[Paleopsych] NYT: Communications: Myths Run Wild in Blog Tsunami Debate

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Tue Jan 4 00:20:43 UTC 2005

Communications: Myths Run Wild in Blog Tsunami Debate
New York Times, 5.1.3

As the horror of the South Asian tsunami spread and people
gathered online to discuss the disaster on sites known as
Web logs, or blogs, those of a political bent naturally
turned the discussion to their favorite topics.

To some in the blogosphere, it simply had to be the
government's fault.

On Democratic Underground, a blog for open discussion and
an online gathering place for people who hate the Bush
administration, a participant asked, "Since we know that
the atmosphere has become contaminated by all the atomic
testing, space stuff, electronic stuff, earth pollutants,
etc., is it logical to wonder if: Perhaps the 'bones' of
our earth where this earthquake spawned have also been

The cause of the earthquake and resulting killer wave, the
writer said, could be the war in Iraq. "You know, we've
exploded many millions of tons of ordnance upon this poor
planet," the writer said. "All that 'shock and awe' stuff
we've just dumped onto the Asian part of this earth - could
we have fractured something? Perhaps the earth was just
reacting to something that man has done to injure it. The
earth is organic, you know. It can be hurt."

The ridicule began immediately. Online insults, referred to
colloquially as flames, rose high on other sites.

"What would life be without D.U.?" asked an editor at
Wizbang, a politically conservative blog
(www.wizbangblog.com), using the initials of Democratic

"Get out the tin foil hats," a contributor to the blog

The interplay between the sites, left and right, is typical
of the rumbles in cyberspace between rivals at different
ends of the political spectrum. In many ways, Web logs
shone after the tsunami struck: bloggers in the regions
posted compelling descriptions of the devastation,
sometimes by text messages sent from their cellphones as
they roamed the countryside looking for friends and family
members. And blogs were quick to create links to charities
so that people could help online.

But the blogosphere's tendency toward crackpot theorizing
and political smack down could not be suppressed for long.

"It's so much of what they feed on, so much of what they
are," said James Surowiecki, the author of "The Wisdom of

Blogs have gone from obscurity to ubiquity in a blink.
Bloggers were selected as "People of the Year" by ABC News,
and Merriam-Webster declared "blog" its "word of the year."
According to a study released yesterday by the Pew Internet
and American Life Project, more than eight million
Americans have started blogs, and 27 percent of Internet
users surveyed said they read blogs - a 58 percent jump
since last February - and 12 percent of Internet users have
posted comments to blogs. Still, 62 percent of Americans
say they are not sure what the term "blog" means.

Odd blog postings are not just for commoners. Norodom
Sihanouk, the former king of Cambodia, posted a message in
French to his Web site, www.norodomsihanouk.info, saying
that an astrologer had warned him that an
"ultra-catastrophic cataclysm" would strike the region, but
Cambodia would be undamaged if the proper rituals were
observed. King Sihanouk said that the thousands of dollars
he spent on the ceremonies protected his nation from the
disaster, and that he would donate $15,000 to disaster

Mr. Surowiecki pointed out that there is nothing new about
ill-informed rumor-mongering or other forms of oddness.
"There were always cranks," he said. "Rumors have always
been fundamental about the way people talk, or think, about
politics or complicated issues." Instead of a corner bar or
a Barcalounger, however, the location for today's speech is
an online medium with a potential audience of millions.

But there is another, more important difference, Mr.
Surowiecki and others say. Internet discourse can be
self-correcting, with near-instant feedback from readers.

What was lost in the sniping over the Democratic
Underground posting was the fact that the follow-up
comments were a sober discussion of what actually causes
earthquakes. The first response to the posting asked,
"Earthquakes have been happening since the beginning of
time ... How would you explain them?"

Further comments explained the movement of tectonic plates
and provided links to sites explaining earthquakes and
tsunamis from the United States Geological Survey and other
authoritative sources.

"Not to make fun, as I'm sure it's not a unique
misconception ... but the reality is simple plate
tectonics," one participant wrote. "The entire Pacific
Ocean is slowly but surely closing in on itself. What
happened is that the floor of the Indian Ocean slid over
part of the Pacific Ocean, releasing massive tension in the
Earth's crust.

"That's it. No mystic injury to the Gaia spirit or

Online discussion can evolve toward truth, said Clay
Shirky, an adjunct professor in the interactive
telecommunications program at New York University and a
blogger. One result is a process that can be more reliable
than many new media, where corrections are often late and
small, if they appear at all.

Dr. Shirky said the key to reasonable discussion was to get
beyond flames and the "echo chamber" effect of like-minded
people simply reinforcing the opinions of one another and
to let the self-correcting mechanisms do their job in a
civil way. "You hope the echo chamber effect and the
fact-checking effect will balance out into a better and
more nuanced set of narratives, and a more rigorously
checked set of facts," he said. But in such a sharply
contentious world, "The risk is it will largely divide
itself into competing narratives where what even
constitutes a fact is different in different camps."

To Xeni Jardin, an editor of BoingBoing.net, the
"self-healing" quality of debate is one of the most
important results of the electronic medium. "When
information that is provably untrue surfaces on the Net or
surfaces in discussion groups, people want to be right -
they want to know the truth," she said.

In her own blog, she said, "Sometimes people spend really a
long time researching background information on an item
that we post" and correct the record through comments. In
the tsunami discussion on Democratic Underground, some
participants continued to post farfetched theories about
what caused the earthquake based on pseudoscience and
conspiracy, and on Wizbang, the vituperation continued
unabated, spreading even to many victims of the disaster.


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