Monday, April 07, 2008

Is the Blogosphere Changing the Way We Debate? (The Obama-ization of Discourse)

The blogosphere is fundamentally changing the nature of public debate. In this new regime, the way to successfully shape the debate is with supported facts, rather than striking claims.

In an interactive and Google-ized world, the old propagandist's strategy of anchoring the debate with extreme claims and ad hominem attacks is more likely to rebound on the propagandist than to succeed.

When every claim can and will be fact-checked by an army of bloggers, and any mis-statement likely to be magnified by hundreds of posts and thousands of comments, any possible benefits of "kitchen sink" strategies are almost certainly outweighed by the strategy's tendency to turn off undecided members of the populace.

Hillary Clinton's campaign has practiced the old style of debate--bludgeoning attacks, striking (and often unsupported) claims, ad hominem practices. This style would have worked beautifully in 1992 or 1996, but fails miserably in 2008.

In the old days, these attacks and claims would have been picked up in the media and undergone some level of scrutiny, but largely be allowed to pass.

Today, an army of bloggers examines every fishy statement, and posts every incriminating bit of video to YouTube. If this were 1992, things like Bosnia would likely have been buried.

In contrast, Barack Obama's campaign recognizes the new reality, and rarely attacks Hillary Clinton unless its claims have near-ironclad support. Hillary doesn't support NAFTA? Guess what, there are plenty of eyewitnesses and records to back up the claim.

The same holds true when defending oneself from attack--don't overreach, or the punishment may be severe.

Pioneering blogger and writer Shel Israel was the subject of satirical attacks from prankster Loren Feldman. Feldman made a series of videos (using a hand puppet) that satirized Israel's videos for Fast Company and painted him as an incompetent interviewer.

This might have died quickly, except that Israel went on the attack against Feldman and overreached. The facts were already clear--Israel was doing his job, and people could view the videos and judge for themselves. Furthermore, Feldman had registered and posted the videos there--a harsh move that would hardly win him sympathy.

However, Israel did go on the attack, and criticized Feldman with ad hominem attacks. As a result, the blogosphere ended up criticizing the *victim* of harrassment rather than the attacker.

In this new world, the way to win a debate is with the Joe Friday/Jon Stewart approach. Just the facts, ma'am, but with a dose of humor to make it clear that you can take a joke, and don't take yourself too seriously.


Gabe said...

Perhaps... but the memory of Swiftboating is still too raw and recent for me to assent.

Yes, the blogosphere can play a big role in amplifying things - but let's remember that Hillary Clinton in Bosnia was a very clear-cut black and white case with video evidence that was amenable to pithy blog posts and segments on the Daily Show and Colbert Report.

I would say your thesis is only really supported in cases where video is available (e.g., Clinton in Bosnia; Israel/Feldman).

The blogosphere isn't equipped to douse the slow burn of half-truths, equivocations, innuendo, and Orwellian verbal manipulation kindled in the shadowlands outside the camera eye.

That's not so much a criticism of the limitations of the blogosphere but an acknoweldgement of the credulity of polities across time and cultures.

Chris said...

I agree that the thesis is easier to support for photographic proof. But the Swift boating was a slightly different affair, where there were multiple people willing to lie...when you have a he said she said situation, it's difficult to generate proof.