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Internet Mobs and Freeman Detox

Chas Freeman, Obama’s controversial pick for the National Intelligence Council, recently withdrew his nomination after the flurry of protest (and counter-protest) on the web made him too hot to handle. Regardless of how you feel on the issue, I encourage you to read this thoughtful post by David Rothkopf over at FP. Money quote:

I was appalled by the mob mentality generated by the blog debate on the Freeman nomination. It produced some serious misgivings on my part regarding even being involved in the blogosphere because so much of what passes for discourse in this world is undistilled opinion and emotion designed to bind and stir up like-minded audiences. The rest is more like grafitti than thoughtful commentary, designed to leave a wannabe commentator’s mark on the side of a passing issue.

For me, the borking of Chas Freeman illustrates something that goes beyond its own narrow political logic. For a position that did not require Senate confirmation, Freeman was subjected to all the rigors and then some of a politicized Congressional hearing. He was held up, dissected, examined, slandered and defended by a cadre of bloggers, commentators, wonks, pundits and angry voices, left and right.

The sensitive nature of Freeman’s appointment only made the debate more combustible and fervent. Unlike a Senate hearing, he was not given much of a platform to discuss, evade or spin his record. As the pressure of the commentariat’s chorus swelled, Freeman cracked and withdrew. Depending on how you view Freeman, you may be inclined to view this as a triumph either of democratic process or the confirmation of Hamilton’s worst fears of now digital mob rule.

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Media Cloud Tool Launched

Berkman just rolled out one of its newest and most innovative projects: Media Cloud. The idea is that by scouring massive data sets with content analysis, it can quantitatively study the flow of news. Now, what the hell does that mean? In layman’s terms, Media Cloud crunches statistics on how different media outlets, both large and small, report on a given story over time. It can chart, for instance, which keywords are most frequently associated with a specified keyword (say “Katrina” or “Obama”) in articles by a specific source like The New York Times.

Josh Benton, over at the Nieman Journalism Lab recently interviewed Berkman guru Ethan Zuckerman about the project. I thought this conclusion was particularly striking:

As Berkman Fellow Ethan Zuckerman put it, it’s an attempt to move media criticism and media analysis beyond the realm of the anecdote — to gather concrete data to back or contradict our suspicions.

This, as I have recently suggested in my coverage of fact checking and the Santelli conspiracy, is a problem of the highest order. Each side of the political spectrum has a corresponding media boogeyman, whose conclusions are suspect or misleadingly framed. For the right, it’s The New York Times ; for the left, FoxNews. These distinctions continue down the row of lesser blogs and publications.

Media Cloud might be able to cut through the fog of this anecdotal reasoning by using the churning engine of keyword analysis. Although the frequency of keywords cannot tell us everything about context, intent or possible slant, it might give us broad-based statistics and clues as to which ideas were emphasized in connection with a story. Thus, Media Cloud represents a more neutral standpoint from which to digest news coverage and, it strikes me, to discuss the larger questions of bias or framing (see also the current bloglemic about Obama’s Wikipedia page).

Though still in development, it would be wonderful to see Media Cloud expand to include as many blogs and blogospheres as possible. The richer the data dump, the less rough-hewn subsequent analysis can be, even if it means including less established blogs. For the Santelli story, a investigative piece (now removed) sparked a wildfire in liberal circles, backlash in conservative one, and was then picked up again by the NYT. The lower rungs of the blogosphere are thus becoming more vocal and influential. Media Cloud, I hope, will inject a little (dispassionate) social science into discussions and cries of media bias. Check it out.

The Internet and Democracy Oxford Workshop: Lessons Learnt and Future Directions of Research

We have just come back from a three day workshop on: “The Internet and Democracy, Lessons Learnt and Future Directions of Research”, which we at Berkman’s Internet & Democracy project have been organizing in collaboration with the Oxford Internet Institute and the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at the University of Oxford. The workshop gathered around 25 leading academics working in the field in order to investigate:  (1) what are the lessons learnt from existing research? (2) how can we best measure the impact of the Internet and new media on democracy and what are the insights provided by different research methodologies? (3) what are the future directions for the field? The sessions covered an array of topics, with a variety of methodological perspectives.

Day 1
Day one was opened by a public lecture by Matthew Hindman held at the Oxford Said Business School which explored how online audiences are distributed and how site traffic changes over time. The webcast of the lecture will be available online here.
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Did George Will Lie?

I wrote last week about the future of fact checking and its relationship to the blogosphere. Damon Linker, a New Republic blogger I respect immensely, has this interesting round-up on the recent George Will “climate change column” controversy, which pitted liberal bloggers against the staff of the Washington Post.

Linker’s piece eloquently evokes something I overlooked, namely, the danger of crowd-sourced fact checking when animated by a partisan ideology. The shrill calls for the Post to retract Will’s column (because it deliberately “lies”) are a good example. Will may have strayed in his interpretation of several scientific studies or even suggested “misleading” conclusions, but that only opens him up to reasoned criticism, not braying censure for journalistic malfeasance of the highest order. You can read Will’s follow up to his accusers here.

Blogospheric fact checking thus proves to be a mixed blessing. Many lefty bloggers and commentors did poke legitimate holes in Will’s piece, just as right-of-center bloggers debunked the Santelli astroturf conspiracy theory. But both sides, after the initial scramble to “factually” discredit the other side turned the victory into talking points, thereby transforming fact-checking into propaganda. I think this is what Linker is leery of, and I couldn’t agree more.

The Future of Fact Checking

Remember Jayson Blair, the New York Times “reporter” who fabricated tens of articles by gliding through a loop hole in the reporter’s code of honor? Some established magazines like The New Yorker or The Atlantic can afford to pay fact checkers, but even the Times — whether for reasons of deadline or budget — must rely on reporters to fact-check themselves, taking any heat from the public if they misquote or misrepresent.

Obviously, there is even less impetus or resources to fact-check blogs. In blogging, commentary is so instantaneous that a moment of reflective delay costs its writer timely influence on the cacophonous dialogue of interested voices. Toss in the patina of ideology, opinion, and just plain gossip, which can characterize the blogosphere both left and right, and you have a recipe for old fashioned, low and dirty rumor-mongering.

One need look no farther back than the “Barack Obama is a Muslim” conspiracy on the right (see here) and, these days, the “Rick Santelli is part of massive libertarian astroturf conspiracy” on the left (for background, see here). The blogospheric rumor mill can churn at an alarming pace. But in important ways, it’s not the initial debut of a pernicious internet rumor which poisons national discourse; false claims are often immediately disputed and hashed out in a sort of crowd-sourced wiki factchecker operation.

Rather, the problem is such crowd-led efforts are operationally diffuse. It may take several bloggers from all over the spectrum writing and revising a received idea/rumor/possibility to approximate a verifiable fact. Scouring a host of different blogs, including those ideologically opposed to one’s own position, in the uneven aftermath of some scandalous new piece of blogger cant is sometimes, I fear, too much attention to expect from information technologies already stuffed to the gills with competing headlines.

Falsehoods, rumors, half-stated truths, then, have a tendency to linger in all but the most consistently interested and open minded blogs. Even if Playboy removed the Santelli conspiracy theory article, its ripple effect through the left-of-center echo chamber has likely yet to cease (though Yglesias at least recognized in an update that Playboy’s retraction was problematic), and those who protest the article’s characterization (a group that includes Playboy evidently) seem slow in catching up with the monstrous wave of accusation. As one conservative blogger opined:

Happily facts have won over Playboy forcing the mag to pull down the fallacious story, which is all well and good. But the problem is we now have hundreds perhaps thousands of left-wing DailyKosers and such all imagining they know the real story, the one that corresponds to the fake Playboy tale.

I suppose one could say the same for newspaper corrections, which are not dramatically featured either; still, I wonder whether the web’s increased decentralization of media authority, in many ways a good and important development, will weaken our ability to fact-check even basic news stories. As abstract as that seems, the question is of vital importance, because without stronger sources of factual reliability, the internet will see its share of Jayson Blairs, real astro-turfers, charlatans and fools.

Santelli Barometer

Morningside Analytics, which in my opinion runs some of the most interesting data on the internet, has a barometer of political interest based on how many times an item is linked to in different sectarian spheres of the internet. Below is a screenshot (click for larger image) from their Video Barometer of the success of the viral Santelli’s video.

Santelli\'s Rant on

The orange dot at the top of the scale shows how much higher Santelli’s popularity has spiked over other recent political videos. From this, we can make some preliminary speculations about the video’s web trajectory. For instance, by virtue of its spatial location (slightly right-of-center), it must have been heavily linked by both sides of the blogospheric spectrum, but with a slight statistical advantage on the conservative side.

This seems to add up with what we know of the video’s history so far. Santelli’s initial meteoric rise in the blogosphere following his rant on 2/19 was a largely a conservative phenomenon, amplified by Glenn Reynolds and Michelle Malkin calling for a “Tea Party” movement. After the Playboy article broke 2/27 (for more back story, see my summary here), however, the video must have shifted interest, as news of a right wing astro-turf machine spread like wildfire on the left side of the blogosphere (Daily Kos, for instance). Tossed like a football, the video and the meme was now ricocheting inside the echo chamber of the left instead of the right where it started.

And then the series of blogs, news media and others began doubling back on the Playboy piece to see if it had really done its homework (see my two posts here and here). Now Glenn Reynolds and others began to take issue or debunk the Playboy piece, which was quietly (if such a thing is possible in the blogosphere) removed from the site, likely over concerns of libel, or perhaps to reduce bad publicity.

It is still astonishing to me that so much electronic ink has been spilled in little over the course of two weeks, and unless some brave new development suddenly breaks, I think the flame may now be dead or dying down.

Santelli Conspiracy Theory Redux

By now, have seen the YouTube clip of exasperated CNBC anchor Rick Santelli ranting about Pres. Obama’s proposed homeowner bailout plan on the floor of the Chicago commodities exchange. The video quickly went viral, amplified by the ample conservative blogosphere. According to the Associated Press, Santelli’s wild screed has been viewed almost 2 million times on CNBC’s website and, as of the time of this writing, 855,502 times on YouTube.

This high visibility sparked not only the ire of a testy White House press secretary, Robert Gibbs, but also what seemed like populist rage over the bailout. Santelli’s call for a “Chicago tea party” was immediately met with enthusiastic netizens organizing “tea parties” of their own to boycott the stimulus.

Or so it seemed.

Perhaps (like the original Boston Tea Party; hat tip: Reihan Salam) it was all just an elaborate PR stunt. Perhaps Santelli’s outburst was the trigger and cover for a massive astro-turfing campaign to generate “grassroots” opposition to the bailout.

Last Friday, Playboy published an article (since yanked, though The Atlantic‘s Megan McArdle has the full text here) by Mark Ames and Yasha Levine, purporting exactly this. It alleged that a vast libertarian conspiracy funded by the wealthy businessmen Ed Koch intentionally planted and scripted the Santelli affair, closely managing and stoking the fire of internet and media exposure.

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AlJazeera’s Twitter Feed in Gaza, Part II

Twitter, and other Web 2.0 social media tools, are continuing to change the dynamics of crisis information sharing. Since the Mumbai attacks, where besieged civilians used Twitter to disseminate information and communicate to loved ones, such tools have only increased in use.

As I began to suggest in my last post, this development has unique implications for the way in which we receive, process and react to crises, particularly military conflicts. Twittering decentralizes the control of information, potentially challenging an accepted line, whether it comes from the government (Israel), the main stream media or influential players (like Hamas) skilled in manipulating press coverage. This necessarily alters the dynamic of how the conflict is framed and understood. How collateral “collateral damage” really is may indeed depend upon how much we know and understand of actual ground conditions, even live Twitter updates.

Hypothetically, the number of civilian deaths could decrease as the public’s appetite for violence wanes and world wide protests against the military players, both Israel and Hamas, increase in intensity. In the Berkman case study of the Burmese Saffron Revolution, the suggestion was made that, although the military successfully quashed the rebellion, it was careful not to massacre the monks completely, largely out of fear of the internet’s collective gaze (pg. 14).

Similar hypotheses may hold true for current conflict in Gaza. What images have emerged from the conflict have sharply increased world protest, and have circulated rapidly through the internet. Moreover, since virtually all of the international press is currently locked out of Gaza, many have turned to AlJazeera’s innovative Twitter feed for regular updates, linking and multiplying those stories (and others) into a massive topic chain of #gaza tweets.

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AlJazeera’s Twitter Feed in Gaza, Part I

AlJazeera, the popular Qatari news network, has always inspired strong reactions. Some accuse it of acting as a lightning rod for anti-American sentiment; others praise it as the only editorially independent news source in the Middle East. Whatever you think, AlJazeera has scooped the Gaza crisis from the inside using innovative social media like YouTube and Twitter.

After the mainstream media picked up and amplified pictures of the destructive invasion of Lebanon in 2006, Israeli military planners have been particularly careful to shutter the press from the current Gaza war zone. Most of the foreign journalists covering the story are marooned at the Israeli enforced security cordon with binoculars. Wading through Israel’s Public Affairs version of the war, Hamas’ periodic statements of defiance and sporadic reports from international aid agencies has complicated accurate reporting.

AlJazeera, however, already had six reporters in Gaza when the conflict began. Now, those reporters are providing some of the only on-the-ground footage, images and details of the conflict available. The information is passing from reporters to Doha, and from there across a broad range of social media. By correlating GPS coordinates with their reports, AlJazeera has even constructed a map of the war zone with statistics and interactive features.

Getting news out of Gaza is hard enough when much major infrastructure in the poorly wired region has been destroyed by the Israeli military. Using cellphones and mobile upload technology, however, AlJazeera has been able to tweet updates to a feed which already has more than 5,000 official followers. In turn, those subscribers are passing on the stories in a sort of frenzied multiplier effect.

Israel, too, has seen the potential in a micro-blogging “battle for hearts and minds.” It is now running its own government Twitter feed, even staging a Twitter conference, complete with a Q&A.

Since the beginning of this war, I have wondered whether the same twitter/citizen journalism used for information sharing during the recent Mumbai attacks would translate to the technologically depressed Gaza Strip. In highly tech literate Mumbai, average citizens caught in the cross fire could contribute instantly to collective information sharing.

By contrast, Gaza, more heavily bombarded and less internet friendly, still needs some sort of central network to disseminate news stories, but uniquely (and perhaps specifically because of the constraints which the war has placed on traditional reporting) a major network like AlJazeera is finding itself more and more using the tools of citizen journalists. This will have, I think, a definite effect on the way a war is reported, on which euphemisms are thrown around and on what civilian casualties really mean.

(To be continued…)

Media Re:public Launch and Human Rights Media

A year long Berkman research collaboration called Media Re:public has just been released. It is a wide-ranging and diverse set of papers analyzing the seismic shifts which the internet and the participatory media are creating in the landscape of traditional news.

What I like so far from what I’ve read is how it engages not only the obvious questions of new and different revenue streams, but also the stickier complexities of how the internet is altering how the news is written, disseminated and consumed. I highly encourage you to read the pdf of the overview (fair warning: it’s fifty some pages long). It’s a comprehensive, readable summary of this exciting initiative.

I was particularly interested in the section on how the slow contraction of foreign newspaper coverage in remote or dangerous areas has de facto transferred the responsibility of covering them to coalitions of human-rights groups and citizen journalists (p. 17 and following, Overview). It may be too expensive (or indeed, illegal) to maintain a foreign correspondent in Burma, but international human rights groups and the activists they support are in the business of writing investigative reports and sharing them with the world.

Allowing human rights types to shoulder reportorial responsibilities may have other benefits as well. I think a greater sense of urgency could permeate the international news cycle, particularly when it comes to repressive regimes. If produced with the help of local activists and citizen journalists, the report could also avoid the pitfalls of some MSM international coverage, which can seem America-centric or out of touch with historical and cultural realities.

Recall that in Burma, due to a restrictive foreign journalist visa policy, much of what was happening during the Saffron Revolution came from locals with camera phones and blogs. Human rights advocacy groups could thus function as the facilitating network (and the internet, their conduit) for a totally reconceived kind of international coverage of the developing world.

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