Undo Influence (mnemonic) Thu 16 Mar 00 19:49
You didn't respond to the fact that my WELL membership was comped because I was a host. " What do you think?" That's a disingenuous response. It's your book. A reporter has to support his statements with facts. You didn't. What you did do is present unsupported speculation in support of your thesis. But theses have to be supported by facts, not speculation. You essentially made up data to fit your argument. "I am certainly not attacking your integrity." Sure you were. You were implying that I was presenting myself on the WELL as something other than what I was, and that this confused people. But you don't document either claim. You just speculate about it. Which would be fine, except that you present your speculation as proof of a thesis about spin-doctoring. Regardless of whether you spoke to me on the phone, you clearly didn't ask about the funding issue. And you muddied the issue by not acknowledging that all sorts of people stayed online a lot during that period. You don't accuse Tom Mandel of shilling for SRI even though his job at SRI is what enabled him to stay online all the time. But you take me, in essentially the same setup as Tom, and you classify me as a propagandist because you have some weird notions about how "rich" entities like EFF do this or that. You didn't think. You made stuff up. You used my name. And I resent it.
Undo Influence (mnemonic) Thu 16 Mar 00 20:23
In case there's any doubt as to what Valovic writes, I've taken the trouble to type in the relevant passage. Strangely, I was able to to have the time to type it in *without subsidy by EFF* -- I wonder how Valovic can explain that! The passage follows: ------------ All of this, in turn, raises an interesting prospect, one that seems to be little discussed in the annals of cyberspace: the notion of online spin doctoring or opinion shaping in support of specific objectives, either by indivdiuals with vested interests or special interest groups. Could spin doctoring happen on the Net? The chances are that if it has not already, it most certainly will. When it does, what will it do to the credibility of cyberspace as an information source, and what effect will it have on the quality of information? Let me ratchet up the paranoia level by offering the following example. Imagine that some special interest group -- say a political splinter group, a lobbying organization, a foreign government, a racist hate group -- wishes to influence online opinion. Here is how it might work. An individual representing the group steathily signs on to an online system. If it is an anonymous group, so much the better. This individual -- acting on behalf of the group -- would then be free to visit any number of conferences where relevant discussions take place and engage in the time-honored practice of generating propaganda. With sufficient time, energy, and skill, he or she could indeed influence opinions. If that same special interest group were to hire several people to engage in this type of activity full-time, the impact on a relatively small system like the WELL would be considerable, and on a larger system or systems, significant. Under the currently loose and open guidelines that prevail in cyberspace, there is little to prevent this from happening, and there are few viable mechanisms that this kind of dubious opportunity is not taken advantage of. The ease with which this kind of maneuver could hypothetically be accomplished is a bothersome detriment to the "purity" of cyberspace as a means of civic discourse. At a time when information warfare is increasingly utilized in both the corporate and political spheres, this type of propagandizing has some serious implications for the notion of fairness of presentation in an electronic democracy. If and when this begins to happen on a large enough scale, a huge "tilt" sign will light up in cyberspace, and the environment will have been changed forever. In cyberspace, unlike the traditional media, there is at no good way of ascertaining the veracity of sources. I have offered a hypothetical example, but there are a few actual ones as well. In 1995, the engineering staff of a large California-based network- equipment vendor flooded a technical Internet newsgroup. The staff's mission was to counteract negative publicity that had appeared in a trade magazine: One of the company's networking products had received unfavorable ratings in a performance test. Did the company put its employees up to this task? And if so, what are the wider implications of such an action? In another case, the WELL was embroiled in a situation involving a lobbying organization, the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), founded by Mitchell Kapor and John Barlow. The EFF was smart enough to recognize that the best place to influence online policy is online. Accordingly, the EFF's online counsel, Mike Godwin, was a very visible presence on the WELL. Godwin spent a lot of time in places like the media conference representing EFF policy positions. What is unfortunate is that it was never quite clear whether the opinions he presented were his own or the EFF's. Although many of the EFF's positions on civil liberties in cyberspace are worthwhile (such as its stance against the Communications Decency Act), the worthiness of its cause is immaterial to the question of online propriety that needs to be asked here. This problem, like others we have seen, goes back to the issue of role and identity in cyberspace. Godwin's online activity (as well as his salary) was subsidized by the EFF -- an organization with specific objectives and a vested interest in shaping public opinion and ultimately influencing Washington's Internet policy making. Although the ambiguity raised by Godwin's postings is highly problematic, his involvement as an EFF representative raised few eyebrows on the WELL simply because many subscribers were highly sympathetic to EFF positions; for them, the end seemed to justify the means. However, if the Michigan Militia or the CIA were to do the same thing, there would undoubtedly be a huge outcry. The point is that by subsidizing Godwin's online time, the EFF conferred power to Godwin over and above that of users participating on their own nickel. The free speech advantage, thus, goes to Godwin and his organization in certain circumstances, and this fact plays havoc with the notion of equal access. If a casual user had tried to engage Godwin in an argument in the media conference, he or she would probably have lost because Godwin enjoyed the benefit of having a lot more time to construct a defense and argue his points -- unless of course that particular casual user had been simlarly subsidized and able to spend a similar amount of lavish online time without worrying about the financial consequences.
Undo Influence (mnemonic) Thu 16 Mar 00 20:39
I don't know which would be more exhausting -- showing with a word-by-word analysis how Valovic paints me as a dishonest propagandist, or listing the innumerable factual errors in the passage above. To answer some major points: 1) Not once did I ever post any opinion in any conference on the WELL that was not my own opinion. Valovic's question (is it Godwin's opinion or EFF's?) is not only untroubling to anyone else (by his own admission), but it's also a *false dichotomy*, since when I was posting EFF's opinions on EFF matters, I was also posting my own. (Valovic seems to have missed the fact that I was making policy for EFF, not parroting it.) 2) I was not put on the WELL for the purpose of shaping people's opinion. 3) I never did any lobbying whatsoever, nor was I ever asked to. 4) I never misrepresented myself to anyone on the WELL. 5) Valovic can't adduce any examples of anyone who was confused about my roles on the WELL. 6) It wasn't time online that enabled me to win any arguments on the WELL (if arguments on the WELL can ever be said to be won). It was that, you know, I knew what I was talking about, was a good arguer, and typed fast. (Valovic's account doesn't quote me or mention any of the content of my postings -- perhaps because they don't look like subsidized propaganda when you actually read them.) 7) The notion that I was subsidized to on the WELL because I received a salary is sophistry -- *everyone* with a salary who's on the WELL can be said to be "subsidized" by Valovic's analysis. 8) A high percentage of my postings were made after working hours, on my own time -- a fact that Valovic neglects to mention. 9) Look at the language Valovic uses to introduce me -- he ranks me along with the California company that flooded a mailing list to *lie* about their product, and that's just for starters. He uses words like "spin doctoring" and "propaganda." He says the WELL was "embroiled" in some kind of problematic controversy because of my presence there. I could go on and on. Perhaps I will.
David Gans (tnf) Thu 16 Mar 00 21:14
I gotta side with Mike here. I think you're implying some fairly creepy stuff on Mike's part, Tom.
Wendy M. Grossman (wendyg) Fri 17 Mar 00 13:53
btw, there *are* a certain number of articles around on the subject of spin- doctoring in cyberspace. cf, eg, <pdil>'s piece for Salon on whether the Blair Witch Project's "grass-roots" support was really all that grass roots, and also my own Telegraph piece a while back (link from my publications page at http://www.well.com/user/wendyg/credits.htm) about the pro-DIVX sites (this was also covered in Wired News, probably by <digaman>). wg
Gail Williams (gail) Fri 17 Mar 00 14:22
(Wasn't really all that grass roots?)
Gail Williams (gail) Fri 17 Mar 00 15:45
Tom, I want to thank you for spending these two weeks exploring your book and the complexities you have encountered in your observations of the growth of the 'net. Obviously, this topic can continue if you can find the time and have the inclination to respond to further comments, although the next interview has started on schedule, and I know you have other obligations and time constaints. Whatever you decide, thanks for sharing your views.
Gary Pattillo (gary) Sat 18 Mar 00 06:34
I hope you stay around; I'm still reading the book!
Wendy M. Grossman (wendyg) Mon 20 Mar 00 04:57
Gail: ie, engineered by shills for the movie. wg
Gail Williams (gail) Mon 20 Mar 00 09:47
Missed that item. It does make a reasonable example, Wendy. That falls into the old tradition of Publicity Event ruses, at least a century old. Hiring a crowd is an old one.
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