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UVa Law vice dean tackling misinformation with new non-profit

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The University of Virginia School of Law on Mar. 12, 2022. Vice dean and professor Michael Gilbert’s non-profit organization Pledged aims to hold news outlets financially responsible for publishing misinformation.

Michael Gilbert wants media outlets to put their money where their news is.

To combat the bulk of misinformation and build trust among news consumers, Gilbert, a vice dean and professor at the University of Virginia School of Law, co-founded the non-profit organization Pledged. The initiative aims to hold news outlets financially responsible for publishing misinformation with a truth bounty system.

“Misinformation isn’t new, but something about the current moment and the power of social media makes it especially salient,” Gilbert said. “A catchy — but false — piece of information can spread rapidly through our entire society and around the world. If just a fraction of the people who are exposed to it believe it, then one story can change the views of a whole lot of people.”

Through Pledged, any individual or news organization can take out a six-month bounty by pledging money to support the credibility of their publications. This method allows anyone to claim the bounty if they identify false information in any news story or outlet that has taken a bounty.

Gilbert teamed up with University of Alabama School of Law associate professor Yonathan Arbel to bring the organization to life. Both founders believe that readers should be incentivized to identify false information. The pair founded Pledged in early September, less than one month after publishing their research paper, “Truth Bounties: A Market Solution to Fake News.”

The paper presented a possible new system for eliminating the bulk of misinformation with a stamp of approval of the news world, which they’re hoping to implement with Pledged.

News organizations will have the opportunity to take out truth bounties on individual articles or their entire outlet. Still in the early stages of Pledged’s development, Gilbert and Arbel are fine-tuning the monetary restrictions on the bounties. They’re aiming to appeal to both large national outlets and small local ones.

Stories and organizations that have taken out bounties will receive a digital badge that appears on the site and printed publication. Readers can challenge the bounty if they believe they have identified false information in a Pledged story.

The success or failure of challenged bounties will publicly affect the credibility of a news organization, which will be determined by a color system that can help readers better filter their news.

“If organizations do not pledge, that in and of itself sends the readers a message,” Gilbert said. “It says that they were not prepared to put money on the line, which is a reason to think they weren’t sure if the information was truthful when they published it.”

All bounty badges will appear green at first and turn yellow when a reader starts a challenge. If the challenge is successful — meaning the arbitrators have confirmed the presence of misinformation and the reader has earned the organization’s bounty money — the badge will turn red. If the arbitrators determine there was no false information in the story, then the challenge fails, the organization keeps its money and the badge goes back to green.

The bounties will be monitored by a panel of private arbitrators working through voluntary consent. The panel’s private status will help prevent state involvement in internal decisions and keep federal judges from trumping Pledged decisions on the validity of certain information.

In addition to making the public skeptical of all media, Gilbert says that being misled by false information makes people more likely to take action that they wouldn’t if they knew the whole truth.

Gilbert and Arbel are building Pledged to be inclusive of all news outlets of all sizes and affiliations. They are currently working on the organization’s local news model, allowing smaller outlets to put less money on the line while protecting their credibility. Down the line, the Pledged founders hope the truth bounty can also be applied to political ads and statements that are often funded by dark money groups that do not disclose the individuals in the group.

Gilbert says truth bounties have the potential to shatter bipartisan news consumption by encouraging readers and viewers to search for the badge in any outlet rather than ones that strictly appeal to Democratic or Republican perspectives.

“The New York Times is a for-profit company. I imagine they would like to crack the 20 million people who watch Fox News every night and don’t believe anything The New York Times publishes. Same for Fox News,” Gilbert said. “If they could use truth bounties to convince some 20 million people to believe them, some of them will buy subscriptions.”

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