December 23, 2005 3:38 pm

David Bowen: Web effect on the truth

Here is a small question with which to end the year. What effect is the web having on the truth?

The web allows anyone with a computer to post words we can all see – to become a publisher. The people who have exploited this best are those who are not wild about the establishment. In the run-up to the G8 summit in the summer, there was a handful of government and mainstream sites, and a storm of opposition efforts. Starting with the alternative media site Indymedia (www.indymedia.org ), I found my way to the G8 Bike Ride, the G8 Cycle Caravan, G8 Feminist Action Scotland, and much more in the same vein. Add to these sites such as Corporatewatch (www.corporatewatch.org.uk ), which keeps a beady and hostile eye on the business world, and of course the big time NGOs such as Greenpeace (www.greenpeace.org ), and the web looks like a pretty wild place to anyone who lives elsewhere on the political spectrum.

I looked too at the Middle East, where the web is becoming an increasingly refined weapon. We have the professional Israeli government site (www.mfa.gov.il ) lined up against a mass of hostile organisations, many of which are becoming sophisticated themselves. Look at Jihad Unspun (www.jihadunspun.net ) and you are looking into the minds of the politicised Arab world. But the site was started by a Canadian woman entrepreneur, who converted to Islam, and it is as slick as any. When you read a claim that ‘Al-Qaeda special forces have T-54 tanks as well as biochemical and radioactive warheads’, you will not dismiss it as easily as if it were on a ragged and amateurish site.

All these sites provide raw viewpoints. There is no attempt to be balanced or objective, so it is up to us readers to make our own judgements. How do we know if what we are reading is fair, accurate, or complete rubbish? One way is to find a spread of sites that cover all views. Another is to buy a newspaper, though this may provide just another spin. A third, probably wise, route is to develop a deep sense of scepticism about everything we read – to act as our own editors.

This has all become much more relevant with the explosion in our midst of blogging, and also the increasing profile of Wikipedia. We no longer have to know how to set up a website to get our opinions out there – blogs are easy to set up on a standard template, while Wikipedia (www.wikipedia.org ) lets us contribute to or edit any encyclopedia entry we want – there are 850,000 so far, and the only editing we might get comes from other users. Is this freedom, or madness?

With blogs and Wikipedia, there is no editing or fact-checking in the traditional sense. When I was a journalist, an editor would read my piece, ask me to change or check things, then pass it to a sub-editor, who would carry out a double-check and query anything he or she was unhappy with. It wasn’t perfect, but it made it hard for me to write complete rubbish (usually). Bloggers and Wiki contributors can write nonsense – the good news is that their peers can come and point that out, but what if the first guy was right all along? And how are we, the outsiders to know? Recently, someone adjusted the biography of a journalist in Wikipedia to suggest he was linked to the Kennedy assassination. He did it as a joke, but how were we to know that?

The removal of normal filters can have a huge effect on business. There are of course some business people who have joined in the fun – the PR guru Richard Edelman has an excellent blog (www.edelman.com/speak_up/blog ). But in most cases business will be on the defensive: anyone can change the article about you on Wikipedia (though a ‘fixed’ version is now planned), and they can say what they like on their blogs. You can try suing – but more intelligent, surely, to join in the fun. Reply on your attacker’s blog, or set up your own and set links to it.

In 2004 a website called Engadget.com published a piece saying that a supposedly secure lock made by Kryptonite could be picked by a ballpoint pen. This was immediately picked up by bloggers, who linked to the page, thus ensuring that it stayed near the top of Google results (try searching ‘kryptonite’, and you will quickly find it). Although Kryptonite started an exchange programme it did not (or could not) counter the publicity as it spread like fire. The interesting thing is that the fire has been eventually dampened down by bloggers themselves, posting view and counter-view, correction and counter-correction, Here is one posted this week, which tries to give a balanced assessment of what really happened: http://www.openthedialogue.com/2005/12/the_real_story_behind_kryptoni.html

Incidentally, Kryptonite has a very old-fashioned website – I wonder if there is any link between that and its inaction on its little blogging problem?

So, what should we conclude? That the world is becoming much more interesting thanks to the web, for sure. Whether you feel that ’May you live in interesting times’ is a curse or a blessing is something you will have to decide for yourself.

David Bowen is a website effectiveness consultant for Bowen Craggs & Co (www.bowencraggs.com ). dbowen@bowencraggs.com

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