There’s a “new classic” social science experiment that I first heard about from a lecture by the amazing Paul Jones. The experiment asks different groups to pick the best news clippings from a folder of news clippings. Each group is also given a list of the “best” news articles as determined by different entities. One group is given a list of the “best” news clippings as determined by a computer program; another is told that their list is picked by professional editors; another is told that their lists match a psychological profile of the participants; another is told that the list represents what the people in the room before them picked. The twist is that each list of the “best” articles is the same list across all the groups — only the alleged authority responsible for the list has changed.
Which group do you think kept their list of the best news the same as the recommended list most of the time? If you guessed the group that had the list recommended by previous participants, then you are correct.
What does the experiment show? We are creatures of community, and we tend to value “other people like us” as an authority even beyond experts and algorithms. (The slides from Jones’ lecture are still online if you are curious.) In other words, Democracy is a form of authority, especially in the realm of mass media and news.
I believe that little-d democratic journalism has the possibility to really reform our national discourse and get us out of the mass media rut we are in. That’s why we have to be vigilant now to make sure it’s done right. And, that’s why the story of conservative activists gaming the Digg.com website is actually a bigger deal than it sounds like at first.
What basically happened was that this group of conservative activists registered multiple accounts on Digg.com, a very popular social website for aggregating interesting/important stories from around the web. When a story came along that they wanted to bury — usually news that was bad for conservatives or an opinion piece written by a liberal — they would coordinate using their multiple accounts to rapidly bury the story, effectively censoring it from the site. (Think of “Dugg vs Buried” as “Like vs Dislike.”) In typical right-wing fashion, this group of censors dubbed themselves the “Digg Patriots.” A Digg.com commenter explains:
The primary function of the Digg Patriots is to censor politically progressive content from the upcoming Political, Political Opinion, World News, and Business sections, so that conservative stories have a better chance to get more traction. To do this, they constantly monitor these sections, progressive submitters, and news websites.
Of course, Digg users hate this kind of censorship, as evidenced by the extremely-dugg article describing the incident on Digg (here is the full Alternet article).
This is somewhat of a new problem. On the internet, the screaming mob next to you may just be one screaming guy and a mob full of illusions created by the one guy. Traditional mass media does some of this too… inflated Tea Party crowd estimates, anyone? However, those are easier to spot and correct. Spotting and correcting this Digg mass-censorship scheme took longer than a year.
Over time the tools to prevent crap like this will get better, but now is the time when everything is new. We must take great care that we are leaving a democratic media legacy that lives up to its promise and potential.