The Politics Of Truthiness and the Internet

on March 14, 2011
in Blog

Truthiness is about having the right to one’s own opinions and facts. It becomes a problem when objective facts diverge from the opinions of supposedly trusted sources promoting their perspective as the truth.

When Stephen Colbert exercises truthiness (a term he takes credit for coining) he is doing so on Comedy Central and framing it as a caricature of the truth. He and John Stewart act in the tradition of court jesters speaking truth to power through comedy — And they make it clear that is the case.

Contrast this to a qualitatively different use of truthiness; when Glenn Beck makes truthy assertions on a news channel, relates much of what he doesn’t like about progressives to either national socialism or communism, and indicates in all seriousness on his radio show that he is channeling god. He is using truthiness to advance an agenda that he is serious about, on a channel that defines itself as news with the moniker “We Report, You Decide”�. I use Beck as the most egregious example rather than Keith Olbermann on The Left because Beck is helping to spur an actual political [Tea Party] movement while Olbermann just doesn’t have that impact. However, truthiness disguised as news on both the left and right is equally problematic. Unfortunately cable networks are in a ratings war and use infotainment to supplement news. Infotainment does not necessarily have to be truthy but if truthiness serves up better Nielsen numbers it’s used – In fact, this sentence could sadly be the mission statement for FOX or MSNBC.

Truthiness has both a dark and light side:

In the case of faulty conjecture on Intelligence data, it has cost thousands of lives in the last decade.

Truthiness can also be useful for serious issues if it acts to self-correct; That is, if it spurs objective inquiry to get to the truth. This occurred in the vaccination debate where perceived truth based on conjecture that vaccines caused autism led to further scientific research — which disproved the original conjectures and even led to a legal opinion against them in the so-called vaccine court.

Truthiness seems to be used more, and more effectively, on the conservative side of the debate to question objective science like global warming and evolution, as well as a range of other objective truths, (like Obama being born in Kenya, the so-called Clear Skies Act actually reducing air pollution controls, the mandated use of death panels in the Health Care Bill, WMD in Iraq being a slam dunk, etc.). It’s not that The Right is neccessarily better at truthiness, it’s that it is far better at its dissemination; effectively framing its message and forwarding its agenda. Thats because it tends to be more organized, is narrower in its range of disagreements and is better at subordinating individual viewpoints to achieve the group objective. By contrast, the definition of a liberal firing squad is a circle – gaining consensus is like herding cats. One would be hard pressed to argue that the Obama administration has used truthiness as an official tool either more or more effectively than the Bush administration. Another definition of truthiness is that it is the truth you feel. Bush famously worked from the gut while Obama works from the mind.

The viral nature of the Internet combined with emergent social networks offers a unique host to transmit truthiness — like a virus. It’s not that difficult to imagine an intelligently placed truthy rumor causing enough panic to become a security threat in its own right. It’s far easier to imagine truthy information masquerading as junk fact or science and echoed on page after page on the Internet (for example that vaccines cause Autism). Online social networks accelerate this trend by bringing like-minded people together in large numbers, allowing opinion promoted as fact to quickly become fact if repeated enough times and by enough people. There has never been a medium that’s had a more profound effect on mass group dynamics and interaction in 1) real time and 2) without regard to the limitations of geography.

What is also interesting about truthiness in democratic societies and online is that it is not forced by Church or State but democratically promoted by the group and to a more or lesser extent influenced by the celebrity of the truthiness-teller. Witness Sarah Palin’s Twitter and FaceBook following.

What interests me personally about truthiness is that I defined my career at OSI promoting Open Societies through the provision of access to information on the Internet. As the Internet has evolved however, I see the need for mediation that turns information into knowledge and limits the more damaging effects of junk information one receives along with useful information online. Truthiness in broadcast media lasts a news cycle or two and is then lost. Truthiness on the Internet has staying power, and gains new life with every search result. A good green tea metaphor for truthiness is that it flows through the Internet like a free-radical with the potential to cause cancer if not subjected to the antioxidant of objective facts.


Jonathan Peizer is the Principal of Internaut Consulting supporting foundations, nonprofits, governments and socially responsible private sector initiatives. He is the former CIO/CTO and Director of the Open Society Institute’s Global Internet Program.

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WikiLeaks /Amazon Threat to Internet Speech? NOT!

on December 3, 2010
in Blog

In her CNN commentary, Rebecca MacKinnon argues that the future of freedom in the internet age depends on holding companies that now act as arbiters of the public discourse accountable to the public interest. I’d argue that in an age of broadened media discourse and citizen journalism it might be useful to distinguish which ones have this responsibility and at what level.

I had the opportunity and pleasure to work with MacKinnon at the Open Society Institute when I was dealing with these issues of media censorship as Director of its Internet Program and then as CTO of its Information program. In this instance I must point to what I feel are a few flaws in her argument using Amazon caving into pressure to pull WikiLeaks inhttp://www.internautconsulting.com/wp-admin/edit.php the larger context of our First Amendment rights being threatened in the US by online corporate control.

As her founding status in Global Voices Online and the Global Network Initiative indicate, MacKinnon has been at the forefront of the citizen journalism movement. This movement presumes, I think correctly, that the ability to participate in journalism has been democratized. The Internet has created more, not fewer spaces and opportunities to participate. Anyone can take part and in a variety of ways — in this case even a private company that hawks books and electronics as its core business, with a hosting business on the side.

It’s precisely because news dissemination is no longer the monopoly of traditional newspapers, radio and television that that Amazon situation should not be considered as the sky falling. Amazon made a decision to drop certain content it hosts during the Christmas rush to limit the bad press of being perceived as a national security risk in its own country. Presumably, it simply didn’t help its large screen TV sales… Today however, there are a variety of other citizen journalist sources, corporate and private, and about a gazillion other hosters online that can pick up the gauntlet without incurring the same legal risks Amazon decided it would not take — And any American with Internet access and the will can find them. To underscore this, in the comments section on MacKinnon’s commentary on CNN a commenter freely offered that while the WikiLeaks domain may have been killed it still had an active IP address that he provided. Placing that IP in my browser transferred me to yet another IP, and via the magic of the Internet, to the WikiLeaks site.

As MacKinnon correctly points out, “Speech within the kingdom of Amazonia is not protected in the same way that speech is constitutionally protected in America’s public spaces.” She also points out that the new virtual realm “is largely made up of virtual spaces that are created, owned and operated by the private sector” — maybe largely, but certainly not completely. The fact that public spaces continue to exist on a growing Internet is a net addition to sharing information that did not previously exist in the pre-Internet era when corporate monopolies largely controlled news dissemination.

MacKinnon has decided to draw a line in the sand about a company’s self-censoring a form of free speech that is near and dear to her heart. I haven’t heard her commenting as vociferously on the sexual content (also classified as free expression in our country) that these same companies regularly self-censor as part of their user agreements — and which could at least be argued to be less life or career threatening on a global scale than WikiLeaks data might turn out to be.

MacKinnon points a number of times to the Internet age responsibilities of “companies that are now the arbiters of public discourse” – but as opposed to what? The responsibilities of the pre-internet age media outlets that used to control the public discourse?

As the citizen journalist movement has broadened the discourse to include new players, I’d argue that we must be realistically aware of their limitations related to the public interest even as they participate in the public discourse. Anyone that has read an Assange interview or one about him could reasonably question his balance of public interest versus self-interest. Similarly, most companies exist to make a profit. The extent of their public interest is defined by their accountability to 1) their shareholders, 2) the demands of their customers and 3) regulation which define the legality of their operations. Amazon made a legitimate business and legal decision weighing the number of customers who would stop buying Wii’s because it censored certain speech versus those who would not purchase because it was labeled a threat to their national security. Assange made a similar calculation about his reputation in publishing the leaked and potentially illegal data.

Ironically, a controversial case like WikiLeaks truly showcases the value-add of traditional media companies that do exist to serve the public interest. Unlike the larger group of participants that now engage in citizen journalism around the world, an entity like the New York Times has the investigative, analytical and legal wherewithal to put 250,000 raw emails into context for its readership and vociferously defend its constitutional right to publish them. In pursuing Amazon the erstwhile Senator Lieberman went after a rather soft target. He didn’t presume to mix it up with the New York Times.

I noticed as well that MacKinnon chose a traditional media outlet, CNN, to get her opinion out to a broad audience as did WikiLeaks in choosing traditional media outlets to share its data. So maybe this discourse is less about the new public interest responsibilities of citizen journalist participants both public and private, and more about valuing and protecting the institutions that have traditionally existed to serve those interests. Traditional media outlets do have an important place in this new era of citizen journalism and it would be a shame to view them as archaic and obsolete precisely because their public interest credentials are so clearly defined. They still present powerful public forums to make one’s case.


Jonathan Peizer is the Principal of Internaut Consulting supporting foundations, nonprofits, governments and socially responsible private sector initiatives. He is the former CIO/CTO and Director of the Open Society Institute’s Global Internet Program.

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