I have invited researchers at MIT’s Center for Future Civic Media to participate in an effort to blow the whistle on groups who are falsely presenting themselves as “ordinary bloggers,” but instead are paid to spread false information about candidates during the 2008 campaign in viral internet campaigns to influence voters. The project, already involving students from Columbia and Harvard, traces the IP addresses of these content originators to track those who are sending out large packets of these identical negative messages and claiming to be individuals. But a MIT researcher protested that this kind of research was not to his liking because it compromised the privacy of the person or group posting content. His point was that this kind of posting might seem noxious to us in this situation, but that we wouldn’t want people to be tracking us down if we were posting honest material but wished for whatever reason to remain anonymous.
It was another collision between the right to privacy in posting on the web, and the right to transparency in figuring out the value of what has been posted.
I would like to know what others think about this debate. Should we track down and expose people who pretend to be individuals, but in fact represent paid political opposition groups, who are sending out mass messages that are blatantly false and deliberately damaging to the character/issue at hand? Is it ok to track them down and simply expose them for who they really are and steer people to more verified sources of information on the subject at hand?
In my previous life as a journalist, exposure was what we were aiming for: to show people what was really behind the Wizard’s curtain by verifying facts and separating them from myths. Once they knew what was real and what was false, the theory went, people could make informed judgments based on the facts. It doesn’t always turn out that way, but tools that make web postings more transparent seem positive when used in this context. Do we have to protect the noxious slime-mongers in order to also ensure that people who want to post authentic material honestly will be able to do so anonymously? Can we expose anonymity in one case, and protect it in another, without being hypocritical or damaging to civic media?