Outrage Kabuki

When bloggers attack

Last Thursday, the sun rose, gravity continued to exert its pull on earthly objects, and—about as surprising—a blogger wrote something stupid and intemperate. Not, one would think, an event likely to attract attention from major media, let alone to elicit a formal response from John Kerry's presidential campaign.

But the blogger in question, Markos Moulitsas Zuniga, is the author of Daily Kos, the compulsively updated liberal site which, boasting over 2.5 million unique visits monthly, ranks second only to Instapundit in the blogosphere's totem pole of heavies. And it's hard to deny that the comment, though brief, was also pretty vulgar. Only a day after four American private contractors in Iraq were murdered, their bodies burned and publicly dismembered, "Kos" wrote:

I feel nothing over the death of mercenaries [sic]. They aren't in Iraq because of orders, or because they are there trying to help the people make Iraq a better place. They are there to wage war for profit. Screw them.

An ugly enough sentiment, though as a non-apology follow-up post soon after indicated, one that probably had more to do with Kos's unpleasant memories of his childhood in El Salvador than with "hating America."

Yet despite Kos' high profile, few could have predicted the veritable fecal tsunami that was to ensue. Blogs like Little Green Footballs, not exactly renowned for their temperate tone, were quick to register their disgust, soon joined by Instapundit and, as a quick Google search will reveal, a parade of less prominent bloggers in fierce competition to declare themselves most outraged and contemptuous. Even prominent Kos fans like Kevin Drum, Matt Yglesias, and Oliver Willis agreed that an apology was in order.

So far, one might say, little more than the overblown equivalent of an old Usenet flame war. But these days, there's not just invective but political money flowing through the blogosphere—and what a difference a dollar makes. Michael Friedman, an American blogger living in Shanghai, joined what he called the "anti-Kos jihad," but, crucially, called on readers to pressure Kos's advertisers, mostly political candidates skittish about the slightest taint of bad PR.

It worked: Democratic candidates Martin Frost, Joe Donnelly, Joe Hoeffel, and Jane Mitakides, along with the group Environment 2004 all pulled ads.

The scope of the backlash should be at least a bit surprising in a medium where calls to "raze Fallujah" are uncritically linked alongside some of the strongest denunciations of Kos, where wishing for pro-Palestinian activist Rachel Corrie, crushed by an Israeli bulldozer last year, to "burn in hell" is fairly standard stuff. Even in the notoriously bilious world of talk radio, frequently at least as offensive as the more virulent blogs, only rarely does an off-color comment provoke such a firestorm, despite reaching a far wider audience.

But as Matt Stoller notes, blogs are not radio. An ill-considered one-liner from an on-air talking head can easily enough slip into the ether: Blogs have the permanence of print without the editorial vetting. All mistakes are permanent, and the Google cache never forgets. Just as important, it takes only a few crucial links for a slip to circulate at broadband speeds among a wide community of like-minded readers. As University of Chicago law professor Cass Sunstein notes in his recent book Why Societies Need Dissent, there is a well documented "amplification effect" when people initially disposed to react to something in a similar way begin to talk to each other, whether in person or online. "A deliberating group" writes Sunstein, "ends up taking a more extreme position than its median member took before deliberation began... People who begin with a high level of outrage become still more outraged as a result of group discussion." Outrage properly stoked, it's far easier for readers on the Net to exert pressure on advertisers: Friedman's post contained convenient e-mail links for each.

One might even say the Internet makes outrage easy. In that vast sea of rapidly composed missives, every day presents dozens of new opportunities to be appalled, and that special moral satisfaction that comes only from a good bout of righteous indignation guarantees that each will find an audience. Those for whom political allegiance provides a sense of tribal community already delight in the ritual display of contempt for the worst of what the other side comes up with—each Michael Moore and Ann Coulter doppelganger forming a node in a feedback loop with no end in sight.

Kos won at least one new sponsor as a show of solidarity, Jeff Seeman, but it seems likely that, on net, his short, angry post will be a costly one. The big-name blogs are less and less an amateur affair: In his first pledge drive, Andrew Sullivan raised some $80,000 in donations, and with the advent of BlogAds, even less heavily trafficked sites than Sullivan's can earn a tidy monthly income in the thousands of dollars. For ideological bloggers, there's also the cost to one's allies to consider. Liberal blogger Atrios has raised over $27,000 for the Democratic National Committee and more than $126,152 for the Kerry campaign, including $20,771.28 raised in a single "John Kerry Thursday." At last count, Kos had dropped some $60,000 into the DNC's collection plate and more than $48,000 in Kerry's.

That means ritual outrage isn't just fun; it can be politically efficacious. Given the sums at stake, candidates are unlikely to abandon the blogosphere, but they will be increasingly sensitive to the risks of being associated with writers who shoot from the hip. That's understandable enough, but it does make one wonder: Now that it's possible for bloggers to make it big, will the most ambitious of them rein in the very un-journalistic recklessness that made the form so much fun to begin with? More importantly, will the potential political leverage provided by the link between politicians and bloggers give partisans even more reason to ensure that every molehill grows to Everest-like proportions? If it does, we can be sure someone will be outraged.

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