Manipulation of the Blogging World on Iraq?
[Addendum 12/27/2004: This posting contains errors and is superceded by this later statement.
Joseph Mailander of the Martini Republic weblog has an extremely important posting on Sunday about the dangers of “blog trolling.” To “troll” in the world of the internet is to lurk on a discussion board and make deliberately false and inflammatory comments, to which all the other posters feel they must reply, so that it roils the list. There is also a connotation of dishonesty about the troll’s real identity.
A related practice has been called by Josh Marshall “astroturfing,” where a “grass roots” campaign turns out actually to be sponsored by a think tank or corporation. Astroturf is fake grass used in US football arenas. What Mailander is talking about is not really astroturfing, but rather the granting of some individuals a big megaphone.
The MR posting brings up questions about the Iraqi brothers who run the IraqTheModel site. It points out that the views of 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. It notes that their choice of internet service provider, in Abilene, Texas, is rather suspicious, and wonders whether they are getting some extra support from certain quarters.
Contrast all this to the young woman computer systems analyst in Baghdad, Riverbend, who is in her views closer to the Iraqi opinion polls, especially with regard to Sunni Arabs, but who is not being feted in Washington, DC.
The phenomenon of blog trolling, and frankly of blog agents provocateurs secretly working for a particular group or goal and deliberately attempting to spread disinformation, is likely to grow in importance. It is a technique made for the well-funded Neoconservatives, for instance, and I have my suspicions about one or two sites out there already.
The manipulation of public information by rightwing think tanks in collusion with corporate media is already well advanced. Kevin Drum points out that supposedly “liberal” CBS News interviewed a think tank author on the need to “privatize” (in other words, get rid of) Social Security, portraying him as an ordinary 28 year old citizen who “doesn’t expect the program to be there” when he retires. I guess not, since he is working so hard to destroy it. Journalistic ethics should have required CBS to identify the interviewee as a principal with an axe to grind.
Will the blogging world go the same way? So far, if you look at the top hundred sites at technorati.com with regard to incoming links, what is striking is how above-board they are. Is the collective wisdom of the blogging world such as to reduce the dangers here? Is the blogging world actually less open to manipulation than corporate media? Stay tuned.