Truth, earned credibility, and a publisher’s responsibility.

I spent much of the ’00s as a political blogger. I wrote here, mostly about state politics. When I decided to start writing about state politics, in 2003, I sought out other political blogs in Virginia. There weren’t many, maybe a half-dozen. I added them all to my blogroll, made a point of reading those sites and linking to them, and they did the same. Despite our often-oppositional political perspectives, our exchanges were friendly, informative, and fun. I’m still friends with those folks.

In the spring of 2006, I was casting around for how to elevate lesser-known Virginia political blogs, as it didn’t strike me as entirely fair that my site should get so much of the readership. So I set up a blog aggregator—a bit of software that would check each Virginia political blog’s RSS feed every half-hour or so, and syndicate all new blog entries on a central site, creatively named Virginia Political Blogs. It didn’t take long to set up, and having a central site to serve as a commons was immediately popular. Every blog entry was shown in the same context as every other, all in the same typeface, all on an equal footing, listed chronologically.

In the few months afterward, blogging exploded in popularity, in part because it became much easier to set up a blog. No longer was it necessary to install Movable Type, or the nascent WordPress—Blogger.com would host your site for free. For a while, in that lead-up to the 2006 midterm elections, there was a new Virginia political blog every week. In retrospect, this must have been the peak of the popularity of blogging, before the rise of Facebook and Twitter

Inevitably, the lowered technological bar meant that some less-knowledgable folks were able to participate in this commons. But that was OK, because this was a marketplace of ideas, and if people wanted to promote their foolish ideas, they could do that.

This went badly.

Any fool could start a website, get added to my aggregator, and immediately have an audience that numbered in the thousands. And fools did that, by the dozen. They didn’t have to earn an audience by writing things that other blogs would want to link to. They didn’t have to prove themselves in any way. When they wrote things that were completely wrong, offensive, or even dangerous, instead of going to an audience of a dozen people, it went to an audience that included not just every political reporter in Virginia and the DC metro area, but a great many crackpots and fringe-theorists as well.

By putting terrible ideas on even footing with great ones, and by replacing a free marketplace of ideas with a leveled one, I inadvertently created a promotional vehicle for the ignorant, the rage-filled, and the chronically dishonest. By presenting them all in the same, shared context, it gave them an aura of legitimacy. And by automatically reposting their occasional hate speech, violent imagery, and calls to violence, I was enabling—even endorsing—those things.

I knew what I had to do. In December, I pruned the worst actors from the list. They were enraged, and their rage was only magnified by their ignorance (“your taking my free expression that’s against the constitution!!!!”) and their partisanship (“classic libtard”). I’d created a commons, gave them access to it, and then took it away. They tried to create their own blog aggregator, as I recall, but it proved to be beyond their technological capabilities.

* * *
In 2016, my little mistake has been repeated as a huge, national mistake. We call it “Facebook.”

Any fool can create a Facebook account, get added to their friends’ feeds, and immediately have an audience in the hundreds, potentially in the millions. They don’t have to earn an audience with their writings, but instead rely on social obligations around relationships to be guaranteed a readership. Everybody’s Facebook posts are displayed in the same, shared context, with reshared, weaponized Russia propaganda adjacent to class reunion photos and New York Times articles.

Propaganda on Facebook has the aura of legitimacy. It’s been shared by a friend or family member, preying on our sense of trust. The name of the outlet that published the news is displayed in light gray at the bottom of the post, while the friend’s name and photo is displayed prominently at the top. News from eaglepatriot.co looks the same as any article from The Washington Post.

It only took me eight months to figure out that I’d inadvertently created a terrible system that was enabling dangerously stupid people. It’s been twelve years, and Facebook hasn’t learned that lesson yet.

I quite doubt that my poor editorial policy changed the outcome of any elections. Can Facebook say the same?

7 thoughts on “Truth, earned credibility, and a publisher’s responsibility.”

  1. I guess I was slightly smarter than you back then :) When I wanted to help promote other rational homeschooling blogs I set up a wiki called The Evolved Homeschooler, and a custom Google search engine that only searched homeschooling blogs that didn’t peddle creationist nonsense.

  2. Nice context. I remember when you pulled the plug on the worst of it, and the brief storm it unleashed. I was lamenting something similar to my wife yesterday, how disturbingly low the level of public discourse has become. And how quickly it got there. Driven low intentionally by Facebook, I believe, because nothing amplifies engagement like anger and an argument. Amplified engagement translates to amplified revenue. If it bleeds it leads, they used to say in the old media. There must be a similar corollary within Facebook. “If it enrages it engages.” They’ve effectively made trolls of the whole world, and damn the consequences, full speed ahead.

  3. Can you imagine how hard it would be to pull together the kind of collegial, bipartisan, ideologically-diverse (and well-attended) gatherings of Virginia bloggers like we did back in the early-mid 2000s?

  4. so well said. my account should be officially deleted in a few days. the time period between deletion is such a textbook example of black hat ux and how facebook cares so very little for its users.

  5. Waldo, after you introduced me to the internet in 1996 (yes, internet me is your fault), I soon started a specialty website and invited the public to participate. I assumed collective wisdom would be better than what I could say on my own. It didn’t take long to realize that the thoughts of a hundred experience-less fools are not of equal value to one sentence by someone who has been there, done that. Fortunately, my site was a big fish in a small pond for only a brief moment, so not much damage was done. Today’s social media scene is a growing nightmare, void of context and fact, with enduring dialogue and truth its most frequent victims.

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