My Summer Internship: Keeping the Internet Accountable
When most people think about an internship, they think of long hours spent fetching coffee and organizing folders; however, my internship at NewsGuard was anything but monotonous.
When most people think about an internship, they think of long hours spent fetching coffee and organizing folders; however, my internship at NewsGuard was anything but monotonous. For over a month, I worked at a news-technology startup called NewsGuard, a browser-extension and app that provides critical information about a news source’s credibility and journalistic honesty.
On my first day, I was told how the app works. NewsGuard uses a point system to rate sites, deducting points out of 100 for various criteria that do not meet basic journalistic standards. If a website has a point score of 65 or above, the site receives a green rating and a label which provides background and information on the methods the site uses to publish information. When a site fails to meet the 65 point score, it receives a red “thumbs-down” rating. NewsGuard Founder and Professor at the Yale Journalism School Steven Brill believes that the work of providing a rating for the internet can be done solely by human journalists, without the use of robots or algorithms. While working without the help of artificial intelligence (AI) can be difficult, as the internet is ever-expanding, ratings must be detailed and thorough, and for now, only humans can reach this level of accuracy and analysis.
During my internship, I was initially tasked with compiling and printing various documents for the company; however, during my second week, I was assigned to a project with three other interns which aimed to create a comprehensive guide to debunking conspiracy theories. While the somewhat menial labor I did made me feel undervalued, I quickly realized the importance of even the smallest tasks at the company, and the entire team made me feel like everything I did had value and meaning. The app itself does not have a page for conspiracy theories, however, the purpose of the guide is to become a critical resource for journalists who frequently saw the same theories across multiple websites. Initially, my task seemed daunting; the internet has billions of websites and is constantly expanding, quickly this project became the main focus of my work. Our team of interns worked through and analyzed the most disruptive conspiracies, such as the Sandy Hook conspiracy theory: a series of claims surrounding the myth that the U.S. government was responsible for the Sandy Hook school shooting.
My first task was to debunk the claim that the Sandy Hook school shooting was a hoax. I found that while parents grieved, the internet was full of speculation that had no credible evidence; part of my job was showing clear, firsthand, irrefutable facts that completely debunked the theory.
Consequently, I spent many of my work days sifting through government files or media reports online to find crucial evidence, like eyewitness statements during the Sandy Hook shooting. The result of my weeks of work was a comprehensive guide which detailed the events that occurred during and leading up to the shooting, with a series of first-hand accounts and government reports which proved that the shooting was, in fact, real. While the task proved to be rigorous, the work NewsGuard did was important, and the staff were always willing to provide guidance about how to write and find the best sources for the guide. Although I was just an intern, I felt supported by the team while doing my work, and as though my work actually mattered. I was able to select the theory I wanted to work with, and was in full control of my work; I did all the background research, selected the angle with which I was going to debunk the theory, and I was able to choose what and how I wanted to write about the theory. Even early into its lifespan, the guide was a great resource for journalists, and I felt as though my work contributed greatly to increase the effectivity and efficiency of NewsGuard’s rating process.
Although the daily work was tiring, the overall office climate was always enjoyable, and there was always someone to talk to. Every morning, the entire staff would gather for a meeting in which we would discuss a variety of topics. At these meetings, even low-level employees like me had the opportunity to voice their opinions directly to management and the Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of the company. For instance, a hotly debated subject was our rating system and whether we should provide a negative or positive rating to a site. Although an argument could be made for not having a rating attached to a site’s label, I argued that our negative ratings provided an important warning sign to people who would enter sites with false information, and by convincing upper management with the aid of my colleagues and fellow interns, the current symbols remained. Overall, the staff at NewsGuard was incredibly receptive to all ideas put forward, and this showed me that even someone at a low position such as myself could perform valuable duties and effectively contribute important ideas to the company.