Rbutr finds contrary opinions for stories you’re reading

Need to find a quick rebuttal to a news report or opinion piece you read online? There’s now an app for that.

Introducing Rbutr.com, a new digital platform that uses crowdsourcing to provide arguments and counter-arguments on any number of subjects. It’s sort of like Wikipedia meets Politifact, but without journalists or other experts necessarily in the mix.

The application, which allows people to follow inter-website debates and easily find counter-arguments to information they are viewing, was dreamed up by Australian Shane Greenup about a year ago when he wanted to debunk a scientific report he saw online. A philosophy and molecular biology major, 30-year-old Greenup partnered with software developer Craig O’Shannessy in February to bring his idea to fruition. 

The site has gained wide attention in a few short months.

In April, Rbutr was named one of the top 10 startups that could change the face of news. It is also among the top finalists for a $250,000 prize offered by the Knight News Challenge, which seeks to accelerate media innovation by funding breakthrough ideas in news and information. Greenup also recently received $40,000 from Start-up Chile to digitally map the natural world in a project called Immortal Outdoors, but his focus has since changed to Rbutr.

“Rbutr was getting a lot more interest than Immortal Outdoors and was much better suited for this program,” Greenup said.

Rbutr is a browser plug-in that users download to their computers. While viewing an article, the user can hover over the green and white Rbutr logo in the browser’s top right-hand corner to see if there are any rebuttals to what they are reading. If no rebuttals exist, Rbutr will allow the user to request rebuttals from other community members or submit her own.

After attempting to test a few online news articles — for which there were no rebuttals on Rbutr — I then viewed an opinion piece that was already in the system: “Did Jesus Foresee The Constitution,” by Andrew Sullivan, published May 29. Rbutr alerted me to a single rebuttal to the piece by displaying a red number one within its logo at the top of the screen. Submitted by a user going by the name of mapman, I then read the counterpoint entitled, “Andrew Sullivan: Conservative Mormons Will Be Crazy Politicians; Moderate Ones Won’t,” by Ryan Bell, posted May 31 at MormonAmerican.com.

For someone like me who is more interested in news than opinion, Rbuter wasn’t all that useful because there weren’t any rebuttals to the news articles I chose. I think a better mix of opinion of news articles and opinion pieces is needed, which is likely to come as the user community grows.

Rbutr users submit any number of rebuttals on any given issue, including technology, health, science and politics; users can also rebut the rebuttals. They then vote on those rebuttals as a way to determine which posts contain the most reliable information. In the end, users are left to make up their own minds about which report is the most credible.

Rbutr is required to help people vet information more vigorously since the credibility of information sources, including traditional media publications, is now constantly being questioned, Greenup said via Skype from Chile.

O’Shannessy, the software developer and Greenup’s partner, agreed. “The Internet is a wonderful information source, but the quality of information on it varies dramatically,” he wrote via email from Australia. “The power of Rbutr is that by using a crowd sourcing model, we can link alternative views to the information people are currently reading, which will help with critical thinking. The Rbutr browser plug-in will notify people that there is a rebuttal in the system to the page they are viewing.”

If Rbutr can cut through the clutter of information already present in the digital media era, it can help people see the bigger picture. But if the platform is dominated by people who agree with each other, then it will be more noise than value, said Kelly McBride, a senior faculty member for ethics, reporting and writing at Poynter.

If Rbutr works, the platform can help readers by providing content that complements whatever else they are reading and by forcing users to get information from multiple of sources, McBride added.

“People might be less likely to swallow bad information, simply because it fits with their philosophical outlook on life,” McBride said. “It might make people more likely to engage in dialogue, rather than simply yelling at each other.”

Rbutr’s success will depend on whether it can provide a mix of opinion and straight news stories and can build a critical mass, McBride said. “With critical mass, diversity is more likely,” she said.

O’Shannessy and Greenup are currently trying to find ways to build Rbutr’s community of users. Part of their strategy is to tap into the global skeptic community, said O’Shannessy, who labels himself a skeptic. Skeptics are people involved in fighting the battle against misinformation on the World Wide Web.

“Rbutr will really shine when we have a large number of users. To that end, we are planning on engaging the skeptic community to get passionate people involved to help us build our link content,” O’Shannessy said. “There are many steps for us between now and our goal of getting better quality information in front of a huge number of people.”

There has been a trend toward users shaping the news agenda, including Reddit and Wikipedia, which both allow users to submit content. But what those who have moved toward user generated content have found is that some policing of the process becomes necessary fairly quickly, said Tom Rosenstiel, Director of the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism, in a telephone interview.

“A pure crowdsource environment is open to manipulation,” said Rosenstiel, who cited political partisans who tried to manipulate Wikipedia as an example. As these types of websites mature, creators tend to put systems in place where there are experts or some type of hierarchy empowered to police the site, added Rosenstiel, who is also a member of Poynter’s National Advisory Board.

Rosenstiel acknowledged the positive aspects of crowdsourcing information the way that Rbutr seeks to do.

Rosenstiel pointed to a Pew study finding that virtually all Americans get their news from some form of traditional news organization. He added, however, that sites like Rbutr open up public discussion to the public in very significant ways.

“People are going to try it because they can. In the context of journalism, mistakes that journalists make are spotted and corrected more quickly because the audience can point out errors to us,” he said, using erroneous reports of the shooting of former Arizona Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and how audience members on Twitter helped to almost instantaneously correct the record.

Crowdsourcing content doesn’t have an advantage over traditional news organizations, or vice versa, Rosenstiel added.

“What we’re seeing is not a matter of one being better than another,” he said, “but that the different kinds of information, sources and authorities are stronger when they work as a network or an ecosystem together.”

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