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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Internet censorship arrives in Italy

In an effort to regulate the Internet, as part of a package of laws to safeguard national security, the Italian Government has recently proposed an amendment which in practice – if approved – would oblige all Italian ISPs (Internet Service Providers) to block a site (be this a website, a blog or a social media site such as Facebook or Youtube) where material has been posted which is believed to defend or instigate a crime.

This amendment does not talk about merely deleting the material which is believed to be criminal/illegal but about filtering/blocking/blacking out/preventing access to the entire website if the manager of the site did not take down such material. For example, if Facebook did not shut down groups such as the ones which have recently come to the spotlight for praising Mafia bosses, Italian ISPs would be in fact obliged to block access to the whole of Facebook, or be fined (from 50,000 to 250,000 Euros).

The decision of whether such material is in fact illegal would not go to the Courts of Law but would be taken directly by the Minister of the Interior, with no opportunity for trial in front of Magistrates. The amendment has already been approved by the Senate and is waiting to be discussed at the Chamber of Deputies.

Commentators from blogger Beppe Grillo to Italian politician Antonio di Pietro have voiced their protests against this amendment which – if it becomes law – would in fact curtail freedom of expression — and potentially allow the shutting down of thousands of voices on the Web. According to di Pietro [English version here] the amendment is unconstitutioal and anti-democratic thereby putting Italy in the same situation of countries such as China and Burma where Internet filtering is widespread. In his blog Beppe Grillo reports an interview with Senator D’Alia [English version here] where the Senator explains how the amendment would in fact work.

A group has been created on Facebook against this amendment – where materials such as editorials and comments can be found – for more information see also:

[Cross-posted from Corinna di Gennaro’s blog]

Supreme Court Strikes Down Law Regulating Online Indecency

With a quiet decision last week to refuse to hear appeals on banning the Child Online Protection Act (COPA), the Supreme Court has effectively brought an end to ten years of litigation on the extent to which the government can constitutionally regulate material online.

Created in 1998, the COPA made it illegal to display pornographic material on a website without some kind of access code or system for verifying age. What’s notable about the COPA regulation, however, was how the Act defined “material harmful to minors” far beyond the scope of the usual standards for obscenity.

The ACLU and other supporters arguing that the Act violated the First Amendment are framing this as a win for freedom of speech online. As Chris Hansen, lead attorney at the ACLU on the case, recently reported to the AP:

“For over a decade the government has been trying to thwart freedom of speech on the Internet, and for years the courts have been finding the attempts unconstitutional,” said Chris Hansen, the ACLU’s lead attorney on the case. “It is not the role of the government to decide what people can see and do on the Internet. Those are personal decisions that should be made by individuals and their families.”

With COPA demolished and with the latest Berkman study suggesting that threats from child predators online may be overblown, the case for strong centralized regulation of content and accessibility online to protect minors seems largely stalled.

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Obama Hints At Tech Spending In Address

Estimates for the size of the crowd on the Washington mall today have settled to somewhere around two million. Befitting a crowd of such grandeur, Pres. Obama’s inaugural address outlined many of the largest problems facing America today. Yet, as I stood near the Washington monument (freezing), I was pleased to hear the recently sworn-in president plant this quote about technological infrastructure:

We will build the roads and bridges, the electric grids and digital lines that feed our commerce and bind us together.

As I have written about in previous posts, the Obama camp seems particularly keen to bridge digital divides. They have talked about funding public works programs to increase broadband access in rural areas and using the web to make government more transparent and responsible.

As his speech suggests, Pres. Obama understands that such investments not only harvest savings for government and private business, but also, and perhaps more importantly, catalyze democratic discourse. This is almost certainly what he means in suggesting that digital networks “bind us together.” Just as real highways in theory increase civil society by linking people who were formerly geographically separated, so the information highway brings ideas and groups together in dialogue, if anything at a more dramatic rate.

Bush’s Technology Legacy

With all the Bush retrospectives going around, here’s one more for the pile. In important ways, Pres. Bush seemed distracted, even a bit disinterested when it came to tech issues. So much capital was spent on defending warrantless wire-tapping for the Bush camp to be visibly occupied by the wires and networks over which they were eavesdropping…

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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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NYT in China Blocked and Unblocked

Last week, I posted about China  re-blocking several of the sites temporarily accessible during the Olympics. During this re-censorship spree, the New York Times website was blocked for mainland Chinese users, but only for three days. This morning it was finally free again. When pressed for comment about the ostensible arbitrariness of this action, Chinese authorities played dumb. Such highly visible waffling can only be counter-productive to the censorship regime. The average Chinese internet citizen must know what he or she is missing, had temporarily and could have again. A porous Chinese firewall (and the more users, the more porous it will become) is destined to fail.

Digital natives: digital renegades or digital captives?

[Cross-posted on Corinna di Gennaro‘s blog and Digital Natives blog]

A few days ago in the IHT Evgeny Morozov, a Fellow at the Open Society Institute in New York, has published an interesting op-ed entitled: “Digital renegades, or captives?” where he analyzes the role of the Internet in promoting civic engagement in authoritarian regimes. Evgeny asks: “What if the original premise was wrong and the Internet is not a great force for democratic change but rather the clay that keeps authoritarian regimes together?” Evgeny alerts us to the dangers of seeing the Internet as a magic wand, which will necessarily promote democratic change and warns us about the importance of context (America vs. non-Western European countries) when analyzing the role of the Internet in aiding political change and political participation.

Evgeny goes on to argue (and I quote his words, again): “We have to be aware of the fact that the Internet has given the youth living in controlled societies infinite venues for digital entertainment – without any religious or social censorship – that may not necessarily be enhancing their digital sense of citizenship and civic engagement. Risking the comfort of their bedrooms – with their hard-drives full of digital goodies – for the gloom of a prison cell does not appeal to many of them. The governments are all too happy to promote this new cult of ‘cyber-hedonism’.”

In other words, the Internet is just a tool – we must avoid technologically deterministic arguments which stress the effects of technology by taking it out of context, and by devoiding it of social agency. Evgeny suggests two ideal types (a la Weber): ‘digital renegades’ vs. ‘captives’ which I think are much more than just another trendy name, but they are two categories which may well turn out to be a really useful analytical tool in studying young people’s civic engagement.