The Howlersphere

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I don't have much to say about the Newsweek hubbub that hasn't been said elsewhere. Many other people do, though, and a few of them even make sense. Jim Henley, for one, makes an important point:

The "Newsweek riots," as the warhawks are calling them, seem to be confined to Afghanistan and Pakistan. Out of the entire Ummah, only there. Not even in Iraq. No Sadrists in the streets. THAT is interesting.

As Henry Louis Gates put it years ago regarding African-American urban legends, subcultures aren't scared and angry because they believe conspiracy theories; subcultures believe conspiracy stories because they are scared and angry.

From the above I'm inclined to conclude that conditions in Afghanistan and Pakistan were ripe for an anti-American atrocity, of whatever truth-value, to ignite protest in a way they aren't elsewhere in the Muslim world. Why that is would probably be worth finding out if one's concern were that the government succeed in its aims in those countries.

Meanwhile, in the comment threads of this very blog, the mysterious stranger who calls himself Thoreau makes another point:

The MSM [sic] is being bashed for allegedly not doing enough fact-checking before going public. Fair enough, but let me ask the bloggers this question: How would a blogger handle it?

Since most bloggers don't have the same extensive contacts and army of reporters and interns and fact checkers as a typical major news magazine, I always understood that the blogosphere relies on "distributed expertise": A story starts to circulate, and as it circulates more and more people with different backgrounds and areas of expertise weigh in on it.

That's certainly how Dan Rather's memos were revealed as fakes. It wasn't any single source that persuaded me (indeed, there were a few supposedly knowledgeable people who initially said that the right kinds of typewriters were available in the 1970's). It was the sheer volume of evidence: Such typewriters, though available, were rare; no typewriter had the same combination of features; it was a perfect match to Microsoft Word; it didn't use appropriate military jargon; etc.

So my understanding is that the blogosphere's way of operating is not to sit on stories. Rather, it's to let information circulate and be exposed to analysis by many different people.

Anyway, the point in all of this is that, as I understand, the blogosphere's approach to this story would have been to let it circulate just as Newsweek did. The provocative nature of the claim suggests that it would have circulated quite widely in some circles. Some angry guy in South Asia still could have picked up on the story and started telling people, local newspapers could have then run with it, and the whole sordid affair could have unfolded in the same way.

I don't know that the blogosphere approach to reporting would be any more responsible than the approach of consulting a few government sources to verify. It would still get out.

Of course, verifying stories is not the only distributed activity that transpires in the blogosphere. As Henley notes, "these pack assaults, like the organized screamings of a pack of howler monkeys, aim to intimidate the press into an even more servile relationship with the government than it presently enjoys." That's how an affair like Newsweek's sourcing troubles gets ballooned into a major scandal, while the same mob ignores more significant stories—like, say, the Downing Street memo.

Update: In a follow-up post, Jim Henley offers an explanation that could partly, though not completely, account for why the riots were concentrated in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

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  1. Thoreau is mysterious? Gunnels implied that “he” was Cathy Young, but somehow I don’t think so.

  2. Could it be that there are more riots in Afghanistan and Pakistan because more detainees at Gitmo are from those countries?

  3. It’s silly to claim that this story would have had anything like the legs it did if it were posted up on some loser’s blog. Maybe thoreau wasn’t claiming that, but the difference in exposure between Newsweek and a blog – any blog, especially in Central Asia – is huge.

    Secondly, as to why this has not inflamed Iraq, perhaps because they aren’t nearly as religiously extreme, and frankly, as backward, as Afghanistan?

  4. Mark: Maybe, but I don’t see why that should be — this isn’t about abusing individual detainees so much as it’s about abusing a book, and that book is revered all over the Islamic world. (Todd may have a point about the greater concentration of religious extremists in Afghanistan and Pakistan, but those countries hardly have a monopoly on the type.)

    Todd: I didn’t interpret Thoreau as saying that the story would have the same legs if it emerged from the blogosphere. Hell, variations of it appeared in other major media outlets, including a New York Times story two weeks ago in which “a senior officer” actually apologized to the camp for the reported (non-toilet-related) mistreatment of a Koran. Yet somehow it’s this little Periscope item in Newsweek that takes off. Go figure…

  5. Todd,

    There is sectarian violence going in Iraq, though. Just read an article about Sunni clerics being gunned down this morning.

  6. Todd,

    You ever look at the Weblog Traffic Rankings? Daily Kos gets 433,719 hits every day. That’s just one blog. You know how fast word travels in the blogosphere? A story like this would be trackbacked a hundred times over before some fuckin hack at Newsweak had time to do a cursory grammar check. Sure, if it were posted on “some loser’s blog”, it might stagnate, but all it takes is a moderately popular blog’s posting, and it’s infecting the internerd like Skynet.

  7. Todd-

    Good point. I would just make 2 observations:

    1) Although the blogosphere doesn’t have the same market penetration as Newsweek, stories have gained momentum in the blogosphere and then crossed over.

    2) It’s ironic to hear the blogosphere complain about gatekeepers failing to act as gatekeepers. I hear so much about how blogging is going to change the media, blogging will undermine gatekeepers and media monopolies, and blogging provides distributed expertise to evaluate information as it flows outside the control of traditional gatekeepers.

    So it’s funny to hear bloggers complain that a gatekeeper wasn’t a good enough gatekeeper.

  8. “this isn’t about abusing individual detainees so much as it’s about abusing a book”

    Ostensibly. I personally believe that nationalism trumps religion and religious fervor is often (not always) a stand-in for nationalist fervor.

    (Also the fact that, according to Gen. Myers, the riots in Afghanistan are only partly motivated by the affair of the flushed Koran).

  9. Mark: I think Myers’ and Henley’s comments complement each other rather than contradicting each other.

  10. I agree with thoreau; a blog probably would have handled this story in the same sloppy manner. So now can we get reporters to quit writing stories about how blogs aren’t real journalism because they don’t have the same fact checking standards as the established media?

  11. The real difference between a blurb in Newsweek and on a blog (of any caliber) is that the likelyhood of bullshit factor is about a 9 on anything you see on a blog and about a 1 from Newsweek.

    This is why it took an overwhelming amount of evidence from different blogs to expose the Rather fakes. Where the Newsweek item was taken as a fact, backed by something other than an anonymous rumor (which is about what it was).

  12. I just flushed a copy of the Book of Mormon. Let’s pop some corn, grab a few beers and watch CNN for the riots that will soon breakout in Utah.

  13. Question from a non-lournalist: how does one “verify” a story like this when the military won’t tell us anything? It’s like the right-wingers complaining that the MSM is lying about how many Iraqi civilians have died, while the government does its best to ensure NO such knowledge on the subject leaks out to the world. I mean, if I refuse to tell you my middle name, do I have the right to be offended if you guess wrong?

  14. Jennifer,
    Is it Juniper?

    ARTIST: Donovan
    TITLE: Jennifer Juniper
    Lyrics and Chords

    Jennifer Juniper lives upon the hill
    Jennifer Juniper sitting very still
    Is she sleeping, I don’t think so
    Is she breathing, yes, very low
    What’cha doin’, Jennifer my love

    / Dsus4D Dsus4D A – / / D A / / G A D – /

    Jennifer Juniper rides a dappled mare
    Jennifer Juniper lilacs in her hair
    Is she dreaming, yes, I think so
    Is she pretty, yes, ever so
    What’cha doin’, Jennifer my love

    I’m thinking of
    What it would be like if she loved me
    You know just lately this happy song
    It came along and I like to somehow try and tell you

    / G / A D – / F#m G / – A – /

    Jennifer Juniper, hair of golden flax
    Jennifer Juniper longs for what she lacks
    Do you like her, yes I do, sir
    Would you love her, yes I would, sir
    What’cha doin’, Jennifer my love
    Jennifer Juniper, Jennifer Juniper, Jennifer Juniper

    … / DG DA DG DA DG DA /

    Jennifer Juniper vit sur la colline
    Jennifer Juniper assise tr?s tranquille
    Dors t’elle, je ne crois pas
    Respire t’elle, oui, mais tout bas
    Qu’est-ce tu fais, Jenny mon amour
    Jennifer Juniper, Jennifer Juniper, Jennifer Juniper

  15. Evan, hits does not equal readers, not even close. Distinct readers would probably be less then a tenth of that number, if that.

    But even so, how many blogs are read in Asia and the Mid East vs. news sources like Newsweek. You can’t compare it to the American market.

    Anyways, thoreau’s point stands that blogs are sloppy, no question. But the flipside of the distributed nature of the fact checking is that any one blog can’t do nearly the damage (in terms of spreading false news) that a single false major media report can.

    Bloggers who claim that blogs can or should replace the media are barking up the wrong tree. I see blogs as a giant comments section, most often in response to MSM stories. I think that’s a good role for them.

  16. Todd-

    I agree.

  17. “Mark: I think Myers’ and Henley’s comments complement each other rather than contradicting each other.”

    Actually they do. I got all turned around somehow. Reading a whole lot of left/right/libertarian blogs in succession will do that to you.

  18. You guys are actually having the discussion I was looking for in the previous post…. I think there are two interesting bits of paradoxical tension:

    1) Even though almost all mass media is declining sharply in audience & mindshare & even reputation (although not, tellingly, in profit), they are *still* like mountains poking up in a swamp of molehills (work with me here), and a report under their banners *still* carries far greater legitimacy and potential kinetic energy than most mini blog-storms. Especially in poorer, less free countries, which brings me to:

    2) The two ways in which minor stories can become major overnight are: A) In a media-scarce society (preferably one that’s poor, paranoid, and largely illiterate), when a major-media-branded foreign story that resonates with current concerns gets amped up & twisted; and B) In a media-rich society, by concentrated swarms of oxygen-creating blog activity.

  19. Utah is a theocracy. But it’s not the kind of theocracy that you think it is.

    There is no God but Karl Malone and John Stockton is His Prophet.

  20. 2) It’s ironic to hear the blogosphere complain about gatekeepers failing to act as gatekeepers. I hear so much about how blogging is going to change the media, blogging will undermine gatekeepers and media monopolies, and blogging provides distributed expertise to evaluate information as it flows outside the control of traditional gatekeepers.

    So it’s funny to hear bloggers complain that a gatekeeper wasn’t a good enough gatekeeper.

    The MSM claims that its gatekeepers are what makes it superior to blogs. So it isn’t surprising that bloggers will point out a failure among MSM gatekeepers.

    In a sense, in the whole “National Guard documents scandal”, what the blogs showed was that their distrubuted expertise was superior–in that instance–to failed CBS gatekeepers.

    Put another way, the gatekeepers in the MSM and distributed info in the blogs are both expected to accomplish similar goals; with the bloggers, it just seems to work better.

  21. I mean, if I refuse to tell you my middle name, do I have the right to be offended if you guess wrong?

    Can we go about telling everyone the “guessed” middle name as a fact?

  22. Jennifer didn’t deny that it is in fact Juniper. So, Juniper it is.

  23. In fairness, I think you need to wait for Jennifer’s young sister to deny that she rides a dappled mare before you can run with it.

  24. f”Put another way, the gatekeepers in the MSM and distributed info in the blogs are both expected to accomplish similar goals; with the bloggers, it just seems to work better.”

    Nonsense. Blogs make far more errors of fact and understanding. The difference is, nobody minds, because blogs are expected to sacrifice accuracy for speed.

    Any newsmagazine that had a tenth of error rate of the Drudge report would be laughed out of business. Similarly, any blog that broke news as slowly as TIME, or even as a daily newspaper, would go bust. Like Todd Fletcher said, they’re different, complementary beasts.

  25. Blogophiles need occasionally to take a step back and try to perceive media as the average joe does (no, not that one).

    The world is divided into Babble and News. The purpose of the mainstream media is to put a brand name on babble, thereby converting it into News. This serves the two purposes of filtering and verifying. I seek the brand because I don’t want to be bothered too much trying to find out what is important, and I don’t want to have to cross reference everything I find. The expectation of most people is that prior to any such branding by a major outlet, the truth value of the item has been pretty well settled. I don’t think that most people perceive that declarative statements made by major outlets such as “A book was flushed,” should have much in the way of changing truth value.

    Outlets that do this consistently should, to the extent that they are marketing ‘the real story’, have their brands eroded. With the powerful tool of distributed analysis directed at them, brands face this pressure like nobody’s business these days. Ironically, the urge to try to beat bloggers to the story has really put the mainstream media in a pickle. It is an impossible task to verify faster than your competition can type anything at random, and to try is to produce sloppy work that erodes your brand.

    The tension Matt alludes to that interests me is the dynamic between brands make their name on accuracy vs. brands that sell ideological comfort for some group. Another way of saying this is that the filtering strength of an outlet may far outpace its accuracy – apparently even in major brands. To choose a non local example, how can Al Jazeera sustain credibility?

  26. I find myself in agreement with Joe.

    I’M DOOMED!

  27. NoStar, I find that happens to me about once a week.

    Just adjust your meds, and it should go away.

  28. I think some of you don’t understand how the blogosphere works, and why a blog publishing this ‘revelation’ would not have had the same effect.

    In short, an article in the mainstream media is seen as authoritative. The model is that the media researches, sources, verifies, gets all its ducks in a row, and THEN publishes the story. Therefore, when a story breaks in one of the big media outlets, the initial assumption is that it is true. Thus, the instant outrage.

    The blogosphere doesn’t work like that. “Truth” in the blogosphere does not come from the postings of a single blog, no matter how high up in the blog rankings they are. Blogs create an iteratively refined and publically debated ‘truth’. No one got worked up about any of the big news breaks on the blogs UNTIL the story had been kicked around between blogs, promoted by the bigger bloggers, kicked around some more, and eventually the ‘truth’ bubbled up to the top.

    For each revelation from the blogs that make it into the mainstream media, there are thousands of claims, comments, half-baked thoughts, and bits of general noise that never sees the light of day because they can’t pass the smell test.

    To suggest that a story like this published on a blog would have met with the same reaction ignores the fact that stories far more inflammatory than this HAVE appeared on blogs, to no effect. Now, if a story like this had appeared, been corroborated by another blogger with inside knowledge, been repeated on Instapundit, had refutations from opposing blogs successfully defended against, repeated again and again until it became a ‘meme’, THEN you’d have something approaching the impact of a single article from a respected, mainstream publication.

    And I would argue that by the time stories from the blogs reach that level, their accuracy level is very high.

  29. Come to the light. Come to the light.

  30. Quick joe, say something about trains or sprawl! Normalcy must be restored!

  31. Dan: No one’s arguing that a story like this, published only on a blog, would have had the same effect. The point is that there’s a tension between the demand (found among some bloggers) that the major media emulate the blogosphere and the demand that it do a better job of gatekeeping.

  32. Do people really consider blogs any differently than any other op-ed piece? The technology gives you speed, but it’s not like op-ed pieces had a foothold on accuracy.

    I think it’s important to forget about the technology and consider the framing. An “icon defilement” piece in the NYT with David Brooks’ op-ed byline comes with a lot of different of assumptions from a regular ol’ report about “icon defilement” in the world news section of the paper. That’s what the Blair scandal was at its essence – op-ed pieces masquerading as “just the fact” reports.

    People are looking at blogs as “They report, I decide if it’s factual”, and now we’re having to re-learn that perhaps main-body news reports have to be treated the same way. That’s not any great revelation, but old habits die hard.

  33. Matt Welch- I’m trying to digest your points.

    My understanding is that the cricket player cum politician Khan was the one who brought this up on May 6. His purpose was to slam Musharraf. If Pakistan’s media is scarce, why couldn’t Musharraf suppress the news of Khan’s speech?

    Something else to consider is the timing of the riots. It appears that the rioting had a slight delay from the onset of the news. If Pakistan, eg, could control the “amping” of the news, why would the gov. foment trouble against itself, and why weren’t the riots more spontaneous?

    Another question I’m pondering is the role of the net. It’s clear that Islamists have their own sites, so it seems that the news of the Koran flushing could be transmitted quickly, even with the lack of media, by the use of sermons. Why does the trouble appear to be mainly isolated in Afghanistan and Pakistan?

  34. I find that the blog bog creates such a deafing and contradictory cacophony that it becomes difficult to take seriously until something, as Dan H. put so well, bubbled up to the top. It is also true that many blogs are little more than “me too” store and forward repeaters and the net equivalent of “gossip rags” in the checkout line. How much traction would the story have gotten had it popped up in “the enquirer” et. al.?

    The “MSM” on the other hand has its own set of checks known as competition. In the world of the “MSM” there is always another paper, network or magazine ready to jump in and eat your lunch. In the end “you must know how to read Pravda.”

  35. Nonsense. Blogs make far more errors of fact and understanding. The difference is, nobody minds, because blogs are expected to sacrifice accuracy for speed.

    Certainly blogs make far more errors; but the errors are corrected via distributed knowledge. It is an iterative approach, described well by several others here.

    Any newsmagazine that had a tenth of error rate of the Drudge report would be laughed out of business. Similarly, any blog that broke news as slowly as TIME, or even as a daily newspaper, would go bust. Like Todd Fletcher said, they’re different, complementary beasts.

    For the most part, Drudge is just a portal to other sites. He isn’t really a blog, anyway. I agree with Todd Fletcher, but the distributed nature of blog knowledge does perform the same service as the gatekeepers at the MSM.

    The blogs release info early, but that info is refined for several days or weeks until an accurate story emerges. The MSM does its work up front, forcing a later release, but they don’t do a good job of refining the story from there. But you are right, they are complementary beasts, with the MSM usually releasing the story, and the blogs analyzing it.

  36. I find that the blog bog creates such a deafing and contradictory cacophony that it becomes difficult to take seriously until something, as Dan H. put so well, bubbled up to the top. It is also true that many blogs are little more than “me too” store and forward repeaters and the net equivalent of “gossip rags” in the checkout line. How much traction would the story have gotten had it popped up in “the enquirer” et. al.?

    Aren’t most blogs fan sites set up by teenage girls? Sure, lots of white noise out there . . .

    The “MSM” on the other hand has its own set of checks known as competition. In the world of the “MSM” there is always another paper, network or magazine ready to jump in and eat your lunch. In the end “you must know how to read Pravda.”

    Same is true with blogs. The MSM, however, is in a lefty echo chamber; further, they have little knowledge of large sections of the real world (left coast visions of gun owners, lack of military knowledge, “flyover country”, etc.).

  37. “For the most part, Drudge is just a portal to other sites.”

    That’s like saying Jack Van Impe just points to other people’s headlines. They both carefully select which stories to present in order to paint the picture they want, then frame those stories to push their own narratives.

  38. joe,

    This study of media bias:

    http://www.polisci.ucla.edu/faculty/groseclose/Media.Bias.8.htm

    Had this to say about Drudge:

    Another result, which appears anomalous, is not so anomalous upon further examination. This is the estimate for the Drudge Report, which at 60.4, places it approximately in the middle of our mix of media outlets and approximately as liberal as a typical Southern Democrat, such as John Breaux (D?La.).

    The reason for this is that Drudge’s links were included in the data set, reflecting the fact that the site is basiclly a portal.

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