Social media platforms democratized the ability to publish one’s thoughts to the entire planet. At the same time, they removed the professional gatekeepers that previously ensured the quality of those distribution streams. Today anyone anywhere can comment on anything, with little to distinguish the wild-eyed conspiracy theorist from the top scientist or scholar in a field. Every social post is on equal footing in the grand scheme of things, raising the question of whether social platforms should institute some form of “expertise badges.”
One of the greatest downsides of the social media revolution is that it has placed falsehoods on equal footing with facts. When opening the New York Times or watching BBC News, a news consumer can trust that the information they see has been reasonably verified and fact checked to the best of the outlet’s ability. That is not to say that errors do not crop up in mainstream journalism, but rather that extensive efforts are made to verify the information they publish.
In contrast, social media represents an anarchistic free-for-all in which all voices are equal and wild unfounded rumors can be published just as easily as extensively researched and verified fact.
Much as the old cartoon reminded us that “on the Internet nobody knows you are a dog,” today no-one knows whether a given poster actually has any expertise in the topic they are posting about nor is there any indication of whether they actually researched their commentary and have any evidence to support it.
Today all voices are equal on social platforms, separated only by their number of followers and a possible identity verification badge.
Making matters worse, social platforms have encouraged their users to pour forth their thoughts on every imaginable topic, whether they have any understanding, experience or expertise on that topic or event or not. The restrained clinical evidence-based commentary by a professional in the field simply cannot complete with the profanity-laden emotional diatribe written by a conspiracy theorist that says precisely the opposite.
What if social platforms introduced a form of expertise badge that listed the primary area(s) an individual had substantial expertise and experience in? Setting aside how such badges would be assigned, this would offer social users critical context with which to better understand how much to trust a post by that user on a given topic. A noted poetry professor at a prestigious university with a lengthy publication and award history might be afforded considerable leeway in their commentary on poetry and literary topics. In contrast, a post by that same professor discussing their view on development issues in Asia today would be inseparable from their academic affiliation, while under a badge system would be clearly identified as their personal opinion in a topic outside their area of expertise.
How might expertise be determined? The easiest would be through the person’s educational and employment history, ranking a university professor at a top-ranked school with a doctorate in a topic above someone with a BS degree who works in a different field. Yet this kind of elitism is precisely the censorship social platforms sought to avoid. An advanced degree in a given topic does not guarantee that the recipient knows their field better than someone without such a degree, while employment in a field does not guarantee that someone is an expert in their work. Such shortcuts can offer suggestions, but there are myriad others who may not have a degree and may not work in a field who may specialize in it as a hobby that may actually know it better.
There is no easy answer to the question of how to determine a person’s area of expertise and to do so at global scale across hundreds of millions or even billions of users. A system of peer review where users self-select areas of expertise and then are reviewed by other users at scale could help, but would raise concerns about bias and systematic silencing of vulnerable communities.
Replacing expertise badges with educational attainment and employment badges could be one option, allowing users to list their degrees and work history in the form of badges associated with their accounts. While a highly skewed and imperfect metric, it would at least separate the random conspiracy theorist from the doctorate-holder or long-term practitioner that presumably has undergone peer review by virtue of receiving their degree or maintaining their employment.
In the end, these are hard questions, but it is clear that the current free-for-all simply isn’t working.