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On the ethics of promoting unsubstantiated “raw” news, which claims to reveal wrongdoing

October 12, 2016

This isn’t about the mainstream media or about government spokespeople from pretty much all countries, although it is important to start with recognizing what is now a firmly established precedent – that unsubstantiated accusations are a common ingredient in public discourse.

I’m talking very briefly about myself here, and maybe others in the alt-news blogo-whatever universe.

Personally, my goal for this tiny blog is to promote 3rd party politics in the US. My motivation is that 2-party politics has led to hugely significant bad behavior by both Republicans and Democrats. Iraq War, the disaster of deregulationist economics – that much is well established now. But in addressing these topics, the path from here to there leads us through some muddy waters, and I want to talk about some of the muddiness that I am not entirely comfortable with.

The objective, again, is to increase awareness of wrongdoing by the republican-democrat duopoly, with the intention of either stimulating them to improve, and as there is mighty resistance to change with those two parties, the other more realistic option is to promote support for one or more worthwhile third party/parties, to reintroduce sentient life into US politics.

The method, however, isn’t pretty. It is, in essence, the flipside of increasing awareness of the R/D parties’ defects, we are also purposely trying to discredit them. (They do no less to anyone who disagrees with them, so that in itself is not at all a source of concern). But it goes further. This is an election season and news moves fast. Fact checking has been long abandoned by the traditional media, and the bar for what you see, not just on the internet, but on actual “reputable” news sources is low. How low? At this point somewhere in a sub-basement of hades. Below the last stop of the elevator. At the bottom of the last staircase. Past the dust and cobwebs and ancient furniture and skeletons of rodents who once chewed on their poisoned upholstery… there’s a dark hole in the floor with just a ladder disappearing into an unlit depth… Soon we’ll be down there too..  sorry, runaway metaphor.

Basically the standard established method for political journalism is to try to out-shout your opponent with unsubstantiated allegations. And so, much of what comes through here is an imitation of this time honored system. Being on the dumpster-divey cutting edge, where the line between hot news and trash and conspiracy theory and propaganda is quite blurry, things are at times uncomfortable.

There are some places I am definitely not willing to go — for example to disparage someone’s family, or accuse them of some unproven deviance in their personal life. (something proxies for both Democrats and Republicans have repeatedly done, by the way). Generally this is a sign that the accuser has run out of real arguments or feels that they are insufficient. We passed that point so long ago this season I have a hard time remembering when that even was. (I could flip back thru the pages though, this blog also serves as a kindof diary for that).

I’m also certainly not going to promote to any kind of prejudice based on race, ethnicity, nationality, religion, and so forth. I am, however going to allow pretty harsh judgment of specific individuals with an existing record, as well as the same for organizations.

A mildly controversial category I most certainly am willing to follow is leaked material from whistleblowers or so-called “hacktivists”. To me, whistleblowers reporting wrongdoing from the inside are a protected class, there’s not much to argue about there. In the case of the hacktivist, who violated their exposee’s privacy from the outside rather than the inside, it is very possible that some more base motivations are at play. For example, suppose we found out that the Volkswagen cheating on emissions testing was actually revealed as a result of a program by Ford and Chevy? Negative credit to Ford and Chevy, no doubt, but does it reduce the value and protected status of what we learned about Volkswagen’s cheating, if it is obviously in the public interest? Nope, I think it’s fair game.

Now further into the mud still. What if, as is quite possible and even likely, mixed in with the whistleblowers and hacktivists is a third category, of outright forgeries. This is over the line for me, most certainly – into ends-justifying-the-means territory. But now what if, due to the fast pace of information flow, you cannot be sure? Now you have a little bit of an uncomfortable situation.

The data dumps from WikiLeaks fall into that last category. One cannot verify them in real time, we have to do the best we can with limited information. Most of the players exposed by the leaked material have a substantial history of dishonesty and unscrupulous behavior, so it’s quite hard to say when a story is so outrageous, we shouldn’t believe it because of how outrageous it is. To make matters worse, the exposee in these situations may try to increase the confusion by intentionally throwing fake stuff out there to discredit those trying to report on them.

Basically, I’m thinking, there are going to be mistakes, and possibly big ones. Nevertheless the material is significant enough that it needs to be pursued quickly. With this post, I want to recognize that this is a difficult balancing act – and I maintain hope that in the chaotic alt-news universe, an effective balance is struck, that there remains some subset of voices who are not simply trying to out-shout the “other side” with unsubstantiated accusations…

The bare minimum is to acknowledge the level of uncertainty as we go. My experience as an engineer tells me something else though. First rule of tolerances in engineering communication is as follows: “Any plus-or-minus uncertainty attached to a figure, or any verbal caveat attached to a statement that would otherwise sound definitive, will be received with smiling and nodding and then completely ignored and forgotten when your communication is passed on.” In the real world, you have to communicate with the assumption that you will be misunderstood. The “worst case limit” is the only form of communicating uncertainty that is reliably transmitted by all people (and especially by groups of people, where the lowest-common-denominator level of understanding applies). The problem is, using the worst-case-limit form, sometimes the only statement you can make is that you don’t know anything (which isn’t even true, you’re just saying it to avoid saying something that will be turned into an un-truth by someone else). Crappy situation as it applies here, to working with uncertain information in a crappy rhetorical environment.

This has been one big caveat, so let us all beware. The audience must realize that their information quality is low and getting lower, and yet the value of the information is high and getting higher. Wild swings are possible.

-end of babble-


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