Technology helps unmask Web miscreants

How are people held accountable for what they say in digital media?

Traditional journalists working for newspapers, radio or TV can be sued for libel and are easily identifiable. They are also employed by registered organizations that you can complain to when you have issues with their work.

In digital media, however, it is harder. The decentralized design of the Internet enables anonymity and false identities, which can make it difficult to go after people.

But while it is easy to think you are anonymous online, you’re actually not. Your Internet-connected devices—laptops, phones and tablets—are snitches that leave a digital trail that can be followed. You can be traced via your device’s Internet Protocol (IP) address, a series of numbers that uniquely identifies your gadget in the network, with the help of service providers and tech experts. Victims of online abuse can file complaints with the website and work with authorities to unmask these people.

Most websites and services have facilities for “takedown requests” and flagging content as either abusive or infringing on copyright. In the latest update to its iPhone app, for example, Twitter included a button to immediately report tweets as abusive. Facebook removes photos and posts reported by its users as abusive and violating the social network’s usage terms.

Far from being the Wild, Wild Web, the Internet has tools that enforce accountability in ways old media cannot match.

Social networks enable an identity system in digital media that works across sites and services. When you are logged into Facebook, for example, you are recognized by websites using Facebook’s identity system and are able to post a comment using that identity. Some sites require Facebook accounts to comment on stories to take advantage of the social networking leader’s robust identity system and silence anonymous and fake accounts.

But the biggest boost to accountability in digital media is the recent move by two of the Internet’s biggest companies to highlight authorship when it comes to content.

Facebook recently introduced two meta tags specifically for journalists. Meta tags are pieces of code that provide information about a web page but are not visible in the regular view of that page. These two tags identify the author of an article and its publisher and connect the article to their Facebook accounts.

What’s the incentive for using these tags? When articles that have these tags are shared in Facebook, those who still have not “followed” the author or “liked” the publisher’s page will see a button to do so.

Google, whose search engine is used by most Internet users, also implemented an “authorship markup” to identify authors of news stories and blog posts.

Google allows content producers to claim “authorship” of their work and connect this to their profile in Google+, the web giant’s social networking site. It also has a publisher markup that links to the Google Business page of your publication.

When claimed, the system displays authors’ photos in search results and connects to their Google+ profile. This results in higher click-through rates, meaning more people will visit your article from the listing of results.

The system also allows authors to stand out not only in search results but also relative to so-called web scrapers—plagiarist sites that automatically copy articles of other publications. And there are reports, though unconfirmed, that implementing Google authorship helps you rank well in search engines.

(Max T. Limpag writes a technology column for Sun.Star Cebu.)