Considering End Users in the Design of News Credibility Annotations

Last week, I attended a working group meeting at the Brown Institute at Columbia to discuss a credibility schema for annotating the credibility of news content and other information online. The working group, hosted by Meedan and Hacks/Hackers, grew out of discussions started at MisinfoCon and incorporates perspectives from industry, academia, journalism, nonprofits, and design, among others.

As part of the day’s schedule, I gave a ~5 minute talk on end user applications for credibility annotations. This was slotted in a segment on use cases, or how credibility annotations could potentially be used by different stakeholders. I’ve now cleaned up my notes from the talk and present them below:


I am an HCI researcher designing and building end user tools for collaboration, and in my group, the systems we build tend to have a focus on giving end users direct control of what they see online, instead of ceding that control to opaque machine learning systems. Thus, today I am speaking on direct end user applications of the annotations as opposed to using them as inputs towards machine learning models to be used by news or social media organizations. In this case, I am using the phrase “end user” to describe basically a non-expert member of the general population for whom a tool would be designed.

First I want to make the point that, before we jump to thinking about training data and building machine learning models, credibility annotations that made by people can be immediately useful to other people just as is. In fact, there are cases where it may be beneficial to not have a machine learning intermediary or a top-down design enforced by a system.

Who Gets to Choose What You See?

So what might these cases be? One case we need to consider is the importance of visibility in an interface when it comes to attracting attention, and how attention can distort incentives and lead to problems such as fake and misleading news being spread widely on social media. Here it is helpful to consider who gets to determine what is being shown and whether their incentives are aligned with those of end users. For instance, on social media, system designers want to show end users engaging content to keep them active on the site, and thus site affordances and algorithms are shaped by engagement. In addition, news organizations also want to show end users engaging content to get them to click and visit their site to collect ad revenue. So what happens? In the end, we get things like clickbait and fake headlines.

Instead, let’s consider what it would take to center the news sharing experience around end user needs. To explore this idea, we built a tool called Baitless as a proof-of-concept. The idea is really simple. It’s an RSS reader where anyone can load an existing RSS feed and then rewrite the headline for any article in the feed and also vote on the best headlines that others have contributed.

Credibility WG.004

We then provide a new RSS feed where the titles are replaced by the best headline written by users. And if a user clicks on a link in their RSS feed reader, they are directed to a page where they can read the article and afterwards suggest new headlines directly on the page. In this way, end users can circumvent existing feedback loops to take control of their news reading experience.

Credibility WG.005.jpeg

At a higher level, right now end users cede control over everything they see in their social media feeds to systems that for the most part prioritize engagement, as opposed to other qualities such as veracity. Given that, how could end user-provided annotations help give end users control over their news feeds beyond simply headlines? Imagine if other people could perform actions on my feed such as removing false articles from my feed entirely or annotating news articles with links to refutations or verifications.

Who Annotates?

One aspect that is crucial when giving other people or entities power over one’s experience is the concept of trust. That is, who produces credibility annotations could also be an important signal for end users. After all, who I trust could be very different from who you trust. And this notion of trust in the ability to verify or refute information can be very different from the friend and follower networks that social media systems currently have. So if we have this network of the people and organizations that a person trusts, we can then do things like build news feeds that surface verified content as opposed to engaging content, and build reputation systems where actions have consequences for annotators. If you’re interested in this topic, please let me know, as we’ve just begun a project that delves into collecting trust network information and building applications on top of it.

An open question, which we don’t know the answer to yet is, is it good to put people in control of their experiences in this way or do we actually need something like machine learning to direct us to what is credible? Will this make filter bubbles worse, in that people will see less opposing content, or better? More importantly, given the recent research on the backfire effect, how might it affect how people react when they encounter opposing information? Might it make people more receptive if it’s from a trusted source?

Process over Means to an End

I also want to make the point that annotation, rather than just being some necessary but tedious work that goes into training models, is also a process that could actually be beneficial to end users in certain cases. For instance, news annotation can be a way to educate end users about media literacy. It’s also a way for readers to have more structured engagement with news content and a deeper relationship with news organizations beyond just firing off a comment into the abyss. After all, reading the news is a form of education, and journalists often play the role of educators when they write on a topic.

One project that we’ve done in this area is a tool that aims to teach readers to recognize moral framing while reading news. Using Bloom’s Taxonomy of Educational Objectives as a guide, we can imagine certain activities that readers could perform that would allow them to learn and also apply skills related to moral framing. To explore the various ways that users could annotate while reading, we built a browser extension called Pano (built on top of another system of ours exploring social browsing called Eyebrowse). It allows users to highlight and annotate passages on an article with the moral framing in that passage, leave comments and votes on a particular annotation, leave comments and chat on the page, as well as contribute towards a wiki-like summary describing the article’s point-of-view.


We conducted a field study comparing the use of our tool to simply participating in a written tutorial on moral framing and found that users who used our tool over a period of 10 days actually got better at writing arguments framed in the other side’s moral values. We also saw heavy use of the highlighting and annotation feature compared to low usage of the other features, such as wiki-editing a summary or commenting.

I wanted to leave you with some parting questions that I hope you’ll consider during this process:

  • When and why might end users want the ability to make annotations?
  • How do we design interfaces and interactions for consuming annotations that benefit end users?

Thanks to my collaborators at MIT who helped me create this talk: my advisor David Karger, along with Sandro Hawke, as well as Jessica Wang, a masters student who built Pano. And thank you to An Xiao Mina and Jenny 8 Lee for inviting me to the working group.


Year in Reviews

One of my New Year’s Resolutions for 2017 is to blog more, so here I am, reviving this blog from its two year silence!

So, why am I doing this, besides the obvious punny-ness? I thought it might be illuminating to share some short excerpts that I’ve received in reviews this year – sentences that have made me feel proud and also things that were hurtful and embarrassing – all to say that, hey, we all get them, and they’re a part of any academic’s life. Sometimes reviews can lift us up, but there are also times when they can feel demoralizing and painful because they are putting down a project that is close to one’s heart.

We all receive encouragement and criticism, and as academics, we should learn to treasure the positive stuff and keep that in reserve for when we’re feeling down, and listen to the criticism (when it’s constructive) without taking it too personally, since we all get it! Mixed in with my review excerpts, I share some of the highs and lows of 2016, following with my goals looking towards 2017 (gotta keep looking forward).

The Great 😍

“…[It] is a novel, interesting idea; frankly, it’s an idea that I think the community could brag about in the future (i.e., “that was invented here”).”

“Simple and powerful ideas like [X] are my favorite types of contributions…That’s magic.”

“In fact, the first half of the paper (before the evaluation) could serve as an exemplar…systems paper going forward.”

These quotes make me feel happy when I read them! If you get any reviews with gems like these, save them and take a look at them now and then when you’re feeling unsure about things.

One thing that I’m proud of from 2016 is that I gave a lot of talks this year, many of them to groups outside my research area. I gave 2 conference talks which I had done before but also 7 longer talks (30 min to 1 hr), which I had never done before. This including 1 research qualifying exam talk, 3 talks to other academic groups (including 2 computer graphics/vision groups), and 3 talks to industry groups (Wikimedia, Google, and Adobe). I found out long talks are hard to do well! I also gave a 5 minute talk at the Google PhD Fellowship summit that I think I was the most nervous for out of everything (even though it really didn’t matter for anything…)

I’m proud of this because I think I got better over the course of the year (although to be honest it never feels easy and I’m guessing it never will), and speaking is not something that comes naturally to me.

The Good 😀

“I was stuck by how self-aware the authors were of the limitations of their current approach.”

“Overall, the revised version improves substantially over the initial submission. Kudos on a great improvement!”

I was happy when I received these comments. First of all, I’m pretty uncomfortable with the idea of being a consummate salesperson even in my own papers, so I try to be balanced, which I always worry might be hurting my chances. It was nice to see someone notice and give kudos. Also, it’s a great feeling when reviews read rebuttals and revisions and change their score based on your work or at least show appreciation for the work you’ve just put in.

In good things that happened this year, I passed my quals, got 2 papers accepted at conferences, one of which may end up forming the basis of a thesis (who knows…)!

Something else I’m proud of is my level of service to the academic community, which has increased this year. Of course it’s not yet at the level of many people more senior than me but I think I did pretty well for a grad student. This year I served on a virtual PC for the first time (CHI WIP AC), reviewed ~16  conference papers (with 3 special recognitions!) and ~10 poster/WIP papers. I also spent some very stressful days as a member of an organizing committee as SV co-chair at RecSys ’16. This was incredibly hectic and stressful but I learned a lot about how a conference is organized. I realized that I would probably shrivel up and die if I were a professional event organizer because I find it so stressful.*thinks about wedding planning and dies.* Thank you to our many conference organizers – I have so much appreciation for you. 

The Bad 😩

“…the recommendation proposition is extremely naive in how it characterises [X]…”

“[X] is never a strong finding, and when it is one of the major pillars of a research paper it always raises the question that the paper may have been rushed and a full analysis and reflection on the work has not yet been completed.”

Now on to the bleurghs. Not much to say here from me except that I brush off my shoulders, find the places where I can take some lessons and improve, and get to recomputing, revising, reframing, and resubmitting! If they point out mistakes or suggest things to do to improve – that’s great advice. Maybe they misinterpreted something in the paper? That means that I should work on writing it more clearly. Or they aren’t convinced by an argument? Then at the least I should work on making the argument better, and maybe gather more data if necessary.

This year, I had 3 papers rejected – 1 that’s been on the backburner until I can pick it up again, 1 which was a 2nd-time-around submission and which is now in submission again (I’m sad about this paper because I genuinely think it’s good), 1 submitted for the first time and now currently being reworked.

Note: I think it’s important to talk about this kind of thing (and people are starting to, thanks to various transparency initiatives regarding rejection). Everyone faces rejection. Knowledge of this makes rejection just part of the process. An article I read once profiled a woman who mention that having been a competitive athlete made it so that she faced failure easier. I think there is some truth in this also as a former competitive athlete.

The Ugly 😰

“It’s not clear there are customers for this tool in this…community. The computational results are also mediocre…”

“Another drawback…is the lack of motivations in explaining what are the intellectual challenges that we need to address… In particular, the key questions from a reader’s perspective: What is the real novelty introduced by this…?”

“The paper doesn’t actually demonstrate the usefulness of this…in actual research.”

Ouch. Quotes like these hurt because they don’t just criticize a specific aspect of the paper but also cast aspersions on the entire project. With comments like these, it’s always important to remember 1) it’s one person’s opinion, 2) opinions can change, 3) framing and first impressions can make a big difference. It can also be helpful to get a second opinion from someone you trust that is knowledgeable about the community to see if research directions should actually be shifted before making any drastic decisions. Earlier in my PhD I found that my instincts were to too quickly acquiesce to any reviewer demands and defer to their opinions, while people I respected knew better when to push back.

I think the worst parts of this year did not happen to me personally (thankfully), but in some cases felt very personal. I’m talking of course about the events of the election, including the whole lead-up and aftermath, which took a hefty emotional toll and also sucked up a great deal of my time. There have been 1000’s of hot takes and I’ve probably read 3/4ths of them so I won’t repeat what’s already been said.


Looking forward

Receiving reviews can sometimes really suck and sometimes feel really validating. The funny thing is it’s not always the papers you think that will be received well or poorly. At the end of the day though, reviews are a rare and valuable resource, and there is always something to be learned. There is also (almost) always a place and a future for your work.

Also, guess what? As can be seen, my highest highs and lowest lows of this year ultimately had little to do with reviews. It’s easier to bounce back from bad reviews if you realize that they only reflect one of many facets of your life.

A lot of people would characterize 2016 as a terrible year overall. But 2017 is upon us, and it’s time to make plans! This coming year, besides my research projects which I’m always excited about, I’m excited about two things in particular:

  • I’m taking on a small army of new undergrad researchers starting in the new year, and I’m excited to work on my research mentoring skills. My first few years, I was pretty unstructured and perhaps overly nice to my undergrads, and I think they could actually use a bit more structure and more of a push. It can be frustrating to work with people are clearly busy elsewhere (it’s MIT after all) but I think I need to cultivate these expectations more instead of expecting people to be present and engaged outright. We’ll see how it goes! My concrete goal is to work closely enough with one or more of my students to eventually write a paper together.
  • I’m excited to TA for the very first time! I imagine that it will be a lot of work and a lot of the work will take me outside of my comfort zone but I’m curious to see how I manage and if I enjoy it.

So happy new year and may you have amazing reviews this year 🙂

Mailing Lists: Why Are They Still Here, What’s Wrong With Them, and How Can We Fix Them?

Online group discussion has been around almost as long as the Internet, but it seems we still can’t create tools for it that satisfy everyone. Starting with the first mailing list in 1972 and evolving to modern social media tools, we see tensions between people’s desire to participate in productive discussions and the struggle to manage a deluge of incoming communication. Our group wants to build better tools to address this problem. As a first step we decided to learn from an existing tool. Mailing lists have survived almost unchanged from the earliest days of the Internet, and are still heavily used today. The fact that they’re still here suggests that they’re doing something right; the fact that so many new social media tools have tried to replace them suggest they’re doing something wrong.  We wanted to understand both sides. We interviewed a variety of mailing list users to understand what they loved and hated about their mailing lists. We discovered an interesting opportunity to combine some of the best features of email and social media to address the weaknesses of both.

To understand how different types of groups use mailing lists and why they continue to use them, we interviewed members of two active mailing list communities and surveyed 28 additional mailing lists of many different types. When asked whether they would be interested to switching to a different tool, such as Facebook Groups, or a discussion forum, or a subreddit, most people across the board were not interested in switching to a newer social media. In fact, only 12% indicated they were interested in switching to Facebook Groups, the most analogous tool to many people. When we asked why, people’s responses grouped into the following four themes:

  • Email is for work while social media is for play or procrastination. One interviewee was concerned about more cat pictures and other irrelevant or silly posts if his group moved to a Facebook Group and felt this was the wrong tone for the list. Other people felt that mailing list communication was actually somewhat in between work and play.
  • Email feels more private while social media feels more public. People mentioned images of people’s faces and hyperlinks to their profile as making the Facebook Groups interface feel more public. However, we were concerned to find out that most people surveyed and interviewed did not realize their mailing list archives were public. Nor could they properly estimate how many people read their emails. In most cases, people guessed an entire order of magnitude lower than the true subscription count.
  • There is a greater confidence that email will be seen. Not only do more people use email instead of Facebook, people also had a sense that email would be seen, while Facebook algorithms might make it uncertain who receives what.
  • Email management is more customizable. People enjoyed being able to set up their own filters and customize their notifications and experience of their mailing list.

Given all of these reasons for preferring mailing lists, have all of the social moderation features and controls in newer social media been created for naught? It seems the answer to this is also no. In our research, we found many tensions within mailing list communities, specifically issues arising from people within the same mailing list expressing very different opinions and perceptions about the list. The following three tensions stood out the greatest:

  • Tensions over type and quantity of content on the list. While some users enjoyed intellectual discussions on the list, others hated them. Same for just about any other category of content, such as humor, job listings, rental and item sales, etc. People even disagreed about the correct etiquette for reply-to-the-list versus reply-to-the-sender.
  • Tensions over desire for interaction versus hesitation to post. Most users expressed a desire for more discussion on their mailing list, yet the majority of these folks have never participated in a discussion themselves. When asked about the reasons people were deterred from posting, they mentioned concerns such as the fear of spamming others, fear of looking stupid, fear of offending, and fear of starting a heated debate.
  • Tensions over push versus pull email access method. Most users either received all their mailing list email in their main inbox (push) or filtered all their mailing list emails to a separate folder (pull). We found very different attitudes from people with these two different strategies. For instance, push-users were much more worried about missing email, were more likely to miss email, and were more hesitant to post out of fear of spamming. On the other side, pull-users read email when they felt like it and not when it arrived, were more likely to miss emails, and had a more relaxed attitude towards sending emails.

Some of these tensions have been mitigated in newer social media systems thanks to social moderation and other newer features. So what can we do given what we’ve learned? One thing we can do is to improve new social media systems by incorporating more of what people like about mailing list systems. Another thing we can do is to improve mailing lists by incorporating some features taken from social media. Some things that we consider are introducing slow propagation through the list using likes, allowing friends to moderate posts before they get sent farther, allowing topic tags and following of different topics and threads, and more. We emphasize improving mailing lists because it’s something that anyone can work on (you don’t have to work at Facebook!), it’s relatively easy to build and test since users continue to use their existing mail clients, and it’s really about time that mailing lists had some innovation.

In that vein, we’re actively working on a new mailing list system. It’s still in a very preliminary stage but you can check it out and join or even start your own mailing list group at You can also read our research paper published at CHI 2015 or look at slides and notes from the talk given at the CHI 2015 conference.

*This blog post was first posted at the Haystack Blog:

This work was conducted with Mark Ackerman of University of Michigan and David Karger at MIT CSAIL.