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    Finding Political Sleazemongers

    by Ellen Hume
    October 9, 2008

    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?

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    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?

    Tagged: anonymity politics privacy spammers
    • It’s a false choice. We can exercise all the self-restraint we want– it is an entirely different set of people who will be exposing the personal information of people who are under threat of job loss, imprisonment, torture, or death.

      Clearly, the sort of people who would expose anyone’s information in those circumstances are not likely to exercise restraint.

      Instead, exposing those who are doing harm spreading lies (and have little to loose but their effectiveness when exposed) will likely promote the development of technology to protect true anonymity.

      So regardless whether you think anybody should have a right to anonymity, go after and show the liars for who they are.

    • We need a Creative Commons equivalent for disclosures.
      (i.e., of varying degrees of stringency)

      Then if a blogger is sporting a “I’m independent” disclosure, but turns out to be shilling for a campaign, s/he is fair game to expose – while someone making no such promise isn’t.

      And it’d help the reader, in evaluating the various bloggers’ credibility.

    • Ellen:

      I think this touches on a critical issue we all face as the number of news and information sources multiply: How do we critically evaluate these sources so we know what information to trust?

      This notion isn’t just limited to political discourse, but touches on all aspects of digital information. For instance, many corporations have embraced social media to spread marketing messages across the Web, a method that allows them to “recruit” all sorts of folks with big followings to build buzz for their products and services. But these social media gurus are not necessarily obligated to disclose a relationship with a company to their audience. Some do, some don’t.

      I recently interviewed an executive at a company which provides a third-party commenting service for blogs and Web sites. They provide a number of tools to moderating comments and community interactions. As part of their service, if you’re starting some online forums, their employees will post in the forums, or seed them with questions, to make it appear to casual visitors that there’s a lot of conversation occurring. But they don’t identify themselves as employees. They may not be spreading any lies, but my instincts tell me that it doesn’t feel quite right.

      So, you’re touching on some important issues. And I think any effort that helps people meet that challenge and critically evaluate sources is a noble and necessary one. That said, I think your approach is slightly off the mark.

      First, I don’t think there is a “right to privacy in posting on the web.” You’re posting in public. Period. If you publish something online with the intention that it will be viewed by others (which would seem to be the intent of publishing any propaganda), and you choose to fake your name, then it’s totally legitimate for someone to point that out. I don’t see an ethical dilemma there or a privacy issue.

      But, once you unmask this person, then what? There are two potential scenarios that meet the “outrage factor.” First, the person is fundamentally publishing information that is factual, but failing to disclose that they are being paid by a campaign. If the campaign is failing to disclose that the person is being paid, or attempts to lie about it, then there might be some outrage factor.

      The bigger outrage would be if the information is fundamentally false, or misleading AND the source was being paid by the campaign. In both these cases, you have to do three things: Establish that the source is not disclosing their real identity; evaluate the quality and accuracy of the information; and determine there is a real connection to the campaign.

      For me, the most useful part of all of this is the second piece: evaluating the quality and accuracy of the information. Fortunately, there are a lot of excellent efforts during this campaign to do that.

      Beyond that, I think there is a more positive way to approach this problem. Patrick Thornton, who blogs at Journalism Iconoclast (http://patthorntonfiles.com/blog/) has a project underway to create an “online ethics seal.” The seal evaluates five different catergories:

      1. Sourcing
      2. Objectivity/advocacy/opinion journalism or opinion
      3. Linking
      4. Copy editing/fact checking (does a second person fact check?)
      5. Conflicts of Interests

      What I like about the concept is that encourages disclosure and transparency, and rewards sites that embrace those values. The project is still in its early stages, but it’s worth checking out here:

      http://tinyurl.com/4lozwm

      However, keep please keep us posted on what the class decides to do and what it learns. If there’s a central site to follow their work, please let us know where to find it.

    • Wow! Thanks Chris for posting that.

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