Saturday, December 30, 2006

Can the Internet Be Saved?

So asks Edward Wasserman, Knight Professor of Journalism and Ethics at Washington and Lee University, in an editorial in last week's Miami Herald. His conclusion, predictably, is "Yes, but it won't save itself."

He begins with some discussion of "bloggers for hire" by political candidates, not all of whom disclosed such relationships. But he also provides some examples of manufactured grassroots interest in the business sector, under the heading "Deceit shamed off line:"

Sony launched a website that was supposed to look like a spontaneous, grass-roots effort by fans of its new PSP play station. The site was exposed, Sony shut it down. Wal-Mart's publicists bankrolled a site called Wal-Marting Across America, which posed as a journalistic travelogue compiled by a pair of intrepid souls -- one of them a Washington Post photographer -- who made their way cross-country to chronicle the lives and dreams of clean-living Wal-Mart folk.

Both cases were notable successes of Internet self-regulation; deceit was shamed off line. Nobody can say, though, how much tainted content goes undetected and whether it violates anything beyond basic trust. The Federal Trade Commission this month ruled on a complaint by Commercial Alert, the advocacy group, that so-called buzz marketing -- in which shills pose as ordinary consumers to talk up products to the unsuspecting -- is improperly deceptive.

But the FTC's ruling was a flabby one, and it has no clear application to Internet shams. The average person has no way to know whether those passionate pseudonyms who upload videos to YouTube or commentary to websites are civilians expressing themselves or paid agents.

If regulation from outside is no help, maybe the solution is tougher regulation from inside. A group called the Media Bloggers Association, led by veteran blogger Robert Cox, is pushing for greater professionalization among blogmasters though training about legal and ethical obligations, which Cox is hopeful of offering through the Poynter Institute, a highly regarded mid-career journalists academy in St. Petersburg, Fla.

In time, Cox suggests, the result could be bloggers whose professional credentials warrant the same accreditation that mainstream journalists now qualify for.

I was not aware of the two examples, but I think that the cure could very well be worse than the disease. I shudder at the thought of external regulation and professionalization. Licensing of the sort proposed is often a medium for a select group to stifle competition.

Consider two examples of fraud in the traditional media that were "shamed off the traditional media" by bloggers: the Dan Rather "fake but accurate" national guard memos in 2004 and the doctoring of the Reuters photographs of the bombings in Lebanon this summer.

As a matter of policy, any time we think that more regulation, particularly government regulation would be of use, we should ask ourselves whether more competition wouldn't be better. It won't always be the case, but I think that in this instance, the cure for the problems on the Internet is more competition, not less.

Our ulimate objective is to be able to disseminate the truth, as rapidly and widely as possible. I do not see how we can approach that goal--particularly with the traditional media doing as poor a job as they are currently doing--by clamping down on new media venues, insulating the traditional media from competition. If complete decentralization of control of the Internet is the way we ensure competition and thus accountability where it truly matters, then the fakeries Wasserman discusses are an unfortunate but unavoidable cost.

9 comments:

eightnine2718281828mu5 said...

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the Dan Rather "fake but accurate" national guard memos in 2004 and the doctoring of the Reuters photographs of the bombings in Lebanon this summer.
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So long as were listing scalps, how about mentioning a couple hanging on the lefty mantle?

The various "Kerry and Hanoi Jane" photoshop creations floating around in 2004 probably make the list.

And there are a number of frauds that were "shamed onto the traditional media" by bloggers; the decades-old Republican fraud involving 'wink wink nod nod' racism comes to mind.

Bloggers were instrumental in propagating the 'macaca' story this summer, which cost the R's the Senate.

Trent Lott also had a few bad hair days due to bloggers pointing out his crypto-racist comments at Thurmond's birthday party.

Of slightly more significance, bloggers were also the lonely voices in the wilderness pointing out the various fraudulent rationales that were brought to bear during the administration's rush to war in 2003.

The commercial media wasn't so interested in pursuing that particular story; they waited for public opinion to drop comfortably into the 40's before sticking a toe in the water.

bakho said...

My local newspaper runs letters that contain factual misinformation all the time. At least with the blogs, misinformation can be challenged and corrected quickly. Blogs are like having peer review. Don't like it? Don't read em.

eightnine2718281828mu5 said...

We shouldn't really worry about internet misinformation; for example, there was an entirely innocent misconception in 2000 that Al Gore had claimed to invent the internet.

But thankfully no one believes that one anymore.

PGL said...

I've shyed away from this issue as I'm not sure if I have anything worthy to contribute. As I read your comments, I have to think those "Reality Based Community" liberals will find this very enlightening. Yes, a conservative economist can have a lot to say that we liberal economists would agree with.

alphie said...

Our ul[t]imate objective is to be able to disseminate the truth?

Isn't there only one truth?

How can you "compete" for it?

Anonymous said...

My personal favorite was the Republican candidate for congress in San Diego.

After returning from a brief visit in Iraq, he posted photos on his website claiming that the media was distorting the chaos and destruction there. Turns out the photos were taken in Istanbul. It was a bit obvious, as the carefree women were wearing blue jeans... nevertheless, bloggers to the rescue again.

eightnine2718281828mu5 said...

From the Miami Herald article:

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For their part, candidates with an eye to '08 -- among them Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama -- are reported to be lining up influential bloggers to do double-duty as campaign consultants.
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I also hear that McCain will be talking to the folks at Fox News and the WSJ.

But I guess they'll be playing it straight down the middle; fair and balanced, right? Of course their budgets are nowhere near what the average blog has under the mattress these days.

And I hear that Roger Ailes might just vote for the ghost of Gus Hall in the next cycle; he is just so unpredictable and independent, that guy.

eightnine2718281828mu5 said...

And when you're feeling optimistic about the internet's ability to drive out bad ideas, try explaining creationism vs evolution.

Amy said...

The internet can be such a useful tool in so many aspects. But at the same time many people are using it to carry out unethical activities just because they could remain safely behind the anonymity...

As far as competition goes though, I think that companies that provide the best value and service to its customers will emerge as winners in the end. Engaging in pitiful and unethical advertising tactics to outdo the competition may win battles, but focusing no customer satisfaction will win the war.