’s poster page (as on Twitter).
    • The list of followers should be linked from near the top of the account’s poster page, using the number of followers.
    • The list should be public by default, but should be easy to make private.
  • Functionality
    • Basic search.
    • “Block”: sends an RSS message to the follower.
      • Instructs the recipient’s Minifeed software to stop following. (See above.)
      • Unfollows the account, if was already following.
      • Adds account to list of “blocked feeds.”
      • Note: does not add accounts to “feeds blocking me” list. That is a distinct list.
    • Eventually, support un-blocking as well.

How to Decentralize Data Aggregation

One special difficulty about decentralized social media (especially such functions as counting likes and shares) is that it involves aggregating data across the entire network; for example, how do we calculate the number of “likes” of a post, if there is no master database containing all social media posts, and a function to count them up within a database? Can we do that without a giant central database? Centralized aggregators would make this possible, but they also place individuals at the mercy of much bigger organizations—ultimately, whoever does the job of centralization best will govern the network.

Besides, especially for smaller interactions among relatively few people, aggregators should not be necessary. The basic idea is to use a propagation model. The idea behind the strategy is simple:

  • All social media data is connected to posts.
  • Anyone who has a copy of a post, a reply, a like, a share, etc., is good enough as a source of the data as the original.
  • It is much more efficient for people with updates to push those updates out than to check 1,000 followed accounts regularly (with “no” answers).
  • BitTorrent is a P2P network in which anyone may be the supplier of a copy of a requested file. We might want to engineer a solution that uses that; Ology is working on something like this, so we should keep in touch with them.

In summary, one suggestion is that you push all updates to your own posts to BitTorrent, and you grab the data you need to construct your feed from BitTorrent. But exactly how it will work we leave to the engineers.

Feed Reader

Introduction

The feed reader (or just “feed”) is similar to, but to be distinguished from, the notifications feed (or just “notifications”). The feed reader displays, according to some algorithm (we can put them in reverse chronological order of receipt, to start), the posts of the feeds one is following. By contrast, notifications include replies, mentions, reposts, likes, and other items of interest to the poster which do not appear prominently in the feed.

In this, we are drawing the same distinction Twitter does. There is a good reason for doing so. A feed gives you new material to consider. The word “feed” is short for “newsfeed,” and a news feed gives you news, or discussion-starters, not the meat of the discussion. Your notifications, by contrast, are a feed in a derivative sense—a list of new posts and activity of interest to you.

Requirements

So here are the feed reader requirements, design and functionality combined:

  • Account A keeps a list of all accounts that follow A (see above, “Construct followers list”). Then, “behind the scenes,” whenever A posts; or A posts a response to account B’s post, or to a post that B is mentioned in (see below); or A takes an action on account B’s post (see below); then A sends a push message to B (or perhaps to a pingback system, whereupon B fetches the message).
  • Posts drawn from other sources are formatted the same as one’s own (but there could be an option to make one’s own posts appear differently, e.g., with a different background color).
  • Within the main feed, all posts from all accounts that you follow are displayed reverse chronological in order of receipt, rather than reverse chronological order of original posting timestamp. Note, posts within a thread do have to be placed in forward chronological order of original posting timestamp.
  • Local copies of all external posts are saved to the database as originally posted, unless they are edited or deleted:
    • An external post that is edited is updated in the database and reposted (although feed algorithms might deal with them specially) and specially marked (just how is a task for the designer).
    • External posts that are neither liked, nor reposted, nor responded to (in other words, the account does not touch them), are deleted after some period of time, once the database has gotten up to a certain specified amount of space. The database size is always kept below a certain editable limit.
    • The poster can delete individual posts from his feed. (This has no effect on the source post.)

Liking, Sharing, and Related Functionality

Introduction

This section concerns the “social-making” functionality of operations on individual posts. Liking and sharing both add an attribute to a post; sharing pushes a post to others’ feeds as well; quote-sharing creates a new post that incorporates an existing post; using a hashtag in a post adds the post to a list of posts that use the hashtag; and mentioning an account generates a notification message to the mentioned account.

Requirements: Liking

  • The owner (or account, or originating address) of a post cannot “like” its own post. (Just in case it isn’t obvious: all posts are encoded as having a unique originating address/account.)
  • When I “like” a post, a message to that effect is sent to that post’s owner’s mini (if that makes sense); and a record of the like is saved, so that the local count is incremented. Similarly when I retract a “like”—i.e., pressing the “like” button for a post that has already been “liked” toggles the “like” off. This sends a retraction message to the post owner’s mini, and the local count is decremented.
  • When a mini receives a “like” notice for one of its own posts, the mini tracks the supplied data (address of liking account, timestamp either of time received, probably, or of time sent, maybe, or both) and generally keeps an updated list of likes. Similarly, when a mini receives a retraction of a like, the data is deleted. In either case, the local count is incremented/decremented.
  • For various reasons, it seems probable that the number of “likes” being assigned to a given post will occasionally differ between minis, maybe due to undelivered notices. v2 will not feature a reconciliation feature, but such a feature seems like a good idea for future iterations.
  • Number of “likes” to display is determined by actually counting the number of “like” records, not by incrementing or decrementing a raw number not tied to the number of records.
  • For persons other than the owner of a post, it is not clear how the like count is going to be updated. Preferably, the count (and, perhaps, the associated info) will be dynamically updated after being initially loaded, by being synced with the source post.
  • Probably, “liking” and “unliking” posts generates an RSS update. Theoretically, it should be possible to rebuild or reconcile/audit an accurate feed strictly based on the RSS feeds contributing to my feed (especially, but not only, accounts I follow).

Requirements: Sharing and Quote Sharing

  • Sharing a post (that is not one’s own) essentially makes a copy of the post and posts it to one’s own feed, but retaining the original authorship and other updatable metadata of the original.
  • Sharing a post that is itself shared (by a third party) is, for now, treated identically to sharing the original post.
  • Everything said above about data exchange of “likes” applies to “shares” as well, except that you can “share” your own post as many times as you like, but this does not increment your share score.
  • Quote sharing involves making a brand new post and incorporating another post as part of the content of the post.
  • If there is more than one post shared, or if a post is shared along with some media, whatever appears at the bottom of the post is displayed.
  • A post shared above some other post or media is shown as a clickable link, and does not increment the count of “shares.” (I’m not quite sure of the latter.)
  • A quote-shared post generates a mention-type notification message (see below) to the account of the author of the shared post (if at the bottom of the post).
Requirements: Hashtags, Mentions, and Search Updates
  • Hashtag pages work as at present, but incorporate posts from all followed accounts, or, when available, all accounts in an aggregator’s database (probably not available until v3).
  • Mentions generate non-displayed messages to the account mentioned (i.e., RSS posts used behind the scenes by the software in notifications).
  • The receipt of a mention message is reflected by notifications (see below).
  • Search is changed to include tweets from all posts in the local database (including those not originating with the poster), or, when available, from all accounts in an aggregator’s database (probably not available until v3).

High priorities (may not be listed above)

  • Develop new, better, built-in functionality for pushing posts to Twitter.
  • In the latter, support images.
  • Also in the latter, push what appear to be threads on Minifeed to threads on Twitter.
  • Minifeed threads are currently two-deep. I’d like to have the concept of a “topmost post” and an indeterminate number of child posts. But if we decide that is substandard, at least I would like the option of being able to automatically incorporate a snippet of a longer post (one for which there is no length limit imposed).

Threading

To be finished…

 

Notifications

 

A first attempt at using WordPress for microblogging

Larry Sanger

Here is the brand spanking new Larry Sanger Microblog, which lives at a domain I had sitting around doing nothing: StartThis.org. As you’ll see, it looks a little like a social media feed. I simply downloaded a theme, then spent the day fixing it up so it looked more or less right like a microblog. I limit myself to 280 characters. That helps.

Microdog

You can comment in response, if you like. Try to keep your responses to 280 characters!

I am soon going to start working with a developer on a proper WordPress plugin for microposting. But this will probably take several weeks (so he says). Therefore, in the meantime, I thought I’d go ahead and just use WordPress like a social media site.

I am hosting the microblog on my own NAS, which means the microposts are being served right out of my office. Talk about owning your own data! And an especially cool thing, I guess, is that it works fine, it was not hard to install and configure (on Synology, anyway), and—if you can believe it—it’s not slow!

What Decentralization is Going to Require

Larry Sanger

Decentralization. It’s not just a hip happnin’ buzzword. And it’s not just for blockchain. It has been important, and it always has been—I was using it back in 2005 to describe the early Wikipedia—because it uses technology to guarantee, or at least safeguard, freedom. It removes control of public conversations from the hands of would-be overseers of the digital plantations.

Here are the principles that “decentralization” encodes:

  1. Self-ownership. Each user owns his own identity in the network.
  2. Data ownership. You own your own data; you control your own data, within the bounds of controlling law.
  3. Platform-independent following. You control your friend/follower list independently of all platforms. Hence, once a friend follows you on one platform, he should follow you forever everywhere until he unfollows you or you block him (or there is a lawful government order compelling a change).
  4. Platform-agnostic posting. Posting on one platform means posting the same thing on all platforms that are part of one big decentralized network.
  5. Decentralized moderation. Content moderation, which is ultimately an absolute requirement, cannot be performed by a single, central, controlling body or system, providing identical outcomes. So it, too, must be decentralized.
  6. Single conversation. Therefore, there is one giant integrated conversation, but parts of are not shown to people who don’t want to see it (or in places it’s literally illegal). Of course, it is still legal for people to run closed, walled gardens; but they’re not for general broadcast.
  7. Anti-monopoly. Therefore, also, no corporation has anything like a monopoly over the means of social media broadcasting, as at present.

There are several requirements that, I believe, are absolutely required of the alternative social media platforms to satisfy these principles:

  1. User exportability. Platforms should permit users to export a complete and unadulterated copy of their user data from the platform and host it elsewhere. Moreover, public user data that is edited by the user in one place must be brought current with all other copies made elsewhere as well, in a timely fashion.
  2. Data exportability. The user’s data must be easily exportable in a common, easily machine-readable format, according to a widely-used standard. This is an absolute minimum. Not many actually support this yet. This isn’t enough, though, because you need to be able to export your followers, too, and to do that:
  3. Interoperability. The social media platform must be made as interoperable as possible (at the user’s option). So I should be able to subscribe and follow someone who is posting on his own blog, or Mastodon, or Gab, or Parler. I should be able to post and read from any of these networks, and the data should appear in a timely fashion in all the rest.
  4. Data inalienability. If the user’s data is not actually served from outside of a platform—which should be possible—then it is treated by the platform as if it were. The platform is merely holding the data on behalf of the user, as a service. The platform must not treat the data as “theirs.” This is still a rather vague requirement, but it has specific consequences. One of them would be that the platform is absolutely not permitted to delete or edit a post from your data, although they can of course opt not to post it on the platform. Twitter and Facebook violate this principle when they fail to retain copies of posts that they delete.

Those are things I feel confident of, as a bare minimum. There are other things that really also need to be part of it, I suspect:

  1. Moderation. Individual users, or whole platforms (if users should wish to use them), should be able to select their own moderators. Moderation data, or metadata—such as that a certain user should be blocked, or that a certain post should be hidden or flagged in some way—should be shared in a way similar to how the user data and content itself is served (so, across the network in a decentralized way), and independently of the user’s canonical copy of the data.
  2. Text representation. The user’s public data must be syndicated in a lo-tech text-based (more human-friendly) format such as JSON or XML, even if they have an API (maybe I don’t want to be forced to use their API, maybe because it’s too restrictive). The purpose of this is to enable the user to more easily exert control over the source or original version of his own tweets. This text stream, if it still exists and the author’s control can be proven, becomes the user’s personal assertion or attestation as to how the state of his personal feed should be represented; this human-friendly data representation of the content becomes the controlling, “canonical” version of the data. No other representation, in no other data medium (blockchain, IPFS, bittorrent, or otherwise), is to be regarded legally or operationally as “the canonical version.”
  3. Permanence (or uncensorability). By network policy, the user’s public data must also be able to be made available forever (so a particular platform couldn’t delete it on behalf of everyone else, even if they wanted to) via bittorrent or IPFS or the like. Maybe the blockchain is OK, but frankly due to the financial complexities involved in blockchain, I don’t trust blockchains as bittorrent-type “decentralized public cloud” storage.

Something like that. This is not a complete set of “decentralization requirements.” It is merely an attempt to articulate some of the basic requirements, including many that current attempts at decentralization have failed to deliver on.

If you put all such things together, then you’ve operationalized the vague principles of decentralization for social media. The more that existing social media platforms actually implement these features, the more social media will actually be decentralized.

We Want to Pay for a Good, Functioning WordPress Microposting Plugin

Larry Sanger

Skip down to the plugin requirements section

We are deeply upset at Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and all the rest. Blocking President Trump from these giant corporate networks was just the last straw. Most of us already loathed these corporations for their violations of our basic digital rights (laid out here: Declaration of Digital Independence), but this?

This crosses the line.

For many of us, banning Trump (and many of his defenders) means we refuse to participate on their networks anymore. We’re running for the exits. We have to replace them now.

It’s urgent.

Background

There’s a problem with the alternatives. The problem of course, is that there are a lot of them, and more arriving all the time. You might think, “Sure, and one will eventually win out. So let’s just move out and may the best platform win.” This is a mistake. Look, think about what gave the Facebooks of the world their power. It was precisely the fact that people went to the biggest platform…because that’s where the biggest group of friends, or the biggest audience, or whatever, would be. They seemed OK because they talked a lot about how they stood for free speech. They didn’t mean it. And here we are.

Genuinely decentralized networks can’t by censored. Here’s how the Internet used to work until 2005-ish: you wanted to connect to a network like email, or the WWW (Web sites), Usenet, or FTP, or whatever. So, first, you downloaded a client, a piece of software that connects you to that network. The client speaks to the network through a special technical protocols. Nobody is in charge of the whole network. There is an organization that defines the protocol, sure, but they don’t rule the network. The network has no leader, no center.

The Internet still works that way in parts. We still use browsers to connect to the web; we can still use email clients to connect to email. But today, instead of a client using technical protocols to connect people together for microposting, everyone uses Twitter. Instead of a client running social media protocols, people use Facebook. And so forth. Websites that run their own proprietary networks are “platforms.” And you can be shut out of these platforms. This gives Twitter and Facebook massive power. They run what always should have been a neutral network. Absolutely nobody deserves that much power!

Questions and answers

So why replace censorious platforms with…new platforms? Why not replace them with good old-fashioned neutral, decentralized networks? There should be a microposting network, and a video network, and an image network, and a social media (Facebook-style) network. I would also add: an encyclopedia network.

Decentralization”…I’ve heard of that. This is just blockchain, right? Not necessarily. That’s what the blockchain crowd wants you to think, but blockchains are just one kind of decentralization. The problem with blockchains is that they mostly incorporate coins, which means whether content gets into them can usually be determined, in one way or another, by who owns some coins. That means that “whales,” or people with a lot of coins, can control the network. That’s not decentralized. That centralizes power in the hands of a few individuals. The whole idea of decentralization is to eliminate any control of the network.

What’s wrong with just using Parler and Rumble, again? If you’re still asking that, then you missed the point earlier. This is important: we should never trust proprietary platforms again. If Parler and Rumble become the new Twitter and YouTube, it doesn’t matter what they say about how open they are, or how committed they are to freedom of speech. You simply have to trust them. That is what got us into this mess in the first place, back in 2005. Let’s not repeat the mistake.

So…what do we do? Here’s the deal. A lot of people are now working on this problem. Massive amounts of money are going to be thrown at it. I’ve spoken to at least three billionaires in the last 24 hours about this stuff, and they’re all motivated to open their pocketbooks. And that’s all in addition to the existing networks, some of which are growing very fast. So if you ask, “What should we do?” my response is: “You mean, in addition to all these other things, that other people are doing?”

What do you want to do? Quite a few people have been asking me this, and generally, I point them to things I’ve written before, such as this, this, and this. Those document lay out some of the requirements and principles behind a properly decentralized social media network, one that preserves freedom in the way the rest of the Internet does (well—I fear we’ll soon be seeing just how well it stands up to concerted attack).

Naturally, most people with money look at censorship on the march as a big money-making opportunity. I look at it as an existential threat to my country and a brutal attack on my principles. I have never been involved in Internet projects for money alone; I always just wanted to do the right thing in the right way, money be damned.

Wait, so what is “the wrong thing” that people are doing? There are several things:

  • Blockchain: Some startups aren’t even seriously trying to be a good decentralized, free speech social network. A lot of blockchain “social media” projects are sold as “decentralized” (because they’re on a blockchain! That makes them decentralized, man!), but they aren’t really decentralized, because a few people are in control of the chain, there’s one client (a website and/or app), and basically it works like a regular website…built on a blockchain. Who cares? Minds.com is probably the closest we have to a fairly successful and growing site that is committed to free speech and open source, which does use blockchain; but I don’t think it’s quite fully decentralized yet.
  • Conservative social media: Some startups are devoted to free speech, but not decentralization. This is true of Parler and Rumble. They’re OK. But they’re platforms. They can and probably will eventually be compromised. We want to solve the problem, not just kick the can down the road. See “What’s wrong with just using Parler and Rumble, again?” above.
  • Federated networks: Some projects are pretty good at decentralization, but they are hard to use, or aren’t so keen on free speech. This is true of the Fediverse, meaning the projects built using the ActivityPub protocol, such as Mastodon, and also true of Diaspora. When Gab switched to ActivityPub, Mastodon and many others blocked them. This goes to show you that what we really need is not a federated network, but a genuine P2P network, so I can connect to the network to my own little client (which might be a website only I use, or a client app). There is also a big problem on some of these sorts of projects with child pornography and Nazis (or people impersonating them, which I personally think is just as likely). The latter has actually been Gab’s big problem.
  • Totally peer-to-peer networks: There is one small, hard-to-use app, Scuttlebutt, that is totally decentralized. There are others, and I’d like to know about them, but they seem to be small in adoption and in a very early stage of development (so, hard to use and not very good yet).

Can you just summarize what you want? Sure. I explained it before, but let me explain it again in another way. It isn’t that complicated:

  1. Client: I want an easy-to-use, well-designed, fast, modern client. Not an account on a website. No. A client. Not a website on which I make an account. The client could take the form of a browser plugin, a WordPress plugin, a stand-alone website, a hosted solution (where you save your own space, like on WordPress.com), a mobile client app, or even a desktop app.
  2. Similar UX to Twitter: The client allows me to publish to the network and view posts from the network. In other words, my experience as I use the client will be similar to my experience on Twitter: I can follow people, view my feed, like and share posts, etc.
  3. Direct or transparent connections to people: The client basically connects me to…other people. Or to their clients. Possibly with an aggregator intermediary, which stays out of the way. There is nobody who owns the whole network or has any special financial interest in the network. I am connected to people, not accounts on a website. It’s like email: I have a bunch of family, friends, and colleagues, and I have their email addresses, and I see the stuff they send me. Similarly, an unbranded social media network would let me specify the people I follow, and it goes and grabs their posts for me (somehow; see next point) and shows them to me all in a feed. Great.
  4. Aggregator: There are various different aggregators that prepare our feeds for us. If you’re following a thousand people, or if you have a million people following you, your client cannot by itself easily fetch, or send, all the necessary updates regularly for that many people. This is purely technical work that needs to be done as a service for you. So maybe you subscribe to a service. Maybe your university or corporation or ISP runs one. Maybe you just connect to one. It might cost a few dollars a month. It would be money well spent.

Here is the idea that inspires me, that I want to shout out to the world:

If you already have a standardized place—your blog or web space—then isn’t that where you should be able to do your microposting? After all, you should own your own data; so why not there? There’s no better place.

And then it is just a matter of figuring out how to syndicate it and display it in feeds of followers. Just using RSS to begin with would be absolutely fine. Then gradually add support for the other features such as sharing, upvoting, and threading, which Twitter offers, perhaps via a more strictly P2P extension of ActivityPub.

Requirements for a microblogging plugin

I’ve been in discussions with one particular investor and philanthropist, Futo.org, who wants to fund one or more OSS projects that will do 1-4 from the latter list. Basically, he’s willing to put up money for an open source client and also behind an open source aggregator service.

Something like $5,000 for the following is proposed. We’d like to hear from you first, about whether this is fair or not. Let’s talk before you start work. We want it to be very, very solid, beautifully designed, well-documented, easily maintainable, and 100% bug-free.

Let’s begin very simple, with a bare-bones microblogging plugin. And while it will be very simple, it will be 100% modern and awesome, with all the UX features users would expect.

Basic requirements:

  1. We want to build a (to begin with) simple WordPress plugin. It would be acceptable to fork the existing “Simple Microblogging” plugin, although that needs a lot of work. Have a look at startthis.org/ to get a noti…. This would help blog readers to know which RSS feeds to represent as micropost feeds, which would require special handling.
  2. Create RSS output on a subpage. If the human-readable micropost feed appears at mydomain.com/micro/ then the RSS for the feed should appear at mydomain.com/micro/rss . Maybe even better, because shorter: mydomain.com/m/rss .
  3. Nice-to-have, not required yet (requirements available on request):
    • Editing (in place; not in a modal, unless you think that’s actually more modern…? I wouldn’t think so). If this is particularly easy, please do it.
    • Basic search. Results page paginated as necessary. As I think this is built into WordPress, please do this if it isn’t too much trouble.
    • Add a sidebar (for wide screens)/hamburger menu (for narrow ones) containing monthly-sorted archive. Archive pagination = 30 per page. Is going to be high priority soon.
    • Twitter importer. Input: a Twitter archive file. Output: all your old tweets, available on your blog in this format. This would make the plugin into truly a killer app and would guarantee explosive growth. Might already exist.
    • Page reader. Another page…or maybe the same page…which allows you to subscribe to feeds. Ultimately the posts themselves should probably have @username functionality (see ActivityPub).
    • User profile page, linked from the microblog home page as well as each user post. Data drawn from the WordPress blog.

General design/presentation layer requirements:

  1. There are a lot of design-related requirements above, so have a look.
  2. A minimalistic sort of project branding exercise. It needs a name. I don’t care what it’s called or about colors (nothing surprising or garish) or fonts (default = sans serif of course). I leave that hard part up to real designers, but we do need to do a name and branding elements. We want to convey a feeling of fun, ease-of-use, and independence.
  3. Both light and dark themes/skins available, as on Twitter.
  4. Generally, the main landing page will have a look and feel like Twitter. It should not be identical, for the simple reason that we don’t want to run into legal issues.
  5. Header requirements:
    • When a user is not logged in, the front page of the website should have a banner image and circular icon, as on both Twitter and Facebook.
    • When logged in, do not display the banner image. Basically, I see little need for a header at all when you’re logged in.
    • Menu items go above Archive on the right side of the sidebar.

What else, folks? Comments, please.

Realistically, why think this will solve anything?

There is an interesting answer to this.

First of all, if we’re serious about people owning their own identity and data, we can do a lot worse than building on top of the personalized web presence they already own—either their own domain, or at least a blog or website, the data of which they own in a portable format. A lot of people have WordPress sites; for those who don’t, it is very easy to install a hosted blog that includes the ability to add plugins. Something like 35% of websites online are WordPress sites. Like 400 million websites. The “killer” feature of WordPress is its decent (if bewhiskered) server, the power of which is increased by a zillion plugins. Also, it’s free and open source. And you can easily move your data around. And lots of people know how to work with WordPress sites (whether they want to is another matter).

So here’s the deal. All those WordPress sites, every one of them, could become a social media account in which the user owns, controls, and syndicates his own data. How freaking cool is that? Speaking of syndication, that’s a feature of WordPress sites that’s a killer: RSS and Atom are built in. So you could build a social media protocol on top of those protocols. Why not? And there’s another killer relevant feature: that protocol is already massively in use, already supported by many feed and news readers, and already decentralized. All we have to do is build on top of it.

So…why not just use blogging, even as it is right now, in a new “short message, social media” sort of way? Because, of course, the medium drives how people use the tool. We need to make it more like social media:

  • Adding a new micropost needs to be dead simple. Even simpler than writing a new WordPress post. As simple as posting on Twitter.
  • Text has to be artificially limited. You can’t let them go on and on, or they’re not microblogging anymore.
  • The look-and-feel has to be just like “social media” (Twitter and its imitators), not like a blog.

And those are just what the above starts to work on.

Here’s the dream—because we don’t have an interesting dream, what’s the point? It goes like this.

People learn that there’s a new Twitter-like plugin for WordPress. They tell each other, “Did you know that you can just tweet from your blog…and then you own and control your own tweets? Why didn’t anybody ever think of this before?” (Never mind that they did, a long time ago, but it didn’t really catch on or develop because some people didn’t care enough about decentralization and owning your own data, while other people didn’t care enough about writing easy-to-use software for non-geeks.) So people start installing the plugin. They share the location of each other’s feeds, use feed readers, and have an experience that is actually a bit like Twitter…but one that is totally their own and totally decentralized.

At first, people just use Feedly to follow the micropost feeds of friends. But, because of the brisk adoption rate of the plugin, new features are rapidly added. The all-important “dedicated microfeed reader” feature is added, so now you can see not just your tweets, but the tweets of your friends. Someone creates a registry of all known WordPress Microblogs. So you can search through those and find old friends and new. You can also add your friends’ feeds directly. Someone else creates a chat feature, so that, while you can’t tweet in response, you can treat somebody else’s top-level thread as the first. The original poster is given the right to delete and instaban (from the tweet) anyone who is difficult. Another feature quickly added is the “quote retweet.”

Then someone decides to hook up WordPress microblogs with the Fediverse, and various blockchain networks, etc. Suddenly, this becomes the standard: when you offload your content from some other content into your microblog…that, being totally, 100% owned and controlled by you, becomes the “true home” of your social media content. And the RSS is the “true format” of your social media feed. People write exporters for Twitter…and all their tweets are added to their WordPress microblogs. There’s a mass movement to say get off Twitter now, follow me instead via WordPress!

Of course, that’s when we start “posting at” people via their Fediverse account addresses, or perhaps some contextualized shortened version thereof (the present blog happens to be located at @[email protected] in the Fediverse; you can confirm this for yourself on mastodon.social because this blog runs the ActivityPub plugin, which enables a few Fediverse sites like Mastodon to pick up my blog posts as feeds).

Many more developments come fast and furious as the world discovers the power of this concept, and starts rebuilding and connecting everything to simple RSS feeds of microposts. The new day, of a truly decentralized microposting world, has dawned.

Well, I think it’s a nice dream.

UPDATE (Feb. 2): development is underway. Since I was eager to start using word press to make a microblog, I went ahead and made one without any of the advanced functionality described above. Here it is: StartThis.org.

An ActivityPub WordPress plugin

Larry Sanger

Matthias Pfefferle has made a WordPress plugin that converts your blog into a very, very stripped-down Fediverse server. What this means, basically, is that if you install this plugin on your WordPress blog, then your blog posts will appear as posts in ActivityPub Fediverse servers, such as (most famously) mastodon.social. You just install and activate it and then go to …wp-admin/profile.php, and you’ll find you have a handy-dandy Fediverse profile ID made for you. Mine is @[email protected]

This represents a practical step toward fixing social media, as I described, by making the Fediverse more robustly peer-to-peer (as in individual-to-individual, not just server-to-server federation), but it really doesn’t do much yet. Matthias is to be congratulated for getting this far. I hope he will make this into another whole front end for the broader Fediverse. That might be a bit much to ask, but…wouldn’t that be cool?

The Era of Centralized Social Media Is Over

Larry Sanger

For too long, we have made what has amounted to a Faustian bargain. If you post your comments, your pictures, your videos, your essays, your reviews—your content—on Big Tech’s enormous centralized platforms, then Big Tech will give you free hosting, an audience if you compete well, and some content development tools. It seemed fair. At least, that is how they encourage you to think about this bargain.

But we have now awakened—only half-awakened, most of us—to the real costs of the arrangement. They are higher than we thought.

We donate much more than temporary use of our content. Since content hosting has grown more complex and your audience is built into their product, and especially since it is difficult if not impossible to move most of our content and audience to other platforms easily, we have also effectively donated control, if not ownership, over our content and our audience.

But we also donate ourselves. We donate our valuable attention. We donate our freedom and autonomy, when the corporations decide what we may or may not upload or view, and whether others may or may not view our contributions. We donate our good name, our public support, for the very medium we use. We rent out our very minds when we open ourselves to manipulation by the controllers of these platforms. By our participation, we endorse this treatment as legitimate, no matter what indefensible things these corporations do.

There is also another thing we receive—another important part of the Faustian bargain—that is worth dwelling on. We receive a shot at popularity. We get a chance at an audience, at “friends” and “followers,” who “like” what we produce, who amplify our voices. Who doesn’t want friends and followers liking and amplifying us? And so we are hooked.

Is this exchange really worth it? Really?

We have been assuming that it is. I say it is objectively speaking a terrible arrangement that benefits them and mostly harms us, or most of us. Why do we agree to it, in that case? Because “they” have control over our social lives. We will be lost without the audience, the attention! And because the threat of that loss is so terrifying that most people will put up with increasingly obnoxious treatment as “the price you gotta pay.” It seems like a good example of the Stockholm syndrome.

I think the exchange is not worth it. I will not speak for you. But I can say confidently that it is not true of me. Since, last year, I declared that what I really wanted was decentralized social media, I have felt rather dirty as I used Twitter and YouTube. I admit it—I made excuses myself. “This is the only way I can get my voice out there effectively,” I told myself. Of course, I knew it was not true. I could write for publication. I could use my blog. “I’d be abandoning my peeps!” But nah. Nobody needs me there very much, and if they love me that much they can always come to the blog. “I would be giving up the fight (on Twitter) for freedom and justice!” I’m not Superman, and if my voice is really needed, I can probably fight more effectively on my blog and for publication.

All of those things strike me as being excuses because I liked the attention. The real bargain, and what makes the bargain demonic (so to speak), is that it involves receiving the attention of others, which merely feeds our ego, in exchange for something much more valuable: control over us by people we despise. When you get down to it, most of us are slaves to their system in exchange for the main thing we are after: evanescent, ultimately unimportant narcissistic pleasure. Is that what you really want and need?

It took this latest outrage by YouTube, threatening to delete any video that talks about the 2020 election fraud, to make me rethink my attitude toward contributing in any way to the Silicon Valley monsters.

So I am going to stop using my Twitter and YouTube accounts. I am not entirely sure what I will do with them. As to Twitter, I might keep it operational but just use it as a way to promote this blog and nothing more. I might completely shut down my YouTube channel. I am fairly sure I will be moving all my YouTube videos to my Bitchute channel (the move has already started), but whether it will be their final destination, I am not sure. I really want to support fully decentralized networks, so that I can have total control, right here in my own web space, of everything I want to put out there. Wouldn’t that be nice? Is it really too much to ask?

In any event, I am highly motivated right now to leave the Big Tech monsters behind. I am exiting their Faustian bargain. I am 100% committed to owning and controlling my own content and audience in the future. I have talked a lot about this, but it is finally time to make the last, necessary, hard changes to make it real.

My new book is launched in paperback: Here are some quotes

Larry Sanger

I am announcing that my book is now available on Amazon in paperback. Please show your appreciation for this blog (and my other attempts to enlighten the world) by buying it!

Here: Essays on Free Knowledge: The Origins of Wikipedia and the New Politics of Knowledge, Sanger Press (my own imprint), ISBN 978-1-7357954-1-6. 12 essays. 270 pages. $18.75 for the paperback. The ebook version is best purchased on Gumroad ($9.95), but it is now available on Amazon as well (same price). I will make an audiobook version if there is much demand. So far about four people have requested an audiobook version. If the number of requests goes over ten, I guess I will make an audiobook.

Wikipedia celebrates its 20th anniversary in January, but as I explain in this collection of essays, it began by organizing a decentralized, global community to catalog their knowledge neutrally, with minimal rules. The results were amazing, sparking debates about whether amateurs really could declare “what we all know” and whether all this free knowledge could replace memorization. A decade later, as control of knowledge has become more centralized and closed, I ask: should we decentralize knowledge once again, and if so, how?

What do you get? In addition to front and end matter (including a full index), these twelve essays, which I include with some perhaps representative quotes:

The Early History of Nupedia and Wikipedia: A Memoir

The focus on the encyclopedia provided the task and the open content license provided a natural motivation: people work hard if they believe they are teaching the world stuff. Openness and ease of editing made it easy for new people to join in and get to work. Collaboration helped move work forward quickly and efficiently, and posting unedited drafts made collaboration possible. The fact that we started with a core of good people from Nupedia meant that the project could develop a functional, cooperative community. Neutrality made it easy for people to work together with relatively little conflict. Finally, the Google effect provided a steady supply of “fresh blood”—who in turn supplied increasing amounts of content.

Two Early Articles about Wikipedia

Wikipedia’s content is useful, and so people are starting to link to it. Google and other search engines have already discovered Wikipedia and the daily traffic they send to the project produces a steady stream of new readers and participants. The greater the number of Wikipedia articles, the greater the number of links to them, and therefore the higher the rankings and numbers of listings on Google. As they say, “the rich get richer.” So it is far from inconceivable that the rate of article-production will actually increase over the coming years—in fact, this seems rather likely.

But why all this activity and interest? Surely that is puzzling. Wiki software must be the most promiscuous form of publishing there is—Wikipedia will take anything from anybody. So how is it possible that so many otherwise upstanding intellectuals love Wikipedia (some, secretly) and spend so much time on it? Why are we not writing for academic journals, or something?

Wikipedia’s Original Neutrality Policy

Wikipedia has an important policy: roughly stated, you should write articles without bias, representing all views fairly. This is easily misunderstood. The policy does not assume that it is possible to write an article from just one point of view, which would be the one neutral (unbiased, “objective”) point of view. The Wikipedia policy is that we should fairly represent all sides of a dispute, and not make an article state, imply, or insinuate that any one side is correct.

Why Neutrality?

To … put it metaphorically, neutrality does not give us a free ride. It throws us into the issues and requires us to swim through them under our own power. This can be difficult and frightening (thus Kant’s injunction, sapere aude) but it also makes us feel empowered to decide for ourselves. Neutrality supports us both intellectually and emotionally in the act of exercising autonomous judgment by presenting us with all the options and providing us the tools to judge among them for ourselves. …

When you write with bias, you are treating your readers as your pawns, as mere means to your ends. You are not treating them as autonomous agents, capable of making up their own minds rationally. You are not respecting their dignity.

Why Wikipedia Must Jettison Its Anti-Elitism

There is a deeper problem—I, at least, think so—which explains both of the above-elaborated problems. Namely, as a community, Wikipedia lacks the habit or tradition of respect for expertise. As a community, far from being elitist (which would, in this context, mean excluding the unwashed masses), it is anti-elitist (which, in this context, means that expertise is not accorded any special respect, and snubs and disrespect of expertise are tolerated).

How the Internet Is Changing What (We Think) We Know

[T]he superabundance of information makes knowledge more difficult. … [F]or all the terabytes upon terabytes of information on the Internet, society does not employ many more (and possibly fewer) editors than it had before the advent of the Internet. When you go to post something on a blog or a web forum, there is no one called an editor who decides to “publish” your comment. The Internet is less a publishing operation than a giant conversation. But most of us still take in most of what we read fairly passively. Now, there is no doubt that what has been called the “read-write web” encourages active engagement with others online, and helps us overcome our passivity. This is one of the decidedly positive things about the Internet, I think: it gets people to understand that they can actively engage with what they read. We understand now more than ever that we can and should read critically. The problem, however, is that, without the services of editors, we need our critical faculties to be engaged and very fine-tuned. While the Internet conversation has made it necessary for us to read critically, still, without the services of editors, there is far more garbage out there than our critical faculties can handle. We end up absorbing a lot of nonsense passively: we cannot help it.

Who Says We Know: On the New Politics of Knowledge

[T]he public deserves a seat at the table it did not have throughout most of history. Wikipedia’s tremendous usefulness shows the wisdom of that policy. Still, it is no exaggeration to say that epistemic egalitarianism, as illustrated especially by Wikipedia, places Truth in the service of Equality. Ultimately, at the bottom of the debate, the deep modern commitment to specialization is in an epic struggle with an equally deep modern commitment to egalitarianism. It is Truth versus Equality, and as much as I love Equality, if it comes down to choosing, I am on the side of Truth.

Individual Knowledge in the Internet Age

The educational proposals and predictions of the Internet boosters described above point to a profoundly illiberal future. I fear that if we take their advice, in the place of a creative society with a reasonably deep well of liberally educated critical thinkers, we will have a society of drones, enculturated by hive minds, who are able to work together online but who are largely innocent of the texts and habits of study that encourage deep and independent thought. We will be bound by the prejudices of our “digital tribe,” ripe for manipulation by whoever has the firmest grip on our dialogue. I see all too much evidence that we are moving headlong in that direction. Indeed, I fear this is already happening. I honestly hope that I prove to be an alarmist, but I am a realist reporting on my observations. I wish the news were better.

Is There a New Geek Anti-Intellectualism?

The more that people have these various [anti-intellectual] attitudes, the more bad stuff is going to result, I think. The more that a person really takes seriously that there is no point in reading the classics, the less likely he will actually take a class in Greek history or early modern philosophy. Repeat that on a mass scale, and the world becomes—no doubt already has become—a significantly poorer place, as a result of the widespread lack of analytical tools and conceptual understanding. We can imagine a world in which the humanities are studied by only a small handful of people, because we already live in that world; just imagine the number of people all but vanishing.

But is this not just a problem for geekdom? Does it really matter that much if geeks are anti-intellectuals? The question is whether the trend will move on to the population at large. One does not speak of “geek chic” these days for nothing. The digital world is the vanguard, and attitudes and behaviors that were once found mostly among the geeks of yesteryear are now mainstream. Geek anti-intellectualism is another example.

Introducing the Encyclosphere

A few thousand people work regularly on Wikipedia. But what if millions more—orders of magnitude more—wrote encyclopedia articles and rated them, as part of a completely decentralized knowledge network, with no individual, group, corporation, or government in charge of the whole? That is surely possible. There are surely that many people who, if given the freedom to do so, would be highly motivated to volunteer their time to add to the world’s largest collection of knowledge.

We could create a knowledge commons, defined by neutral, open, technical standards and protocols: a network that decentralizes encyclopedias, exactly as the Blogosphere has done for blogs.

Declaration of Digital Independence

We declare that we have unalienable digital rights, rights that define how information that we individually own may or may not be treated by others, and that among these rights are free speech, privacy, and security. Since the proprietary, centralized architecture of the Internet at present has induced most of us to abandon these rights, however reluctantly or cynically, we ought to demand a new system that respects them properly.

The Future of the Free Internet

Even more fundamentally, what the decline of Wikipedia and social media have in common is the concentration—the centralization—of authority on the Internet. This centralization of Internet authority has many and terrible consequences. It turns out that placing so much power in the hands of Internet executives undermines us, our relationships, our minds, even our sanity, and ultimately our politics. Who knew this would happen, even ten years ago? Some open source software stalwarts foresaw some of it. But as to the general public, they had little notion, perhaps beyond a vague inkling. It is all too plain now.

Buy it!

How to Fix Social Media in Three Easy Steps

Larry Sanger

The social media bullies—YouTube, Facebook, Twitter and more—constantly violate our digital rights. That is the problem. The solution is to wean us off these social media giants, somehow. You own your own data and decide what you see (or not) for yourself. You subscribe to people, period, not to people’s accounts on this-or-that service. That is the dream of “decentralizing social media.”

This sounds nice, but it turns out to be too vague and complicated to be helpful. So I have been thinking about this. I have been asking, “What do I want?” Here is my answer, and if it works for me, it should work for everyone.

(1) I want a plugin to let me post on social media from this WordPress blog. I want to be able to go to a sparkly new, easy-to-use page that allows me to post from here—from my completely self-owned web space—to my Twitter and Facebook feeds and also (this is actually the important part) to a new reusable feed, like this blog feed. I do not want to have to go to Twitter to get my message out. Why should I have to? I should be able to post from here. Nobody can censor me or throttle me here. And you can have this same plugin yourself. Maybe you are a nasty troll, and you get kicked off everywhere, but I happen to like you, and I want the unadulterated you. I can come look at your feed, or better yet, I can get a feed reader that does not censor you, unless I decide I want you removed from my feed (see the next point). Come on, how hard should that be?

(2) I want to be able to view other people’s posts from here, too. In other words, I want this plugin to go about and fetch posts wherever they are (well, maybe it will be more complicated than that; see (3)), bring them back here, and show them all in a feed that I can rearrange however I like. I can make posts public or private. I can arrange posts by social media service, or combine them all together. I can combine Twitter, Facebook, Parler, Mastodon, and pretty much everything. Why should I not be able to? And here is the really great part. I can subscribe to other people’s feeds of the sort described under (1) above. It should be an open network, not a bunch of separate silos. I can arrange posts chronologically or according to fancy algorithms, including ones I build myself. Of course, I should also be able to reply to people from here. Again, this is an obviously useful thing. Why does it not already exist? Come on, developers, make it already. I want to start using it!

(3) Tools facilitating this need to be built. There are two main tools that will make this system feasible. The first tool is some social media content standard, like ActivityPub, but for individual posters like you and me, not whole social media servers like Mastodon.social or Gab.com, let alone giant silos Twitter. The second tool is an aggregator. Developers will need a massive, constantly growing database that slurps up all the social media content, coupled with an amazing API that and acts as a back end that serves the posts. This way my little blog does not have to go and separately fetch all the feeds individually. At scale, that would be super-slow; it would not work. If I follow 1,000 people my little server is not going to individually ping 1,000 feeds. It needs someone to constantly be doing that on behalf of all the blogs and other apps built on top of this decentralized social media network. And then of course if one aggregator censors certain people, fine; I should be able to use a different, more open aggregator.

And that, boys and girls, is how to decentralize social media!

So, developers, can I have that as a Christmas present this year? OK? Thanks.

If you like this idea, share it far and wide, and maybe some developer will see it and actually make it for all of us. Wouldn’t that be great?