Dan Russell - Searching for Ways to Separate Fact from Fiction

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Sep 21, 2018
by Stephanie Quon
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Dan Russell - Searching for Ways to Separate Fact from Fiction

Google tech lead shares perspective on the adaptable skills journalists need to identify misinformation online and potential challenges they have to be wary of Dan Russell speaking during one of his lectures at the 2018 Salzburg Academy on Media and Global Change

Dan Russell’s job is to teach people how to Google better.

Throughout his 25-year career of experimenting and understanding the user search experience, Russell has taught over four million students how to improve their information literacy and researching skills. Participants from this year’s Salzburg Academy on Media and Global Change were his latest pupils.

If you want to find accurate answers through a Google search, you need strategy, time and a bit of skepticism. The truth is “big, hairy, complicated” and “socially contextualized”, and Russell wants people to know how to effectively find information and be able to trace it back to the source. He demonstrated various ways to utilize the advanced search techniques and filter tools Google provides and details that can help or hinder specific search results.

During his second lecture, Russell created exclusive exercises for participants from this year’s Media Academy to practice these skills using their laptops. Russell later followed up on this adding, “people’s skills grow stale because the search engines constantly improve, both in their feature set, and in the way they process information.  You can’t not pay attention to how your online research tools evolve.  That way lies staleness.” By incorporating these techniques and using them deliberately, participants were taught how to prevent their search skills from becoming stale quickly.  

Russell also gave a talk about his method and perspective on innovation during an evening salon later that week. He quoted photographer Chuck Close who once said that “Inspiration is for amateurs, the rest of us just get back to work.” This is how Russell thinks of innovation: it’s not magical, but pedestrian. “Inspirational innovation,” Russell says, “where you have suddenly flash on this great idea for a product or for a story or whatever, that’s for amateurs. The rest of us just work every day. So there’s this mistaken belief that innovation happens overnight… we worked on this for ten years and then, all of a sudden, ‘Ooh! It looks like an innovation!’ It’s not innovation; I’ve been working on this for a decade! But people think of it as innovation. My take on innovation is it’s the previous nine years you forgot about.”

Participants at this year’s Academy weren’t the first to reimagine the future of journalism. Earlier this year, Google news chief Richard Gingras said, “We need to rethink journalism at every dimension.” Russell agrees: “Richard speaks the truth!” In his view, Google News has had a monumental impact on the journalism landscape.

One of the latest ventures Google is undertaking in this field is the Google News Initiative. According to Amol Rajan, BBC News media editor, the main goals of this project are to “elevate high quality news,” “help evolve new business models,” and “use new technology to empower news organizations… developing mechanisms that give them better data on their audiences.”

The Google News Initiative has a goal of “spreading knowledge to make life better for everyone.” Russell recognizes the traditions and practices of the past cannot be continued into the future. He said, “There [are] too many things that have changed; the velocity of news has changed, the velocity at which information spreads [has] changed so I think there’s a lot of stuff that has to be done.”

In addition to velocity, Russell states the business model for journalism needs to change. “Every newsroom in the universe has been cut back… we’re in some sense [at] a critical point. We need to figure out how we can get this to go forward.”

To adapt to these changes, Russell thinks people need to become more information literate.  “Let’s talk about what an index is, let’s talk about what metadata is, let’s talk about sort order, let’s talk about the properties of information. Once you start to understand that, then you’re empowered not just as a consumer, but as a user of information…” Journalists aren’t excluded from this advice. Google has about “60 hours-worth of educational content just for journalists,” according to Russell, to learn how to use specific tools to improve their reporting.

Google is working on resources to help journalists face the challenge of photo manipulation. Russell shares his experience watching a video of someone who identified a specific chair in a photograph, found it on an IKEA catalog, and used the 3D model and representation from the catalog to move and reposition the chair in the original picture. Russell said “this is a phenomenal demo…you can actually change the depiction of reality in very high quality and so this is an interesting challenge for journalism going forward.”  

Russell did come forward with one informal proposal to counteract photo manipulation: create a digital signature in photographs. He says, “Imagine that every camera when you take a photograph creates a digital signature for that image. Meaning that if you change the photograph, it won’t match the signature anymore which means it’s been manipulated. It’s as if you provide a way to check on the validity of every image. This would be an international standard that we all would have to agree to, but the beauty of that is that if somebody sends you a photograph and the signature doesn’t line up with the photograph, you know somebody tinkered with it. Or if it comes to you without a signature, you know you can’t trust it.”

Whatever obstacles new media and technologies present journalists, Russell is more than willing to play a role to help overcome them. As long as people search online for answers, his services will remain in demand. Russell says, “Even though, at this point, I’ve taught over four million students, there’s still a billion left. More than a billion people left to go! So I’ve got a lot of work to do yet.”


Dan Russell was a speaker at the Salzburg Academy on Media and Global Change 2018.