6.2 Authority and the variety of information sources
Technology has massively increased the number and variety of news sources that we have access to. We still have printed books, magazines and newspapers, while digital techniques have increased the number of broadcast radio and TV channels that we can get. On the Web we have access to online versions of many of these. This allows us access to media that previously would have been inaccessible.
With traditional news sources such as these, we have some understanding of the authority that they bring with them. Newspapers, for example, rely to some extent on their reputation. This may be damaged – they might lose readers – if their stories are found to be wrong or misleading, so it is in their own interests to maintain standards. Also, in the UK, newspapers and magazines are regulated by the Press Complaints Commission, the PCC. There are similar considerations that apply to radio and TV to maintain standards. In all these cases there will be some degree of editorial control over the content, and one of the responsibilities of the editors is to maintain standards of honesty appropriate to their publication or channel.
The PCC is a form of self-regulation rather than statutory regulation (regulation by law), and some people argue that this is inadequate.
On the internet, however, there are sources of news and information that are completely unregulated. The technology is such that with a minimum of knowledge and little expense, virtually anyone (in the developed world anyway) can say almost anything they like on a personal web page or a weblog, and, in principle at least, their words are instantly available to millions of people all over the world. The absence of any regulation or external editorial control might be thought to devalue personal web pages or weblogs as sources of news, but there are other considerations. To what extent do websites gain authority by the number of other sites that link to them, and by who links to them? Can personal recommendations replace recognised authorisation? And anyway, perhaps regulation sometimes becomes censorship, and who has the right to determine the editorial 'line'?
I raise these questions because they highlight issues that arise from the development of the Web, but there are no simple answers. We can gain some insight into the issues involved, however, by looking at one particular example where a weblog was able to provide news that was simply not available through any other source.
The example that I shall use is that of the 'Baghdad Blogger', Salam Pax, who was posting reports from Baghdad in the run-up to, and all through, the 2003 war in Iraq. As the US and British troops advanced on Iraq, news was coming from several sources, most of which might be suspected to be censored in some way. Salam was a resident of Baghdad who did not set out to be a reporter, but whose interest in the Web led him to create a weblog that became seen by many as providing a valuable insight into life in Baghdad at this time.
In the article below (itself taken from one of the traditional news sources: the Guardian newspaper), Salam Pax (2003) writes about his experiences. As you read it, think about some of the questions that I asked earlier, but also notice the role of the technology.
'I Became The Profane Pervert Arab Blogger'
S. Pax, 9 September, 2003, The Guardian
My name is Salam Pax and I am addicted to blogs. Some people watch daytime soaps, I follow blogs. I follow the hyperlinks on the blogs I read. I travel through the web guided by bloggers. I get wrapped up in the plot narrated by them. […]
We [the Iraqi people] had no access to satellite TV, and magazines had to be smuggled into the country. Through blogs I could take a peek at a different world. Satellite TV and the web were on Saddam's list of things that will corrupt you. Having a satellite dish was punishable with jail and a hefty fine […]
While the world was moving on to high-speed internet, we were being told it was overrated. So when in 2000 the first state-operated internet centre was opened, everybody was a bit suspicious, no one knew if browsing news sites would get you in trouble. When, another year later, you were able to get access from home, life changed. We had internet and we were able to browse without the minders at the internet centres watching over our shoulder asking you what that site you are browsing is.
Of course things were not that easy, there was a firewall. A black page with big orange letters: access denied. They made you sign a paper which said you would not try to get to sites which were of an 'unfriendly' nature and that you would report these sites to the administrator. They blocked certain search terms and they did actually have a bunch of people looking at URL requests going through their servers. It sounds absurd but believe me, they did that. I had a friend who worked at the ISP and he would tell me about the latest trouble in the Mukhabarat [secret police] room.
[…] With blogs the web started talking to me in a much more personal way. Bits of news started having texture and most amazingly, these blogs talked with each other. That hyperlink to the next blog – I just couldn't stop clicking. […]
To tell you the truth, sharing with the world wasn't really that high on my top five reasons to start a blog. It was more about sharing with Raed, my Jordanian friend who went to Amman after we finished architecture school in Baghdad. He is a lousy email writer; you just don't expect any answers from him. […]. So instead of writing emails and then having to dig them up later it would all be there on the blog. So Where is Raed? started. […]
The first reckless thing I did was to put the blog address in a blog indexing site under Iraq. I did this after I spent a couple of days searching for Arabs blogging and finding mostly religious blogs. I thought the Arab world deserved a fair representation in the blogsphere, and decided that I would be the profane pervert Arab blogger just in case someone was looking.
Putting my site at that portal (eatonweb) was the beginning of the changing of my blog's nature. I got linked by the Legendary Monkey and then Instapundit – a blog that can drive a stampede of traffic to your site. I saw my site counter jump from the usual 20 hits a day to 3,000, all coming from Instapundit – we call it experiencing an Insta-lanche (from avalanche) […]
What really worried me was the people writing those emails were doing so as if I was a spokesman for the Iraqi people. There are 25 million Iraqis and I am just one. With the attention came the fear that someone in Iraq might actually read the blog, since by now it had entered warblog territory. But Mr Site Killer still didn't block it. I preferred to believe they were not watching. They were never patient. If they knew about it I would already have been hanging from a ceiling being asked about anti-governmental activities. Real trouble comes when big media takes notice and this happened when there was a mention of the blog and its URL in a Reuters piece […]
By the end of January war felt very close and the blog was being read by a huge number of people. There were big doubts that I was writing from Baghdad, the main argument being there was no way such a thing could stay under the radar for so long in a police state. I really have no idea how that happened. I have no idea whether they knew about it or not. I just felt that it was important that among all the weblogs about Iraq and the war there should be at least one Iraqi blog, one single voice: no matter how you view my politics, there was at least someone talking.
I was sometimes really angry at the various articles in the press telling the world about how Iraqis feel and what they were doing when they were living in an isolated world. The journalists could not talk to people in the street without a Mukhabarat man standing beside them. As the war came closer, my blog started getting mentioned more and more. There were people quoting it even after I told them not to, because I feared it would attract too much attention. I talked to as few people as possible and did not answer any interview requests, but my blog was popping up in all sorts of publications. The questions people were asking me became more difficult and the amount of angry mail I was getting became unbelievable. Raed thought I should start panicking. People wanted coherence and a clear stand for or against war. All I had was doubt and uncertainty.
One issue with weblogs as a source of news is that they present just one individual's perception of events, arguably with no more authority to speak than anyone else. Salam makes two apparently contradictory statements about this issue in the article. Pick out these two statements.
What was it that led to a sudden increase in the number of people looking at Salam's website?
What might lead you to trust the content of Salam Pax's blog?
The two statements that I picked out are:
'What really worried me was the people writing those emails were doing so as if I was a spokesman for the Iraqi people. There are 25 million Iraqis and I am just one.'
'I just felt that it was important that among all the weblogs about Iraq and the war there should be at least one Iraqi blog, one single voice: no matter how you view my politics, there was at least someone talking.'
These seem to be contradictory, but maybe there just isn't a simple answer.
Salam says that the number of 'hits' on his blog – the number of times someone looked at his site – rose from 20 per day to 3000 following his site being linked by 'Legendary Monkey and then Instapundit'. Specifically, he says that the 3000 were all coming from Instapundit.
The fact that other people and organisations, whom you already trust, are implicitly or explicitly endorsing Salam Pax's blog might give you confidence in it. It seems that 'Instapundit' already had the confidence of many people when it provided a link to 'Where is Raed?', and its being mentioned by Reuters would have given it some authority. Personally, it was when it appeared in the Guardian that I first came across it, and I assumed that the Guardian would have made some checks on its authenticity.