Internet Nutrition Labels

Imagine walking into a grocery store that is full of packaged foods with no nutrition or ingredient labels. You find a box of cereal with an attractive drawing on the front. On the surface, the cereal looks good and the brand seems trustworthy, but you are completely clueless about what you are actually purchasing.

Now think about the last time you read an article on a website. The page may have been attractive and the graphics clear, but do you know who wrote the content? Could you ascertain the author’s motivation for writing the piece?

 Unfortunately, it is much easier to find information about the food you eat compared to finding information about the content you read online. The words we read and ‘feed’ ourselves can be just as harmful as unhealthy foods, but there are no regulations online regarding the transparency of the sources of content. This incongruous situation is dangerous and has been getting worse. Even Google and Facebook are facing backlash for algorithmically promoting content without properly vetting its authors.

People may argue that it is consumers’ responsibility to use their own knowledge to discern what information is trustworthy. Although that argument has value, websites could provide much more transparency to help people make informed decisions.

There are many possible solutions to this issue ranging from governmental regulations to voluntary actions, but I will focus on one potential way of providing ‘internet nutrition facts’ that would not be too difficult to implement and that borrows elements from current cookie policy warnings.

Some websites include banners on their pages that provide a warning about the company’s cookie policy. The Atlantic displays the informational warning seen below at the top of their homepage.

Atlantic Cookies Banner

Other companies include modals that allow users to change the types of cookies a website will set. For example, IBM’s cookie modal provides information about how each setting will change a user’s browsing experience.

IBM Cookies

The cookie policy banners and modals provide information about a website’s tracking policies and are a way to build trust with consumers. A similar concept could be used to provide information about a website’s content to help internet browsers make informed decisions about what they read.

For example, imagine coming across a Google search result that leads to a website called: bestscienceresearch.com. After clicking on the search result link you are led to a webpage, but it is hard to tell if the content is reputable. What if there was an internet nutrition facts banner on the page? A simple banner or image could provide quick access to details about the author, the content’s publisher, source details, and other pertinent information. A potential ‘internet nutrition facts’ label is shown below.

Disclosure Banner

Including such a label would allow readers to quickly make judgements about the trustworthiness of a webpage’s content. Of course many websites purposely do not want to prominently display who pays their writers or sponsors their content, but such information should be required to be easily accessible. Just as junk food with an unhealthy amount of fat and sugar needs a nutrition facts label, websites should clearly disclose any sources of information.

Requiring ‘internet nutrition facts’ would create all types of legal and regulatory complications, but could start as a voluntary feature that would hopefully become widely adopted. As mentioned before, there are many different ways to approach the issue of online content trustworthiness; however, my proposed simple informational banner would be a step in the right direction towards helping internet users make informed decisions about what they read.

 

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