This past Monday, I heard about a nifty little browser plug-in called Spinspotter, which bills itself as “a website and software tool that exposes news spin and bias, misuse of sources, and suspect factual support.” Sounds great, but…really? I had to find out for myself. I went to the website, downloaded their toolbar (free), and got started. Initially I thought that perhaps Spinspotter had a group of people who spend their days trolling the web and highlighting instances of irresponsible reporting, which would then become known to me when I visited the site or the article. As it turns out, though, Spinspotter intends that I’m one of those people. When I come across a news article or a piece of article that I think should be flagged for spin, I highlight the passage or the article in full view, and right-click (yeah, I’m a PC person). Spinspotter appears on the menu that pops up, and from there I choose “Create Marker” from the list of options. Then, I have to select the “Rule of Spin” which is being used. Among my choices are Lack of Balance, Passive Voice and Selective Disclosure. Once I’ve chosen the rule, then I have 250 characters to describe how the rule is being broken. I click the submit button, Spinspotter rates the level of spin on a low-to-high scale of 1 to 5, and voila! I am a proactive, critical consumer of news. When I refresh the page, the Spinspotter logo on my toolbar changes colors, and a little menu bar appears which tells me that this article has been flagged for spin. I can read my explanation for why it was flagged, and my Spinspotter user name is attached to it as a byline.
One can see how there are lots of pros and cons to Spinspotter. First, in true Web 2.0 fashion, its effectiveness is entirely dependent upon its users. I read a good amount of news about a variety of topics, and so far my Spinspotter tool hasn’t lit up once in three days. If Spinspotter doesn’t catch on, and nobody else is creating markers, it is almost entirely useless to me. One thing I do like is that encourages me to think critically about the news I’m reading, and provides an outlet for me to share my findings, all while demanding some level of responsibility on my part. I can’t flag just anything; I have to be able to name specifically what about it is spin, and since I can’t create a marker as an anonymous Spinspotter user, I am being held accoutable to a degree for my opinion. On the other hand, my marker appears almost immediately, which suggests to me that it’s not being reviewed by anyone for accuracy or appropriateness. So in theory, I could actually be using Spinspotter to create more spin–suppose I marked an article about the pro-life movement. I could choose any rule of spin I wanted to, and then use my explanation space to air my personal opinions on abortion. Should another Spinspotter user find the article, they would then be subjected to my invectives which may or not be have anything to do with the quality of journalism.
I’m all for anything that encourages a real understanding of media, and I think Spinspotter was designed with the intention that people ask questions about the news they read, and share their ideas with others. This is crucial to being an active and responsible citizen and human being, and I applaud the people at Spinspotter for their efforts. I hope that it won’t be too long for teachers and students to couple tools like Spinspotter with other multimedia classroom activities. Such critical analysis is needed more than ever; perhaps it’s not a coincidence that the tool has debuted just after the Democratic and Republican conventions, when candidates and their supporters are working overtime to make their cases for should be elected President in two months. It has always been too easy for those in the media to spin reality–we are, after all, imperfect humans with our own opinions and needs. Journalism itself is a great example of how anything that can be used for good can also be abused for ill purposes, and the possibility that Spinspotter could be used the “wrong” way is not a good enough reason not to use it. They have an incredibly talented journalism advisory board, and after all, it’s only in its beta stage. I have a lot of hope for Spinspotter and its potential to transform the Internet, making media literacy a part of our every day lives.