Over the weekend WikiLeaks pulled a pretty silly prank. Through a combination of some savvy Web design and hacking, the organization managed to convince some people that former New York Times executive editor Bill Keller had written an op-ed column. In the fake column, fake Keller claimed the Times was under threat of a financial blockade for publishing the Wikileaks cables -- a blockade that Wikileaks itself is experiencing (hence the motivation).
The prank managed to fool some of the people for a short time, including the New York Times' chief technology reporter. Just as quickly, however, the fact that the column was a hoax also spread. For Glenn Greenwald, this is evidence that the Internet is actually a superior fact-checking entity than the traditional mainstream media used to be:
[E]rrors and frauds have a very short life-span on the Internet. The power to tap into collective knowledge and research is so much more potent than being confined to a single journalistic outlet. The ability to have one’s work take the form of a mass dialogue, rather than a stagnant monologue, is incredibly valuable. It is true that the Internet can be used to disseminate falsehoods quickly, but it just as quickly roots them out and exposes them in a way that the traditional model of journalism and its closed, insular, one-way form of communication could never do....
For anyone who still believes that traditional journalism is inherently more reliable than the Internet, just follow the excellent suggestion this morning from Alexa O’Brien: just compare the duration and seriousness of the frauds and fakes enabled by the model of traditional journalism. Long before the Internet — in 1938 — a dramatized radio broadcast by Orson Wells (“The War of the Worlds”) of Martians landing on Earth spawned mass panic. More recently, consider the fraud of Iraqi WMDs and the Saddam-Al Qaeda alliance propagated by the nation’s leading traditional media outlets, or the fraudulent story they perpetrated of how grateful Iraqis spontaneously pulled down the Saddam statue,, or the fraudulent tales they told of Jessica Lynch engaging in a heroic firefight with menacing Iraqis and Pat Tillman standing up to Al Qaeda fighters before they gunned him down. And that’s to say nothing of the Jayson-Blair-type of rogue, outright fabrications.
Those frauds were vastly more harmful than anything the Internet has produced. And they took far longer to expose. That’s because they were disseminated by stagnant, impenetrable media outlets which believe only in talking to themselves and trusting only government sources. Nobody can get away with that on the Internet. The voices are far more diversified, the scrutiny is far more rigorous, the feedback is much more rapid, and the process is much more democratized. Yes, the Internet enabled a fake Bill Keller column to fool some people for a few hours, but — through the work of journalists, experts, and anonymous, uncredentialed users alike — it also immediately exposed the hoax, documented how it happened, and drew rapid lessons from it. The prime lesson is not that Internet journalism is more prone to errors; it’s that it is far more adept and agile at detecting and banishing them.
I've made arguments like this one in the past on the blog, so I'm pretty sympthetic to Greenwald's thesis that the Internet snuffs out "errors and frauds" just as quickly as they are created. I'd also agree than in a pre-web era, the negative ramifications of mainstream media errors were far greater.
There is another category to consider, however, which is "myths" -- and here the Internet has juuuust a bit of a problem. Despite copious amounts of evidence, for example, a disturbingly large number of people believe that Barack Obama was not born in the United States -- and the web is a friendly place for their beliefs. The same could be said with arguments about whether global warming is a hoax or vaccines cause autism. Furthermore, simple rebuttals aren't always so simple. Consider this Conservapedia entry on Barack Obama:
Obama claims to have been born in Hawaii to Stanley Ann Dunham and Barack Obama Sr. - who had married just six months prior - on August 4, 1961 in Honolulu, Hawaii. Some contend that this story is a complete fabrication. After many leading conservatives including the leadership of this site and Donald Trump called for Obama to release his birth certificate he did on April 27. Sheriff Joe Arpaio of Maricopa County in Arizona conducted an investigation of the Obama's eligibility and alleged that the "birth certificate" was a fake; however, no charges have been filed. Obama was reportedly assigned a social security number whose area code was assigned to applications coming from zip codes in Connecticut.
Barack Obama Sr. was not a citizen of the United States. At the time of Obama's birth, Kenya was a British colony, meaning that Obama Sr not only held British citizenship, but passed it on to his son. When Kenya gained independence, Obama and his father both lost British citizenship and gained Kenyan citizenship. Barack Obama was a dual citizen of the United States and Kenya until his Kenyan citizenship automatically expired in 1984, as he had failed to renounce US nationality and swear loyalty to Kenya. Despite having been born with US citizenship through his mother, it has been argued that as he was born with dual nationality, he is not a natural-born citizen of the United States, and thus constitutionally ineligible to become President.
Now, to my knowledge, there is nothing factually incorrect with those two paragraphs. Rather, it's factually incomplete -- there is little discussion of facts in evidence that prove Obama is a natural-born U.S. citizen. It's simply written in such a way to allow those individuals predisposed to believe Obama is not an American to draw that conclusion. This is consistent with Cass Sunstein's argument that the Internet allows people to selectively filter the information they acquire such that their ideologies do not face a rigorous challenge.
This kind of information problem existed before the internet, as anyone familiar with Ron Paul's newsletters could tell you. What the Internet permits is an amplification of conspiracy theories that can attract pockets of people that otherwise would never bother to organize. In a traditional mainstream media environment, it was possible to shoot down any zany conspiracy theory that bubbled up to the surface through more authoritative reporting. Some people were likely to persist in believing the myth -- but they were less likely to articulate those beliefs to a wide audience.
I suspect -- and let me stress that this is nothing more than an untested hypothesis -- that speed of transmission is the key variablesthat determines whether the Internet acts as a myth buster or a myth booster. For "facts" that spread like wildfire, the Internet should work well as a fact-checking engine. In these moments when there is a great demand for verification, the information ecosystem responds to the "fire alarm" by taking the data point and examining it to within an inch of its life. The more pervasive the "fact" appears on the web, the greater the supply of people who can likely fact-check it.
The problem comes with slower-moving facts -- those arguments or statements that are so "out there" that no significant online media would bother to check out until and unless it attracts a large number of devotees. Myths and conspiracies that spread unchecked for a significant period of time are likely harder to root out. If myths are given time to grow, then devotees to those myths can also develop defense mechanisms to rebut attempts at fact-checking. Paradoxically, this kind of myth is more likely to take root if it spreads slowly, requiring a "police patrol" of the Internet to find it. By the time it is doused with "the truth," there are people who have bought into the myth with sufficient psychological investment that they can tolerate a fair amount of cognitive dissonance.
So , to repeat myself, I agree with Greenwald that the Internet snuffs out "errors and frauds" just as quickly as they are created. The problem isn't with the fast-moving memes, however -- it's with the slow-moving ones.
What do you think?
Dear Peter Schweizer,
First off, thanks for writing. Believe it or not, this is precisely this kind of exchange I was hoping for when I called Big Peace "unadulterated horses**t" in my last post. I respect and admire writers who are not put off by a healthy use of Anglo-Saxon terms, as opposed to Latin, academic-y obfuscation.
You raise some issues with my post, so let me respond in kind.
First, you note that, "Drezner seems to have made a habit of coming to Mr. Soros’ defense," linking to a blog post from a few years back. I wonder, however, if you read the entire blog post. Here's how I closed it:
I have very mixed feelings on Soros. The man is and was a first-rate philanthropist. That, said, having read The Bubble of American Diplomacy, I've concluded that Soros is a political loon of the first order. It is ridiculously easy to attack George Soros without ever discussing his religion.
....while Blankely was, to repeat, clearly way out of bounds, the Republican decision to go on the offensive against Soros is perfectly legit. He's dedicated large sums of money to attacking the Bush administration. According to the Post story, "Soros has said in interviews that he has concluded that ousting Bush is the most important thing he can do with his life." The trigger for the Hannity & Colmes discussion was Soros' statement comparing the Abu Ghraib prison scandal to the 9/11 attacks. In Bubble of American Diplomacy, Soros admits that he's become "quite rabid" in his political views. He's entered the political arena -- which means he's opened himself to political attacks.
Trust me when I say that this post didn't win me many friends on the left. If this amounts to me "sucking up to a billionaire philanthropist," as you put it, well then, gee, I really stink at it. If you think this still amounts to "sucking up," then I'm afraid we're going to have to agree to disagree. To reiterate -- going after Soros' ideas is just fine. I'm sure you'll agree, however, that going after him for being a Jew is both inflammatory and extraneous.
You then go on to argue that Soros has influenced Obama, and provide links to stories in the Wall Street Journal and Time to back up this point. Hey, this is great! You have linked citations to back up your argument!! That's what I like to see when an online article makes a non-obvious factual assertion. Now go back and re-read Moriarty's column -- did he have any hyperlinks backing up any of his assertions linking Soros to Obama? No? Wouldn't some links on that point have been useful? Indeed, dare I suggest that pointing out the need for evidence is kind of an editor's job?
As for your cites, I'm afraid thay're not convincing at all. Both of them are from November 2008, when there was speculation over who would influence then-President-elect Obama. I haven't seen much since then about Soros' direct influence over Obama. Soros is at best ambivalent and at worst disappointed with Obama's performance. On the issue in which Soros has been the most outspoken -- financial regulation -- Obama willfully ignored Soros' recommendations. So I'm not seeing a lot of influence here. I'm seeing nothing that even approximates the overt and tight relationship that Henry Kissinger and Richard Nixon shared during the latter's administration (which is what Moriarity stated in his essay).
I could be persuaded otherwise on this point -- Obama and Soros probably do have some kind of relationship. But I need to see the evidence, the unvarnished truth, if you will. If you have any, please provide it and link to it.
Finally, you sarcastically note my impending zombie book, concluding, "Wow. Serious stuff. Scholarly material. Certainly not horses***t."
Well played, sir!! Yes, I am indeed writing a semi-serious book on zombies and world politics. I'm not sure I follow your line of argumentation, however. Are you suggesting that writing on something frivolous (but pedagogically useful) like zombies somehow diminishes my ability to analyze politics and international relations? If that's your argument, then you're impeaching an awful lot of writers and analysts who dabble in hobbies like fiction-writing on the side. It's a good thing you haven't done anything so frivolous as write fiction. Oh, wait....
If you want to directly critique my writings on international relations, please feel free -- there's a lot of them. Implying that the two months I spent writing Theories of International Politics and Zombies disqualifies me from more serious musings is... wait for it.... unadulterated horses**t.
Daniel W. Drezner
Dear Michael Moriarty.
First off, again, thanks for writing. Second, let me just say that you're a highly underrated actor. Courage Under Fire is one of my favorite post-Cold War films, and I thought you were terrific in it -- an understated performance that deserved Academy Award recognition.
Now, to the matter at hand. You write in your response:
You say, “Seriously, I see no evidence of Soros’ alleged influence over Obama, nor do I see any evidence of Soros’ desire to bring down the United States.”
Dragging the United States, kicking and screaming, into the economic quick sands of not only Far Left false promises but, for example, handing the American Gulf oil market over to Brazil’s own predominantly offshore drilling is not a recent headline … of sorts?
Isn’t Mr. Soros a close friend of Brazil’s leadership and an actual investor in Brazil’s oil explorations?
Forgive my hyperbole, but isn’t a moratorium on offshore oil drilling, imposed by an American, Presidential friend of George Soros going to help Brazil … and therefore George Soros … EXPONENTIALLY?
But then again, you can’t even see a shred of “influence” from Soros to Obama (emphases in original).
Now I assume you are referring to this allegation with respect to Soros' investments in Petrobas and the links between Petrobas and the Obama administration. I'm not sure, however, since once again, you failed to provide any links to back up your arguments. On this matter, I suggest you peruse this FactCheck.org post about the issue, as well as this Bloomberg story about Soros' dealings with Petrobras.
There's a phrase that I like a lot: correlation does not equal causation. It is probably true that a moratorium on offshore drilling would help Petrobas, which would in turn help Soros. I seriously doubt, however, that this is what led to the moratorium in the first place, just as I find most conspiracy theories implausible. The moratorium does not appear to reflect Obama's long-term preferences on the issue, given that he indicated he was open to drilling during the 2008 campaign and then announced an expansion of such drilling just a few months before the BP imbroglio. Finally, a six-month delay is not really going to enrich Petrobas all that much.
So no, the word "exponentially" doesn't hold up here. Neither does the comparison you made between Nixon/Kissinger and Obama/Soros in your initial post -- those two pairings are apples and oranges, and there's nothing from your original post nor your follow-up letter that is persuasive on that point.
You also write, "The rumor I’ve received about your publication, Foreign Policy, is that it is not just Left but Far Left." Hey, why listen to received rumor? Why not go for the unvarnished truth? Check out Foreign Policy for yourself!! I'm sure there will be plenty of content that you and your Big Peace readers will find to be on the left. On the other hand, distinguished conservative writers ranging from Robert Kagan to Walter Russell Mead to Dov Zakheim have published here. Even some less distinguished conservatives, like Peter Schweizer's business partner Marc A. Thiessen, have found their way onto Foreign Policy. Read the whole thing!!
One final, friendly suggestion from one writer to another: bolded and italicized fonts have their place in making a point. But bolded and italicized text, in and of itself, does not constitute evidence.
Do keep checking out my blog -- I, for one, would welcome a whole new set of critical readers.
Daniel W. Drezner
Earlier this month media mogul Andrew Breitbart (yes, that Andrew Breitbart) launched Big Peace as his latest website. Big Peace's editor, Peter Schweizer, explained the founding principles of the enterprise in his introductory post:
The word “peace” has been hijacked by those who don’t believe in peace, but rather believe in appeasement. We intend to take it back. Peace comes from strength. Peace comes from freedom. More people were killed in the 20th century by their own governments than due to any war. Peace is a word devoid of meaning unless it includes liberty....
We firmly believe in interactive journalism. National security issues are too important to kept to the “professional” journalists. (Notice the quotes.)
The commitment of the Big Peace Team is to give you the unvarnished truth (emphasis added)
Excellent, I thought. More interest in international relations, regardless of partisanship, promotes a more vigorous marketplace of ideas. With a commitment to the unvarnished truth, I was hopeful that Big Peace would shine a light on some unexplored areas of the foreign policy establishment.
After reading Michael Moriarty's (yes, that Michael Moriarty) explication of the real power behind the Obama administration, however, I have some doubts as to whether Schweizer and I think that "the unvarnished truth" mean the same thing. Here are some snippets of Moriarty's essay, "The Soros/Obama Puppet Show":
From Dr. Henry Kissinger of Harvard to the honorary degree which President Barack Obama, also of Harvard, received from, of all things, a Catholic university, Notre Dame, the fruit off of the tree of such enlightened despotism, the harvest from their lofty efforts has one common denominator: thuggery.
The Kissinger/Nixon Presidency bullied its way to eventual defeat in the eyes of the American people.
Soros/Obama is repeating the same formula but from another, much Redder and very Islamic corner of the very Bipartisan, Kissingerized and Progressive New World Order....
The Soros’ obvious and undeniable objective, after having “broken the Bank of England,” is to teach Barack Obama how to destroy the United States of America as we have known it. He’s off to a very good start with his disciple and philosophic doppelganger.
There is, of course, a bizarre psychological syndrome in a Jewish Godfather and his blatant exploitation of a decidedly pro-Islamic politician with the name of Barack Hussein Obama.
Karl Marx and his Communist philosophy explains it all. Marx was Jewish as well … and perversely anti-Semitic....
To short or bet against the prosperity of your fellow man is precisely the mentality of all three major madmen of the 20th Century: Hitler, Stalin and Mao.
Life is not a horse race … but you can’t tell George Soros that.
Because Hitler was destroyed in World War II but both Stalin and Mao thrived, George Soros and, unfortunately, the likes of Henry Kissinger and many in the conservative corner of America, see a Marxist New World Order as “scientifically inevitable”.
“There is nothing Man can do to stop it!” “We will bury you!” as the Soviet Nikita Khrushchev prophesied.
Apparently Soros and Obama are here to throw the last few shovels filled with dirt into the graves envisioned by Khrushchev that will hold American bodies....
Why don’t all the citizens of America have blood shooting out of their eyes in rage?!
We are actually 1930’s Europe....
Now the new Kissinger is George Soros.
Soros puppeteers Obama in the same way “Dr. K” ultimately led Nixon to his utter humiliation.
Let’s hope to see the same outcome for the Soros/Obama Puppet Show that befell Kissinger/Nixon.
There's stuff I cut out about Marx and an odd Brazilian side note, but you get the gist. Or maybe you don't, because I'm not completely sure I understand what the man is saying. As near as I can figure, Moriarty is asserting the following:
1. George Soros is Obama's Henry Kissinger;
2. George Soros is a Jewish, Marxist, radical lefty who, because he shorts assets, wants to bring down the United States.
If Moriarty could make those charges stick, well, pass me the popcorn, because that would be some interesting news. However, Moriarty provides zero, repeat, zero facts to back up these claims. Seriously, I see no evidence of Soros' alleged influence over Obama, nor do I see any evidence of Soros' desire to bring down the United States. In the end, this is an incoherent screed by a former famous person in which a lot of false comparisons are made and no truth is provided.
Perhaps Moriarty's essay is uncharacteristic of the output on Big Peace. If not, I must come to the conclusion that Big Peace has gone Vizzini on the phrase "unvarnished truth." I think of that term to mean "the speaking of unpleasant, inconvenient, but nevertheless iron-clad truths." Big Peace appears to interpret that term to mean "unadulterated innuendo and horses**t."
The whole beauty pageant brouhaha reminds me that I have an article in the U.K. Spectator about the rise of political paranoia and discontent in the West. The opening paragraph:
Polio vaccines in Nigeria are part of a Western plot to make African women infertile. Foreign zombies are replacing indigenous labourers in South Africa. Barack Obama was born in Kenya and is a secret Muslim who hates the United States and wants to institute ‘death panels’ to govern the healthcare system. The United States triggered the earthquake in Haiti to expand America’s imperial reach.
Go read the whole thing and see if I'm onto something.... or whether the powers that be have gotten to me already.
[I'm noticing a trend of zombie references pervading your work. What's up with that?--ed. Oh, you're just being paranoid.]
Daniel W. Drezner is professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.