Archive for August, 2010

Dugg and Buried

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.

Cordoba Controversy Put to Bed

I dislike stepping into another right-wing talking point, but it looks like this one is finally on the way out. So, I’m going to speak my peace on it.

Some right-wing leaders have wholly embraced the “war on islam” mindset (Sarah Palin and Newt Gingrich come to mind), promoting religious intolerance by opposing the so-called “ground zero mosque.” I say so-called, because like any recent right-wing talking point, it’s mostly wrong on purpose. The proposed structure is 1) not a mosque, and 2) not at ground zero. Cordoba House (now Park51) is a multipurpose community building, inside of which is an interfaith outreach center, inside of which is a mosque (one that Al Qaeda would hate, incidentally). It’s two blocks and around the corner from ground zero, and you can’t see ground zero from the proposed location of 45-47 Park Place or vice versa. (Put it into google streetview if you want to test this — there are at least two big honking buildings in the way.)

Well, this week the NYC Landmark Commission unanimously cleared the way for the Cordoba House to be built by declaring that the current building is not, in fact, a landmark. Additionally, Mayor Bloomberg (not one of my favorite mayors to be sure) gave an impassioned speech today that makes it clear that the city of New York stands behind our religious freedom and property rights in this country. I’ve always said that we as a nation could learn a lot from how our biggest and best cities manage to get by and get along. (Certainly the City of Lubbock is at the stage in its life where we will begin to have real metro area issues and can no longer act like a small town writ large. Religious tolerance will definitely be required of us in our city’s near future.)

So, the loud-minority right-wing talking point of the “ground zero mosque” is over. They’ve tweeted; they’ve facebooked. They’ve raged on talk radio and on FOX and on the Drudgernet. A few made provocative signs and made loud noises at meetings. And it’s all been for naught. This particular right-wing exercise in un-American, unconstitutional, intolerant rhetoric has run its course. Aside from a slight hangover of impotent rage, our national consciousness can recover… until the next hateful distraction from the right comes up.


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