Monday, June 30, 2008

Smear Emails and the Cult of the Amateur Researcher

I'm both excited and cautious about the participatory potential of the web. The easy accessibility of data makes it possible for anyone to become a researcher. While lowering the transaction costs to information is incredibly exciting, it is also unpredictable. The Washington Post has an article today about Princeton Professor Danielle Allen's attempts to trace the source of the various Obama smear e-mails that have circulated during the presidential campaign. Allen tracked down one of the threads to a 69 year-old retired software engineer who created a massive anti-Obama website because he "doesn't play golf."

What strikes me is the extent to which these potential initiators take on the role of researcher. Form the article:
he built a Web site that features hundreds of pages of material intended to undermine Obama. "If 20 percent of what's on my Web site is true, this guy is a clear and present danger," Beckwith said. (He later added, "I try very hard to be accurate.") But while Beckwith speaks with pride about his research -- much of which he credits to an unnamed "colleague" in Europe -- and to his extensive Obama files, he rejects outright the suggestion that he authored the chain e-mail. "I've never been involved with any
e-mailings. Period," he said.

What drives people to take on the authoritative role of public knowledge creator? Especially when one gets little public recognition for the effort. This identity of "researcher" or "investigator" is powerful if you believe you are uncovering a unexamined and potentially critical truth. In these cases it seems that this impulse is combined with large amounts of "slack resources" in the form of time. This is the main problem Andrew Keen has with participatory culture. It takes a good amount of narcissism (and free time) to take on the role of "citizen protecting America from a "Manchurian Muslim candidate."

But more importantly, what does this all mean for politics going forward? Allen is dead on in her analysis of the smear e-mail phenomenon:
A first group of people published articles that created the basis for the attack. A second group recirculated the claims from those articles without ever having been asked to do so. "No one coordinates the roles," Allen said. Instead the participants swim toward their goal like a school of fish -- moving on their own, but also in unison.
What are the implication of this type of "wildfire" politics? it doesn't take much to influence low information voters. Can an uncoordinated response be addressed by a coordinated campaign like the Obama campaign is currently attempting? I'm skeptical that any intentional effort can stop this type of uncoordinated effort. It might be the perfect storm of elements has combined to make Obama president, but this is a curious side battle he has to wage.

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