The dark side of blogging2004-12-09
As we praise the virtues, benefits and potential of blogging, we need to balance our enthusiasm with a certain amount of skepticism. Wide-eyed zeal without caution can lead down a dangerous path. Consider how willing readers were to accept two political blogs in South Dakota at face value. CBS News is reporting that the blogs were written by paid advisers to the campaign they supported, although neither blog offered any disclaimer.
In other words, the authors of the blogs—Jon Lauck of Daschle v. Thune and Jason Van Beek of South Dakota Politics—lied. They claimed to be citizen journalists, but in reality were flacks on the payroll of the (ultimately victorious) Republican candidate. As CBS political writer David Paul Kuhn notes, it would break the career of a professional journalists to breech ethics at such a blatant level. But it’s not against the law, leaving any ethically challenged blogger to dupe a gullible public at will.
Blogs certainly do not represent a unique online stage for such behavior. However, blogs have achieved a level of popularity among readers across all demographics that invests them with more influence than previous online channels. Considering the influence those other channels have wielded, the potential damage blogs can do is truly alarming.
Back in 1997, a post appeared on a Usenet newsgroup asserting that fashion mogul Tommy Hilfiger is a racist. In an appearance on “The Oprah Winfrey Show,” Hilfiger made outrageous perjorative remarks about two ethnic groups, according to the post. Winfrey was so outraged she threw him off the show. The author of the post called for a consumer boycott.
Offended readers took the author’s advice and forwarded the message, via newsgroup cross-posting and e-mail, to friends and family. Over a period of weeks and months, it became a meme, a contagious idea that replicates through person-to-person interaction. I received e-mails containing the accusation about 100 times between 1997 and 2000 or so. Toward the end, I was amused to see that somebody had added a third ethnic group to Hilfiger’s list.
It’s been widely reported, of course, that Hilfiger never appeared on “Oprah,” that he never made those remarks and that he does not hold those beliefs. Nevertheless, I still I speak with young people today who continue the boycott based on their belief that Hilfiger is a racist. They didn’t read the assertion online. Mostly, they’ve heard it from friends.
While it took weeks for the Hilfiger meme to spread through Usenet cross-posting and e-mail forwarding, bloggers could pick up something like that and run with it in a matter of hours. Between the cross-linking that defines the blogosphere and a readership that far exceeds that which Usenet ever enjoyed, lies and inaccuracies can be accepted as fact among a far larger audience much more quickly.
There is, for example, the doctored photo that everyone from a good friend of mine to Sun Microsystems’ Scott McNealy used to make points about technology. The photo purported to be from the Rand Corporation showing how researchers envisioned the home computer of the future. Thanks to blogs, the hoax spread like a communicable disease.
Or look at the brouhaha over the Target.com page that made it look as though the company was selling marijuana. While this was certainly no lie—an inconsistency in the treatment of templates failed to make it clear that the item for sale was a book—the speed with which the non-story became a big deal is instructive. Some went so far as to call it a crisis. And while the mainstream media just rolled its collective eyes and rejected it as a story (calling bloggers’ supposed influence with the press into question), the item appeared in hundreds—maybe thousands—of blogs.
Ultimately—and luckily—the hysteria had no impact on Target. The little coverage the story did get pointed out that nobody actually thought Target was selling reefer. In all likelihood, not one customer stopped shopping at Target in protest; nor did anyone rush to Target in hopes of scoring an ounce. Target suffered no reputational damage. Ergo, no crisis.
But the story illustrates the power of the blogosphere to spread a story with unprecedented speed. That’s fine when the story is true and accurate. The blogosphere performed a public service in exposing Trent Lott’s remarks and Dan Rather’s foul-up. But the morally deficient behavior of the two South Dakota bloggers exposes the potential for real harm. What kind of reputational damage might the next Tommy Hilfiger suffer as the blogosphere innocently spreads lies?
While we routinely see blogs referencing legal experts who wonder about journalist-style protections for bloggers, there’s an equal amount of discussion about regulating the blogosphere. From the CBS News article:
“The question is: What are the appropriate regulations on the Internet?” asked Kathleen Jamieson, an expert on political communication and dean of the Annenberg School for Communications. “It?s evolved into an area that we need to do more thinking about it.
“If you put out flyers, you have to disclaim it, you have to represent who you are,” Jamieson said. “If you put out an ad you have to put a disclaimer on it. But we don?t have those sorts of regulations for political content, that is campaign-financed on the Internet.”
First Amendment attorney Kevin Goldberg called blogs “definitely new territory.”
“[The question is] whether blogs are analogous to a sole person campaigning or whether they are very much a media publication, which is essentially akin to an online newspaper,” said Goldberg, who is the legal counsel to the American Society of Newspaper Editors.
“Ultimately, I think, the decision will have to come down to whether the public will be allowed to decide whether bloggers are credible or whether some regulation needs to occur.”
Yes, it’s important for the public relations profession to learn how to employ blogs as part of our media mix. It’s equally important, though, to recognize the dark side of blogs and remain vigilant against unfounded but potentially damaging attacks on our organizations and clients. As enthusiastic as I am about blogs and blogging, I have no doubt that we’ll experience an instance in the near future that will become the blogging equivalent of the Hilfiger case study.