Wednesday, September 22, 2004

Self-Organization in the Blogosphere

The blogosphere is abuzz with a Newsday article by Danny Schechter. Jeff Goldstein gives the article a righteous and thorough fisking.

The part that has the blogosphere vibrating at an elevated pitch is the following:

The Republican National Committee operates its own 24/7 anti-news network to monitor coverage and orchestrate a rapid response. Salon reports that the story casting doubt on the documents was first pushed into the news stream by Creative Response Concepts, a Republican public relations firm. Then, selected bloggers went to work led by an Atlanta lawyer who helped get President Bill Clinton disbarred and was the first who called the memos fakes. His charges spread like a prairie fire through the rabid conservative grapevine and amen corner. The goal: Focus the media on Rather, not Bush. CBS initially stood by the documents, then hedged, saying that even if they were flawed, the story that Bush had disobeyed his commander's order to have a physical was accurate in essence. But it finally had to concede it was a mistake to run the story.

Never mind that Creative Responce Concepts apologized for making a press release that gave the impression that they ringmastered the blogosphere's response. The tone that comes across in this article is that the speed with which allegations came flying after the story was written is suspicious in and of itself and indicates that the forgeries are forgeries in a different sense. Yes, this is all a brilliant misdirection from the substance of the report by getting the story confused with the mere fact that the evidence is fake. Obviously this is the work of the ever ready Rebublican Counter-Attack Machine. This is all the result of a massive pre-arranged conspiracy of Rovian proportions.

Time to clear the undergrowth of conspiracies with Occam's Razor. A fast response like this has always been the norm in a broadcast medium. When you are broadcasting information of questionable provenance to millions of people, there are bound to be those who question it. This is even easier when a person can go to the broadcaster's website and view scanned representations of the evidence itself. It should come as no surprise that at least one person in all of the millions who saw the broadcast and who was one of the thousands then moved to examine the online documents would have the knowledge to create an observation that becomes the first meme supporting the idea that the documents might be false.

Previously, in olden times, that person would remain a lone voice in the wilderness. Very few people would ever hear the idea, probably just the originator's friends, family, and readers of his letter to the editor. These days, the orignator, let's call him Buckhead, can borrow the eyes of the readers of a blog through a posted comment and potentially have it read by thousands of people. Some of them might then look into the matter themselves (perhaps there are people among them with even more experience with publishing and typesetting from the era). Soon you have dozens of people communicating with one another, comparing notes, and publishing their results for thousands of other people to consider.

From both the original broadcast and the later blog examinations, there are thousands of chances to cross the information with a mind that is knowledgable on the topic. For analogy, why do high schools get grouped into athletic leagues by the population of their student bodies? The reason is that larger schools have a competitive advantage in that they have more chances at picking up outliers on the athletic ability bell curve. The blogosphere uses the internet's ability to rapidly disseminate a large amount of data and opinion. Not only does it give voice to the outliers, but the voice of the outlier can spark another outlier to advance the meme with more evidence. It also give the opportunity for another outlier to cut down the meme with contradictory evidence, but that's life in the blogosphere.

Not only are there bell-curves for various knowledges, there is a bell-curve for motivation. While some people may not have the knowledge to say, "That's not right," they may have the motivation to find out for themselves. Bloggers are biased in that direction since it takes a minimal amount of motivation to maintain a blog in the first place. Guys like Powerline, Allahpundit, and INDC, have been combing reports, googling like mad, and tracking down witnesses and experts on their amateurish own. The result is that a professional news agency has had to back down from their assertion in the face of the evidence amassed by a bunch of guys in their pajamas.

A person would have to be truly enamored with the idea that "central planning works best" to honestly believe that there has to be a conspiracy in all of this. What there is instead is a number of probablistic near certainties taking hold on their own. It would have been impossible to say just which elements would have started this deluge of refutation before the event. The probabilities only say that it is more likely to happen than not, no prediction can be made as to who particularly it would be.

One last thing, much has been made about Buckhead being an Atlanta lawyer who was instrumental in getting former-president Clinton disbarred. While his motivations can raise questions about the validity of his assertions, they do not answer those questions. Intellectual honesty would dictate that if you doubt the truthfulness of a source due to his motivation, then you fact check his ass, not discard the informatin at first glance. Mr. MacDougald probably decided to be sceptical of the memos cited as proof as soon as they were made known. He put out his observation into the public forum, where others picked up on it and ran with it. His allegation was found to be credible, despite his bias for President Bush.

And wasn't investigating the story with a sceptical eye supposed to be CBS's job?

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