In 2003, the University of Maryland did a groundbreaking study on media consumption habits and the Iraq War:
* Fifty-seven percent believed that Iraq gave substantial support to Al-Qaida, or was directly involved in the September 11 attacks (48% after invasion).
* Sixty-nine percent believed that Saddam Hussein was personally involved in the September 11 attacks.
* Twenty-two percent believed that weapons of mass destruction had been found in Iraq. (Twenty-one percent believed that chem/bio weapons had actually been used against U.S. soldiers in Iraq during 2003)
I talked to one member of Congress from Arizona who is afraid to vote for an increase in fuel efficiency standards because her constituents laugh at her when she mentions global warming.
There have always been problems with media in this country, but it is now a crisis. You can see it with creationism in schools, with the Iraq war, global warming denialists, you can even go back to Clinton impeachment. The bad faith is actually embedded in our very media structures. During the 2004 political campaign, the Senior Vice President at Fox News, John Moody, authored multiple internal memos with talking point guidelines for news shows that furthered a conservative agenda, encouraging hosts, for instance, to use the term 'flip flop' when describing John Kerry.
I am from a community, a political community, of people who are angry about this. I guess you could call us liberals, or progressives, but fundamentally we are citizens who have been betrayed and are developing new organizing models on the internet. Here's what we're reacting to. This is the end of a story on CNN by Jeanne Moos on waterboarding, which is a simulated drowning technique used to torture people.
MOOS: Anti-war demonstrators have taken to demonstrating water boarding and posting their protests on You Tube. Even a few amateurs have tried it at home, timing themselves to see how long they can last. [more laughter]
MOOS: Not smart. Do it wrong and experts say water boarding can kill you.
MOOS: For the good old days when water boarding meant riding a board on water.
Now, that's constitutional, Mr. Attorney general nominee. Jeanne Moos, CNN, New York.
Isn't that amazing? We're talking about torture here.
Over the past nine years, a consistent stream of this kind of information from the political media has created a reaction among liberals like me who have become radicalized. We organize on the internet, but not exclusively on the internet. We converse with, attack, mock, undermine, and praise the political figures, journalists, decision-makers, bureaucrats, and pundits that tell the story of modern America. On CNN, that story is about how waterboarding is just another playful technique, and they don't mention that it was used by the Nazis or the Spanish Inquisition.
And that's where I come in. I'm a liberal blogger, and I am one of the millions of people who are angry at George Bush, the Democratic leaders, the press, and at the Republican Party for their consistent failure to govern the country according to basic humane principles. I am not alone, there are many of us, about 1-4 million people read liberal blogs every day, with the primary age group being people in their forties and fifties. We exist because the top down structures premised on information scarcity and hierarchical control like Fox News and CNN have convinced us that we cannot rely on them and that a new type of politics is necessary.
The story of the new movement of liberal internet politics goes back to 1990s. In 1998, Bill Clinton's approval ratings were in the upper 60s, and yet, the consensus in DC was that Clinton would of course have to resign, and prominent Democrats were calling for the President to pack it in. David Broder, whose nickname is the dean of the Washington press corps, had a line at the time where he said, during the impeachment fiasco, that "He came in here and he trashed the place. And it's not his place."
In such an environment, with a huge disconnect between the public and the elite decision-makers, internet politics on the left got its start. An online petition at a new site called Moveon.org by two Silicon entrepreneurs, costing $79.95 to put up, got 500,000 signatures in a few weeks because people forwarded the email to their friends and social networks. Today, Moveon.org has 3.3 million members. In 2006, the group made more than 7 million phone calls, organized 7500 house parties, and raised and spent $27 million, mostly from small donors.
Moveon wasn't the last institutional reaction on the internet. As greater and greater shocks have occurred - a Presidential race in 2000 dominated by trivialities and 'fuzzy math' and an Iraq war with a debate dominated by falsehoods and fear, the loss of New Orleans - there's been more innovation. The liberal blogosphere itself started in 2000 as a response to the recount. There were no good sources of updated information about what was happening, so a liberal journalism named Josh Marshall started a site called Talkingpointsmemo to chronicle the recount, updating it frequently and linking and clipping relevant news articles. Talkingpointsmemo is now a collection of sites with a staff of seven journalists, and was key to uncovering the Attorney General firings earlier this year that led to the downfall of Attorney General Gonzales. In 2005, the site ran a campaign on George Bush's attempted privatization of Social Security, and asked its readers to write their member of Congress to get their position on the issue. TPM then used reader feedback in their reporting, incorporating activism into the very act of journalism.
In 2002, the largest activist liberal blogs - Atrios and Dailykos - started, one by a lawyer and one by an economist. These sites are now read by around ten million people a month. And very early on they had an impact. At a party celebrating former segregationist and Dixiecrat Strom Thurmond's 100th birthday, then Majority leader of the Senate Trent Lott said that if Thurmond had been elected President when he ran on the segregationist platform that "we wouldn't have had all these problems." While this was reported in an offhand manner by ABC's the Note and dropped at the end of a long story, Atrios did research and found Lott's consistent record of racist affiliations and statements. Lott eventually resigned as Majority Leader.
In 2006, ColorofChange.org started as a response to Katrina, operating along very similar institutional lines as Moveon. The Jena 6 protest in Louisiana was the result.
These new communities are politically powerful, and they incorporate similar principles that underlie open source communities, at least compared to other parts of the political system. First of all, there's memory and accountability. My readers are smarter than I am, and I get called out all the time for errors. Inevitably on any issue, there's an engineer, a doctor, a plumber, or a statististician who knows more than the I do. There are skeptics who google what I wrote in the past and keep me honest. If my predictions are wrong or my arguments are bad, I lose credibility. And if I lie, they can comment right on my blog. There is a level playing field, and no gatekeepers. Don't like what I write? You can start your own site.
The structure creates a collaborative form of politics and an sort of immunity to bad faith. I'll give you two examples. In the waning days of the 2006 election, a bunch of Democrats in Congress were not facing any Republican challengers. But they had a lot of money in their political accounts. So Chris Bowers, a blogger at MyDD, decided that they should give this money to the Democratic Party so that it could be used to expand the map and pick up even more Republican House seats. He brought together a group of volunteers that worked over email to identity, out of 435 members of Congress, which were Democratic safe seats, how much money these members had, and how to contact them. Then, working with Moveon, they pelted these members with phone calls and emails, and about $5 million was put into use by the party.
Last year, I was exploring an the politics of an issue called network neutrality, which is the regulation that says that all packets of a certain type that go over the internet must be treated equally. Comcast or Verizon hasn't been allowed to slow video from one website because they don't like the content, because of net neutrality. Obviously this is important, and I was blogging about the politics of the issue. It was getting some traction, and so an AT&T lobbyist named Mike McCurry, who was formerly the White House press secretary under Clinton, came onto my blog and started arguing with me. We went back and forth a bunch of times, and he was giving out misinformation. The wonderful part of it was that network engineers who like liberal politics read my blog, and they were arguing with Mike McCurry and showing him he was wrong. Because he's used to a top-down media universe, he eventually attacked bloggers for being foul-mouthed and irresponsible. The backlash, from angry programmers and network engineers who knew he was lying for profit, was so aggressive that other lobbyists became afraid of publicly support the telecom and cable interests position. They spent upwards of $100M in lobbying and campaign contributions, and still lost.
Traditional media structures rely on scarcity of bandwidth. And politicians have relied on those structures to get elected and to govern. Now they beginning to rely on new structures to get elected and to govern, structures that govern themselves with a good deal of similarity to open source development communities. We are constantly learning and trying new things, and we are committed to building a new political system where the information rights of way belong to the public in the same way that roads belong to the public.
There is intense conflict between these two systems. Just this year, a major campaign of the blogs was to ensure that the Democratic Party didn't do a Presidential debate on Fox News. Both the Congressional Black Caucus Institute and the Nevada State Democratic Party booked debates with Fox News, and we were very aggressive about getting those debates canceled through our influence with Democratic leaders, and getting Presidential candidates to refuse to attend them. The argument that we made was that Fox News is not a news outlet but a partisan outlet intent on misinforming the public. After the Nevada debate was canceled, Fox News sent out a press release attacking us as radical fringe elements who had taken over the Democratic Party, thus proving our point. And major Democratic Party influentials felt free, because of our work, to come out against Fox News. Mark Mellman, a pollster for Kerry, revealed that Fox News viewers voted for Bush by an 88% to 7% margin. No demographic segment, other than Republicans, was as united in supporting Bush. Conservatives, white evangelical Christians, gun owners, and supporters of the Iraq war all gave Bush fewer votes than did regular Fox News viewers.
Elites within the Democratic Party validated that Fox News is, in fact, a Get Out the Vote machine for the Republican Party. That is how my world debates the role of media in a democracy, by undermining those that have a track record of dishonest propagandizing. Those are our values.
Internet politics isn't linear. It's going to grow, but it's going to grow along with shocks to the country. And we know they are coming. China is selling dollars, climate change seems to be accelerating, the situation in the Middle East is increasingly chaotic, oil will shortly move above $100 a barrel, there is a good deal of global financial instability, etc. All of possible shocks will probably increase the amount of power in this new political world.
As you know from the increasing political pressure on the scientific world, the free flow of information is also under attack. That's true on the internet. Large cable and telecommunications companies have recently been caught blocking political content over phone networks and the internet itself. For instance, NARAL tried to send a pro-choice text messages to its members, and Verizon Wireless blocked it, calling the content 'unsavory'. There's a nightmare scenario here, of course, since this is not just a political attack but an attack on the free flow of information. Imagine billionaire Domino's pizza founder right-wing Tom Monaghan, who has founded an extremist Catholic University to promote his views in Florida, buys a cable network or telecom company and begins blocking scientific research which doesn't correspond to his reading of Catholic dogma. That would include stem cell research, medical schools that teach procedures to terminate pregnancy, or even biology departments that do research into natural selection. That's what we're fighting off right now, while at the same time engaging in criticism, organizing against the Iraq war, recruiting candidates, raising money, and working to get a Democratic President elected in 2008.
We are a political community that has a fundamentally different vision of the world, we began to organize in response to disinformation and bad faith, and we have grown because of the ability of everyone to participate and ruthless and relentless criticism and commentary. Many of the values of this community correspond to the values of the scientific community; the free flow of information and the continuous criticism. Both the liberal political space and the scientific community are what one Republican operative sneered at in 2004 as part of the 'reality-based community'.
We're facing a series of challenges to the basic underpinnings of the free flow of information, and net neutrality is just one example of how top down structures are threatening the very fabric of how science and politics are conducted.
So we're fighting to maintain the communities we've built, to expand the power of the new politics, and to build the political information systems on the internet that will actually be able to cope with the challenges we know are coming.