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Brier Dudley offers a critical look at technology and business issues affecting the Northwest.

January 23, 2007 at 4:37 PM

That giant sucking sound? Blogs’ credibility

I’ve said that one of the issues that needs to be sorted out in 2007 is the definition of blogger.

The situation is getting so bad that it’s disrupting Congress and providing cover for weasels in the other Washington.

That was painfully obvious if you watched the hissy fit that bloggers had in recent weeks over the weakened ethics bill. They helped scuttle a provision that would have required lobbyists to disclose more about the “grassroots” tools they are using to manipulate the opinions of lawmakers and the public.

Specifically, bloggers had fits about section 220 of the bill, which said that grassroots campaigns costing more than $25,000 per quarter had to be disclosed as a lobbying expense.

Goaded by lobbyists who don’t want the public to know about their spending, bloggers (and evangelicals) interpreted the bill to mean they’d have to register with the government and have their First Amendment rights threatened.

A primary source of the goading, according to The Register, was political junk-mail firm American Target Advertising, one of the companies that stuffs your physical mailbox with election spam every November:

The bill made no direct mention of bloggers, but (ATA’s Mark) Fitzgibbons had the vision to recognize in the blogosphere’s endemic paranoia and aversion to fact-checking a perfect means of spreading opposition to section 220. After all, even with the clumsy wording, the bill would only affect bloggers who get paid a six figure salary from an employer or client (advertising revenue wouldn’t count) to stimulate grassroots lobbying as a full-time gig


But that didn’t stop Fitzgibbons and ATA from spreading the Fear among the entire blogosphere, and it didn’t soften the indignation that the hyperbolic rhetoric inspired among bloggers.

So instead of enlightening the public with a fresh take on an important issue, bloggers were played by the entrenched powers. The end result was to create a loophole for lobbyists.

It’s a replay of bloggers’ past fits over election spending disclosure rules. They’ve objected to rules that would require candidates to disclose their online campaign spending, just as candidates do with offline spending.

Colleen Kollar-Kotelly, the judge who is separately overseeing Microsoft’s antitrust compliance, saw through the technology smokescreen and ruled in 2002 that exempting online spending undermines the disclosure rules.

Both Kollar-Kotelly and the authors of the original ethics bill recognized the obvious — that political campaigns are using all of the latest communication tools, such as blogs, and that spending has to be disclosed to the public.

What’s holding things back is the term “blog.” The technology has advanced faster than the language, and the term is too vague for legislation. The inadequate terminology confuses bloggers and lawmakers alike and creates opportunities for manipulation.

Instead “blog” is stuck on the list of loaded words that are subject to interpretation and vulnerable to misuse in the Capitol. Others include grassroots, green, terror and privacy.

For starters, it’s time to clarify once and for all that blogs are no longer the province of independent, unpaid, amateur essayists. Most blogs are written by solo bloggers, but the most-read and most-influential blogs are professional operations. Should the same rules apply to both categories?

Blogging software and blog networks are powerful and efficient communication tools. They’re now being used by the powerful to efficiently influence the masses.

Just look at what happened with the ethics bill. Lobbyists used blogging tools to manipulate public opinion and get section 220 removed. Those are the bloggers that would have had to register under the ethics bill, by the way.

Why are we still using the same term to describe them and all those teenage diarists writing about Hello Kitty?

After all the media bashing in the last decade, and the weak press performance before the invasion of Iraq, some saw blogs as a ray of hope, an independent, untainted voice that would give people a voice and stand up to power.

I still have faith that the press will perform its role in society. It’s also exciting to see the definition of press expand to include journalistic blogs. But that evolution is threatened by imprecise terminology that puts too many activities in the category of blogging.

It’s no wonder lobbyists and marketers are so enthusiastic about blogging. They’re taking advantage of the medium’s credibility to deliver their message, mooching off the aura of independence that surrounds blogs.

Incidents like the ethics bill make me wonder how long that aura will last.

The unifying effect of the term “blogging” helped build the blog community and gave it power and legitimacy.

But the blogosphere is starting to seem like the British Empire in the middle of the last century, when the empire was unraveling and colonies like India began the messy process of establishing their own identities. The empire’s influence and structures remain, but most of its territory is no longer British.

Blogs have to be more upfront about paid political content if they’re ever going to have the credibility of the mainstream media. You may laugh and sneer at that last point, but the MSM has developed a pretty good system for handling paid political ads so the public can tell what’s an ad. That system also helps the public and watchdogs monitor election spending, to be sure the system is fair and transparent.

Truly independent bloggers trying to influence politics will be marginalized until they accept the reality of public disclosure rules. The rules improve credibility and independence, unless you’ve got something to hide.

There’s hope. The blogging institution has the ability to self-correct. When its legitimacy was threatened by cheap and sleazy spam blogs, bloggers came up with a new term, splog, to identify and isolate the moochers before they eroded blogs’ credibility.

When will bloggers do the same thing with “grassroots” blogs created and seeded by professional lobbyists? To fight section 220, lobbyists characterized these things as political blogs, but that’s a wolf in sheep’s clothing.

If there was a unique term that identified blogs that are basically high-tech political campaign materials, lobbyists couldn’t hide under bloggers’ umbrella and it would be easier for Congress to write ethics rules that take into account current technology.

What do you think these should be called? Here are a few ideas:







Comments | More in | Topics: Public policy, Web


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