Sunday, December 12, 2004

Astrotrolling in Iraq

Since at least the Nixon days, the Republican Party has had serious comparative advantage in the various darks political arts. I must admit that I say this not without some grudging admiration -- even though such behavior is obviously lamentable from an ethical perspective.

What kind of skullduggery are we talking about? Perhaps the best known are so-called push polls, in which you hire a telemarketing firm to call voters, ostensibly to gather their opinion on a subject, but in fact to spread some rumor. The most famous use of a push poll was by George Bush's primary campaign in South Carolina in 2000 against against John McCain. Karl Rove had telemarketers call SC voters and ask, "Would you be more likely or less likely to vote for John McCain for president if you knew he had fathered an illegitimate black child?" (Sometimes the pollsters made reference to McCain's appearances on the campagin trail with a dark-skinned little girl: his adopted Bangladeshi daughter. Nice.)

Another classic dark art is phone jamming -- using mass phone-bank spamming to block the telephone-based get-out-the-vote operations of your opposition. Bush's 2004 New England campaign manager, James Tobin, was just indicted for allegedly sponsoring such an operation in New Hampshire in the 2002 campaign.

Yet another good one -- originally pioneered by the tobacco lobby -- is the creation of what Josh Marshall calls astroturf organizations -- i.e. fake "grassroots" (hence: astroturf) campaigns operated by professional services organization that set up fake activist groups, media campaigns, phone banks to call congressmen imitating irate citizens, and so on.

So far, the Internet in general, and blogging in particular, has simply been one more vehicle for helping to create an astroturf organization. But as Martini Republic explains, something more sinister may be now beginning to take place, which we may refer to as blog trolling. In Internetspeak, "trolling" refers to people who lurk on discussion boards and make deliberately false or inflamatory remarks in order to throw the community into a tizzy. Made possible by the inherent anonomity of the Internet medium, effective trolls can get a whole community up in arms, distracted from its main goals. Blog trolling, as the name suggests, is an analogous idea to trolling, but in the blogosphere. It involves setting up blogs that pretend to express the voices of real people, but are in fact are potemkin villages designed to create an intentionally misleading impression of the scene they are commenting on. Blog trolling exploits two facts: the blogosphere's penumbra of personal authenticity, and the fact that the blogosphere is, in fact, just as anonymous as any Internet chat room.

That combination of apparent personal authenticity with what is in fact total anonymity makes blogs an almost perfect operational environment for agents provocateurs. For people working in psy-ops, blogs provide a perfect medium for spreading false information -- which can then be fed to more legitimate and widely-consumed media channels. All of this is especially important in the case of the war in Iraq, where blogs have become a truly important medium, widely cited both for facts and interpretations of the chaotic situation in Iraq.

The problem with blogs is they are completely unverified and unprofessionalized sources of news. For example, who knows who the "Baghdad Bloggers" who write for observes of the two brothers who write this blog:

the brothers are celebrated in the right-leaning weblogging world of the US, even though opinion polling shows that their views are far out of the mainstream of Iraqi opinion.... Their choice of internet service provider, in Abilene, Texas, is rather suspicious, and wonders whether they are getting some extra support from certain quarters.
People have started turning to blogs as a source of news because of the information void created a lack of quality professional reporting coming out of Iraq. (This informational vacuum is the joint creation of the insurgency's uniquely murderous attitude toward reporters, and the Bush regime's "other GWOT" -- global war on transparency.) In the hunger to figure out what's really happening in Iraq, people are now turning to bloggers as an alternative news source.

Unfortunately, as the problem of blog trolling illustrates, the cognitive legitimacy of bloggers in no way matches that of the professional, real media. The right-wing media have made a concerted case that no difference exists between "opinion" and fact-based reporting, but the truth is that, despite everything, the New York Times and the Washington Post are far more reliable sources of news, and give more reliable perspectives on the news, than any blogger out there.

The reason why this is so is pretty obvious, if you give it a moment's thought. It's not just that news organizations employ professional reporters, who are extraordinarily talented at finding and contextualizing interesting sources. It's not just that news organizations have a large number of these reporters, who can share sources and scoops, and follow-up on stories in a much more far-reaching and panoptic way than any individual blogger ever could. And it's not just that these reporters have editors, who vet and fact-check to keep the reporters honest.

What's most important is that these news organizations have a reputation to maintain. The Jayson Blair story at the New York Times was indeed a disgrace, as was the failure of news organizations to sufficiently question the Bush regime's rationale for war. But at the end of the day, when you take the longer view, professional news organizations are far more trustworthy than any other news source, for the simple reason that they have something very big to lose if they are exposed as being intentionally and consistently deceptive.

A lot of bloggers, in hyper-self-satisified mode, and some of the mainstream right-wing media, seem to believe or hope that the blogosphere will eventually displace the mainstream media -- providing a populist grassroots replacement for "elitist" news sources. This is nonsense. We need the validation of information by professional reporters. Blogs are useful for framing issues, and for helping to keep certain stories alive which might otherwise die in today's compressed news cycle. But anyone relying on blogs for the substance of their news is inviting themselves to be duped by professional dupers.

This is why the Bush regime's effort to exclude professional reporters from the news cycle is so sinister: it aims to exclude from the creation of the news the people whose expertise and reputation is based on their ability to sift and parse information. Without organizations dedicated to distinguishing what is real from what is false, or what is important from what is trivial, individual citizens cannot help but become overwhelmed by the overflow of information, or to adopt cynical attitudes about all news.

Even leaving aside the deliberate efforts to create false impressions about what is happening, this destruction of the fourth estate's function as a quality filter for information is a disaster for a democratic polity. It's also the intended result of the Bush regime's efforts to contain and control the news cycle.

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