Wow. Our experiment is off to a great start—let's see if we can finish it off sooner than expected.
Mitt Romney appeared at the Conservative Political Action Conference last week and repeated the GOP mantra of the week: no new jobs have been created by President Barack Obama's stimulus legislation. This weekend Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger declared that's a lie, noting that 150,000 jobs have been added to his state's economy due to the stimulus.
Schwarzenegger showed how off-the-rails the Rs have gotten lately. But for some reason the Republicans believe they can get away with—and benefit from—peddling false information. Why is that? My pal Micah Sifry at TechPresident.com asked media critic Jay Rosen and me for our thoughts. We both focused on the mainstream media's reliance on he said/she said reporting that doesn't fully evaluate the content of competing claims. (Rosen also recently explored that notion in a blog post of his own.) But Sifry added another dimension:
The internet is a neutral tool, and yes, it does make it easier to spread messages—true ones as well as false ones. But here's what has changed: in 2008, the Obama campaign had a huge, motivated, networked, self-organizing (to some degree) base that was using the internet every day to fight the information wars. They had an active corps of super-volunteers focused on doing "rapid response" to media bias and falsehoods. And they had a well-constructed web operation centered on a special site called "FighttheSmears.com" that was tuned, via search, to capture the attention of random web-surfers wondering whether Obama was a Muslim, or born in America, and get them credible information....
I hate to sound like a broken record, but given that we live in a networked age where people are bombarded with competing information claims 24-7, the notion that you can just hope people will find the truth on their own isn't enough. You have to organize constantly to defend the truth. And thus [cue broken record], the failure of the Obama campaign to properly plan to keep their 13 million member grassroots movement going full steam surfaces again as a key piece of the "meta-story" of the last year and a half of political struggle. When you have a movement, media narratives shift. (Hello, Tea Party!). Without one, the narratives shift too. The other way.
The White House—or anyone else—cannot count on establishment journalists to get out the complete truth and be effective referees, given these reporters' self-imposed rules. (Ever see a story in a major newspaper that began, "Sen. Whoever lied today, when he claimed..."?) It must exert its own muscle—not just by sending out press releases but by mobilizing millions. Here's the Sifry principle: if you want to counter bad information, you not only need truth on your side but clicks, and people make clicks.
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