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June 14, 2006

Astro Trolls

So, now companies with slimy business practices and/or scummy politicians and lobbyists that are exposed in blogs are hiring trolls to comment and try to screw up the discourse: One more reason to be wary of feeding trolls.

One company that does this for businesses is called Netvocates Read their company website - and feel sick. From their main page:

"NetVocates provides its clients with expertise in blog monitoring and advocacy. Our trained staff of experts utilizes a unique combination of proprietary technology and human analysis to deliver a focused stream of timely, actionable intelligence to our clients. And a nationwide field force of active bloggers advance clients’ objectives and achieve measurable results."
In other words, their sockpuppet trolls target blogs and spread your propaganda for a fee, and they do this for a living. Astroturfing and then some.

Another company that does this for political types (both Republicans and Democrats!) is The Rendon Group. Their slick website uses ambiguous corporatespeak to describe their search and destroy propaganda services. Their "approach", when deconstructed, says that they find, analyze, and then inject propaganda into media communications to produce measurable results. Professional propagandists, who make fly-by-night advertising agencies look positively ethical. Take a gander at their partial client list, and shudder.

Now, this is not to say that companies and politicians don't have the right and need to present their perpective. That's what press releases, interviews, advertisements and such are for. However, paying for anonymous insertion of blatant propaganda into supposed individual communications is another thing. Yes, free speech includes the right to anonymity and pseudonymity. But that is for individuals - not organizations or companies. If you're paid to say something, then you damn well better say who's paying you, even if you don't use your real name. It's called ethics, and includes transparency in business and politics.

So now bloggers are up against not only derision and marginalization from "regular" journalists, but they are being targetted by professional propagandists hired by unscrupulous companies and politicians too lazy or too corrupt to clean up their act. Great.

Posted by ljl at 1:5 AM | Comments ()

June 1, 2006

Blogs and Journalism

I chanced across a CNET article today, Newspapers woo bloggers with mixed results. Now, the story does reflect the journalist's tendency to either discount blogs as trash, or hail them as the savior of the online news community (but more of the former than the latter.) The interesting part is that the article very briefly mentions "Ethical Stumbles", with a few big league examples of newspaper blogger stable authors.

Blah, blah. No meat here. No good description of basic journalistic ethics, and where bloggers fall down on them. No prominent examples of "astroturfing", bloggers paid to write puff pieces to create "buzz" or propaganda for some company or party. It could have been a story, but instead it just did a drive-by on newspaper sponsored blogging and quit.

Obligatory Flame

I must flame the story just for the comment by Patrick Williams, managing editor of the Dallas Observer, a weekly (or is that weakly) publication:

"They're filled with all the news not fit for print," Williams wrote. "They're a place where writers go when reporting is just too hard. Let us pray... that blogs can go back to what they should be: teenagers and college students talking about sex and music."
Well, gee, Mr. Editor, I haven't read your drivel either. But then again, I don't charge money for mine. BTW, jerk, I'm a long way from teenage, and I don't blither away about "sex and music". Not all blogs are MySpace teenybopper crapola, or redundant. Some of them discuss what regular journalists are forbidden to discuss: ethics, misconduct, and personal opinions.

Ethics, Journalism, Facts, and Opinions

Here's my beef: most people who look at blogs look through either one of two lenses - it's all facts, or it's all self absorbed blithering. The reality is, it's both and neither.

I have a small background in Journalism - I wanted to be a reporter one day. I got over it. To me, most of the stuff paid reporters write about is boring - the entertainment and sports areas, and the crap that surrounds them. Those guys are the most paid. The science, health, business and tech beats are dull in a different way. Ever tried to cover the science and tech area and make it interesting to more than just hardcore geeks? I don't think it can be done.

Basic journalistic ethics are pretty simple: don't state something as "fact" without being able to back it up, and where there's a difference of viewpoint (opinion), try to present both sides fairly.

For example, I present the Williams quote as fact - he wrote it, it got published, and cited in another story. I cite that story in the start of my article, and attribute the source of the quote to Mr. Williams. Is it truth? Well, yes and no: yes, he did write those works to the best of my ability to determine, no, his words aren't true, they're just his personal opinion.

So facts can include opinion, if the fact is that so-and-so expressed such-and-such as his opinion. But saying "The house is made of blue bricks" is not supportable as fact unless I can produce a picture, or take you and show you. This is the "old" standard of journalism that I learned 2005 years ago.

Now, though, the line gets grey. Opinions are routinely cited as facts, because someone wrote them down (therefore they must be "true?"). The only thing that is true about them is that they are some person or organization's viewpoint on a thing. Yet this has become the norm in newpaper reporting. Yet the same journalists pooh pooh blogs, because we openly call viewpoint our viewpoint. (Hint: the entire preceeding paragraph is opinion.)

In blogging, fact and opinion are mixed, not clearly delineated. Some bloggers would have you believe their opinions are hard fact, but it "just aint so". Usually I like to state some facts on which I base my opinion, but to me that's just good writing.

What really is problematic is undisclosed "opinion whoring" - presenting someone elses opinion as your own for pay. Also called "astroturfing", it's the dirty underside of big name political blogs, especially on the right (they have more money to pay.) Real grassroots stuff is when Joe and Jane Nobody express something as their opinion, and invite others to share it, citing the whys and howfores. If I say "I think Bush and his cronies suck", I have a basis for my opinion - and with a bit of searching I can even come up with credible citations of incidents and policies that give rise to my opinion.

If I have citations supporting my opinion, it's assumed that I found them myself, with the aid of a search engine, and at least read part of them to be sure they say what I said they say. The Williams quote above is an example, again. I cite an article, that cites a quote, although the article is somewhat sloppy in that it does not say where he wrote it. If he didn't actually write it, it's the publication I cited's fault for the misquote.

But astroturfers and pseudo bloggers are not honest about where they get their material, or why they publish it. They take the propaganda of others, and regurgutate it as their own opinion (and "fact") for pay (in either money, favors, fame, or all of the above.) It would be one thing if they disclosed their relationship with the source of their material. That's why, for the time being, if I write about A9.com or Amazon, I disclose that I'm currently employed by A9.com, a subsidiary of Amazon. They don't pay me to write about them, but I still disclose it to alleviate even the perception of conflict of interest.


So, are journalists really all that much better than bloggers these days? Well, no, actually. With puff pieces, opinions cited as hard fact, corporate and politcical pressure to spike stories, and sloppy reporting, they are about equal with your well educated blogger. More's the pity.

The fact that bloggers have managed to break some astounding stories that should have been covered by the corporate, mainstream media is a real, big sign to me that reporters no longer have the monopoly on good reporting and ethical journalism. Yes, we have our lame teenagers talking about sex and music, but we don't pretend to be "fair and balanced" like some notoriously biased astroturf "news" companies.

Posted by ljl at 12:5 PM | Comments ()