As a professional website effectiveness consultant, David Bowen thinks about the internet a lot.  --  On Friday, he published in London's Financial Times some reflections on "[w]hat effect . . . the web [is] having on the truth."  --  Bowen frets that the internet has opened the floodgates to "raw viewpoints" at the expense of balance and objectivity.  --  "How do we know if what we are reading is fair, accurate, or complete rubbish?" Bowen asks.  --  "One way is to find a spread of sites that cover all views. Another is to buy a newspaper, though this may provide just another spin.  A third, probably wise, route is to develop a deep sense of scepticism about everything we read -- to act as our own editors."  --  A moment's reflection shows that these are not really the choices we face.  --  The first and third are really flip sides of the same coin, and the second cannot be considered a viable option.  --  Where was concern for "balance and objectivity" in the days, weeks, and months -- and years -- following Sept. 11, 2001?  --  The answer: the same place it was in the days, weeks, and months -- and years -- following Aug. 4, 1964.  --  And that place is nowhere to be found, at least as far as U.S. mainstream media were concerned.  --  Surely Bowen knows that it is quite possible to "buy a newspaper" and get not "just another spin," but "complete rubbish" instead.  --  Consider what Bill Moyers said on Dec. 9 in a speech at GWU:  "I keep an article in my files by Jeff Cohen and Norman Solomon ("30 Year Anniversary: Tonkin Gulf Lie Launched Vietnam War") written a decade ago and long before the recent disclosures.  They might have written it over again during the buildup for the recent invasion of Iraq.  On August 5, 1964, the headline in the Washington Post read: 'American Planes Hit North Vietnam after Second Attack on Our Destroyers: Move Taken to Halt Aggression.'  That, of course, was the official line, spelled out verbatim and succinctly on the nation's front pages.  The New York Times proclaimed in an editorial that the President 'went to the people last night with the somber facts.'  The Los Angeles Times urged Americans 'to face the fact that the communists, by their attack on American vessels in international waters, have escalated the hostilities.' . . . In his book, Censored War, Daniel Hallin found that journalists at the time had a great deal of information available which contradicted the official account of what happened in the Gulf of Tonkin, but 'it simply wasn't used.'"  --  Not that the newspapers don't get around to "balance and objectivity" eventually.  --  In the case of the Gulf of Tonkin [non-]incident, though, it took 41 years.  --  On Dec. 2, 2005, the New York Times reported somber facts that were quite different from the "somber facts" of 1964:  the release of "hundreds of pages of long-secret documents" showing that no second North Vietnamese attack on American ships had actually occurred on Aug. 4, 1964.  --  The Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, passed by Congress (by votes of 416-0 in the House and 88-2 in the Senate) on Aug. 7, 1964, was a response to the false claim that there had been such an attack.  --  One can hope that the internet will speed up the process of ferreting out the truth, and that the New York Times will not wait until 2042 before developing an interest in "balance and objectivity" with respect to September 11 and its aftermath....

Comment & analysis

WEB EFFECT ON TRUTH
By David Bowen

Financial Times (UK)
December 26, 2005

http://news.ft.com/cms/s/77223e7e-73c3-11da-ab91-0000779e2340.html

Here is a small question with which to end the year. What effect is the web having on the truth?

The web allows anyone with a computer to post words we can all see -- to become a publisher. The people who have exploited this best are those who are not wild about the establishment. In the run-up to the G8 summit in the summer, there was [sic] a handful of government and mainstream sites, and a storm of opposition efforts. Starting with the alternative media site Indymedia (www.indymedia.org), I found my way to the G8 Bike Ride, the G8 Cycle Caravan, G8 Feminist Action Scotland, and much more in the same vein. Add to these sites such as Corporatewatch (www.corporatewatch.org.uk), which keeps a beady and hostile eye on the business world, and of course the big time NGOs such as Greenpeace (www.greenpeace.org), and the web looks like a pretty wild place to anyone who lives elsewhere on the political spectrum.

I looked too at the Middle East, where the web is becoming an increasingly refined weapon. We have the professional Israeli government site (www.mfa.gov.il) lined up against a mass of hostile organisations, many of which are becoming sophisticated themselves. Look at Jihad Unspun (www.jihadunspun.net) and you are looking into the minds of the politicized Arab world. But the site was started by a Canadian woman entrepreneur, who converted to Islam, and it is as slick as any. When you read a claim that ‘Al-Qaeda special forces have T-54 tanks as well as biochemical and radioactive warheads,’ you will not dismiss it as easily as if it were on a ragged and amateurish site.

All these sites provide raw viewpoints. There is no attempt to be balanced or objective, so it is up to us readers to make our own judgements. How do we know if what we are reading is fair, accurate, or complete rubbish? One way is to find a spread of sites that cover all views. Another is to buy a newspaper, though this may provide just another spin. A third, probably wise, route is to develop a deep sense of scepticism about everything we read – to act as our own editors.

This has all become much more relevant with the explosion in our midst of blogging, and also the increasing profile of Wikipedia. We no longer have to know how to set up a website to get our opinions out there – blogs are easy to set up on a standard template, while Wikipedia (www.wikipedia.org) lets us contribute to or edit any encyclopedia entry we want – there are 850,000 so far, and the only editing we might get comes from other users. Is this freedom, or madness?

With blogs and Wikipedia, there is no editing or fact-checking in the traditional sense. When I was a journalist, an editor would read my piece, ask me to change or check things, then pass it to a sub-editor, who would carry out a double-check and query anything he or she was unhappy with. It wasn’t perfect, but it made it hard for me to write complete rubbish (usually). Bloggers and Wiki contributors can write nonsense – the good news is that their peers can come and point that out, but what if the first guy was right all along? And how are we, the outsiders to know? Recently, someone adjusted the biography of a journalist in Wikipedia to suggest he was linked to the Kennedy assassination. He did it as a joke, but how were we to know that?

The removal of normal filters can have a huge effect on business. There are of course some business people who have joined in the fun – the PR guru Richard Edelman has an excellent blog (www.edelman.com/speak_up/blog). But in most cases business will be on the defensive: anyone can change the article about you on Wikipedia (though a ‘fixed’ version is now planned), and they can say what they like on their blogs. You can try suing – but more intelligent, surely, to join in the fun. Reply on your attacker’s blog, or set up your own and set links to it.

In 2004 a website called Engadget.com published a piece saying that a supposedly secure lock made by Kryptonite could be picked by a ballpoint pen. This was immediately picked up by bloggers, who linked to the page, thus ensuring that it stayed near the top of Google results (try searching ‘kryptonite’, and you will quickly find it). Although Kryptonite started an exchange programme it did not (or could not) counter the publicity as it spread like fire. The interesting thing is that the fire has been eventually dampened down by bloggers themselves, posting view and counter-view, correction and counter-correction, Here is one posted this week, which tries to give a balanced assessment of what really happened: http://www.openthedialogue.com/2005/12/the_real_story_behind_kryptoni.html

Incidentally, Kryptonite has a very old-fashioned website – I wonder if there is any link between that and its inaction on its little blogging problem?

So, what should we conclude? That the world is becoming much more interesting thanks to the web, for sure. Whether you feel that ’May you live in interesting times’ is a curse or a blessing is something you will have to decide for yourself.

David Bowen is a website effectiveness consultant for Bowen Craggs & Co (www.bowencraggs.com). This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.