Final Essay: Blogging

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This is the fourth and final revision that I produced for my formal paper in this unit. I produced this revision much later in the school year – several months after the paper had been previously revised and turned in. Coming back to it was an interesting experience, and I found that looking over the comments from my instructor and the piece itself, I had more that I wanted to talk about on this subject. To that end, this revision grew substantially larger than previous drafts – it tops out at around 2100 words.

Within this revision,  I tried to focus on really making sure that everything I wrote about and researched tied back to the core of my thesis. I also added several points to the thesis in order to make it more lucid and comprehensive. The revamped thesis and conclusion are notable in the paper, as well as the addition of an article mentioning South Korean blogger “Minerva”, which I included to help support my discussion of the ways in which blogging is (or is not) moderated and vetted for reliability  I spent roughly an hour and a half revising this from Draft 3, most of that time spent sucking down coffee and tiramisu at a cafe in Lincoln. 

This paper is what everything else built up to. It is the culmination of all of the data I collected over the course of the unit combined with my own personal assertions on the subject which then evolves into this – the final writing project. Hopefully you can see echoes of my previous draft within the piece, as well as the information I asserted that I would collect in my Observation Proposal. Looking back at this piece, I’m proud of it. I spent a lot of time on it in its various iterations, and writing it taught me a lot about myself as a writer and a researcher. I gained a newfound appreciation for the power of political blogging, a greater understanding of how to collect data for a paper such as this, and a greater confidence in my abilities as an essayist. 

I hope you like it! 

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INSIDE THE WORLD OF POLITICAL BLOGGING

Americans today are blogging more than ever before. Blogs that cover almost every conceivable topic and subject – from cooking to card tricks to politics are sprouting up out of the ether. In the political realm, blogs are a form of communication that allows anyone with an internet connection and a fair amount of free time to share their opinions on the state of affairs in whichever country or regime they wish to focus on. While political blogs may sometimes be accused of contributing to political polarization and distorting the truth through sensationalist or inaccurate information, they also serve as an alternative news source, and as a valuable source of insight into the state of contemporary American political sentiment. Americans currently are strongly divided into two dominant political ideologies – liberal and conservative – and while this paper only examines blogs that inhabit the liberal sphere, it is nevertheless very insightful to observe the frustrations, misgivings, and support that liberal constituents show towards their elected officials. This paper will work to give a representation of that sentiment, while also providing background information on blogs themselves and the guidelines used to vet them for proper use in this paper. I will then work to both highlight the importance of political blogs – by giving examples of situations in which they have described US political sentiment and successfully leveraged change within government – and the drawbacks that they suffer from, which include a very loose guideline on what is appropriate content to publish, and a tendency towards sensationalism.

Blogs came around with the advent of the Internet. In 1994, the first ever blog was created, by a student named Justin Hall. However, blogging really began to take off in the late 1990s. Today there are over 181 million blogs active, with some of the largest ones receiving more than 50 million unique visitors a month. During this time, political blogs began to really come into relevance, with the founding of massive flagship enterprises such as The Huffington Post, the Daily Kos, and TalkingPointsMemo. This is important because it highlights just how new blogs are relative to other media outlets – they are still in their relative infancy.

We are in the advent age of blogging, and this carries some significant concerns. Blogging at the moment, since it is so new, is almost entirely un-moderated – anyone can start a blog about virtually anything in the world and use it as a personal pulpit for their worldview. This is incredibly liberating, but also incredibly risky, since a blogger armed with false information can now make significant ripples, depending on their reader base. In South Korea, a man writing under the pseudonym “Minerva” was arrested and “charged with spreading false information on the Internet,” a crime with a penalty of up to five years in jail. “Minerva” started a blog based around economics, and wrote several articles successfully predicting economic crises during the 2008 financial collapse. This gained him a significant following. Unfortunately, he was indicted after writing several patently false articles about South Korean economic practices. “Minerva” was eventually acquitted, after the case judge determined that he did not realize the “contents of the articles in question that he wrote were completely false.’”

s-SOUTH-KOREA-BLOGGER-large

(South Korean blogger, “Minerva”. Obtained from Huffington Post)

After learning about cases such as “Minerva’s”, I decided that it was important to filter the blogs that I would be using for this paper. I wanted blogs that held themselves to a level of journalistic integrity and would not present false information to their readership. I settled on three different criteria that I would use to determine whether a blog was worth looking in to. First, the blog had to be founded before 2005. This would provide me with a depth of data from the blog and help reassure me that it has maintained a good reputation for a long period of time. Second, I decided that I would look into blogs that have achieved recognition as journalistically sound, either by other websites or through certain awards of excellence. Third, I decided that I would only look at blogs that average over two million unique visitors a month, according to website stat tracker quantcast.com. This would provide me with further depth of data and make sure that I was researching blogs that are relevant to people and present in the public eye. All three of the blogs used for this paper – The Huffington Post, Daily Kos, and TalkingPointsMemo – satisfied these criteria. Now that the qualifications for these blogs have been established, it is time to start discussing the ways in which they can document opinion and create change within the political system.  

One of the ways in which political blogs are important is that they can provide insight into the opinions of American citizens. While political blogs do tend to be quite ideologically polarized – that is, they tend to support and attract supporters of one ideology or another, the users of such blogs can still be mined for interesting data. In one interesting example, it was observed  readers of liberal blogs such as The Daily Kos and TalkingPointsMemo, were quite strongly critical of the President’s stance on US military intervention in the Syrian War. President Obama was arguing in favor of limited military strikes in the country, but a widespread opinion among contributors on the blog was that he was wrong in doing so. For example, one user who goes by the name GoOceansideCalifornia commented on a recent Huffington Post article, stating that: “I can no longer trust anything I hear from Washington D.C. ….. The Dems were my last hope and that is now gone with the rash of b.s. being fed to us over Syria…. where do we go from here….” This is fascinating because it shows both a deep disillusionment in American citizens over the functionality of their government and a frustration in the President coming from his own political base. Typically, the party that the current President comes from can seem almost blindly supportive of his actions – in polling done by RealClearPolitics, President Obama holds between an 83% and 90% approval rating by Democratic voters. However, simply by observing high-traffic liberal blogs, a different story can be picked out, one in which liberal activists hold a more nuanced opinion of their commander-in-chief, one in which they are not afraid to speak out and say that they believe he is taking the wrong course of action, regardless of political affiliation.

gooceansidecalifornia

(“GoOceansideCalifornia” commenting on Barack Obama and Syria. Obtained from Huffington Post)

While blogs definitely function as an interesting bellwether for political sentiment, they also serve as a good alternative news source, oftentimes picking up and running stories that more mainstream media outlets might dismiss. As detailed by Jay Rosen in an article titled “The Legend of Trent Lott and the Weblogs” then-Senator Trent Lott made a remark in December of 2002 that amounted to an endorsement of the campaign of one Strom Thurmond, who had sought to become president much earlier in the century. Strom Thurmond had been vehemently opposed to civil rights, even going so far as to stage a 24-hour filibuster in an attempt to stop civil rights legislation from passing. Trent Lott’s remarks that if Thurmond had been elected, “we wouldn’t have had all these problems over these years either” went unnoticed around the main-stream media, but quickly attracted the attention of the political blogging community. With the community’s help, the story suddenly took off, culminating in a storm of controversy that forced Trent Lott to resign his position as Senate Minority Leader. It is highly likely that the story would have died unnoticed without the blogging community.   As Matthew Ashton wrote in his own blog, “Dr. Matthew Ashton’s Politics Blog”, “The resignation of Trent Lott is one of the earliest examples of the power of the Internet, and the ability of the blogosphere to impact on the national media.”

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(Former Senator Trent Lott. Obtained from The Washington Post)

While – several decades after their inception – the importance of political blogs is now undeniable, people have raised concerns about their influence. One of the main stated issues with political blogs is their contribution to political polarization. It is a human tendency to try to seek information and people that agree with their own personal worldview and this can sometimes lead to a disturbing narrowness of data interpretation. However, a recent study by Princeton University has found no conclusive link between the polarization of political blogs and the news media and the polarization of citizens. But the link between political blogs and sensationalist, misleading information, does have more traction. In a story on liberal blogs, referenced in an article by acrlog.org titled “Can (Political) Blogs Be Trusted?”, a man by the name of Jason Zengerle uncovered information that hinted at a cohesive effort by liberal blogging communities to receive payment from politicians in exchange for limiting or removing coverage of a certain news story. The article also detailed a further hit to the objectivity and reputation of political blogs that was delivered when a prominent liberal politician named Harry Reid was reported to have made a comment about a US army general, calling him incompetent. Politico reported the remark, but promptly came under fire from the Daily Kos, accusing Politico of making the remark up, an accusation which is incredibly charged in the field of reporting. When tapes were discovered that clearly showed Reid making the remark, the Kos immediately backpedalled.

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(Senator Harry Reid. Obtained from Wikipedia)

The entire controversy cast doubt on whether political blogs could ever really become a reliable, impartial source of news. It can clearly be seen that blogs are in no way a perfect system; they fall victim to the same biases and make the same mistakes that many mainstream media outlets do. They are almost entirely unpoliced in terms of accreditation – there is no way to tell if the man writing that fascinating politics blog is a senior professor of economics at UChicago, or an unemployed high-school dropout with a hobby. Where journalists have to prove themselves with college degrees and consistently strong fieldwork, a blogger simply has to start typing. However,  cases such as in South Korea, where “Minerva” was successfully exposed as a fraud, do show a mounting call for accountability within the blogosphere which could help it achieve the level of integrity that mainstream media holds, and give it a reputable place in global news coverage.

In summation, political blogs hold wonderful potential as a new linking institution that can connect citizens to their government and provide them with a voice. An interested observer can learn quite a lot about how Americans feel just by reading political blogs. Furthermore, cases such as Trent Lott’s increasingly show the power that some political blogs are able to wield, while the stories of Jason Zengerle and “Minerva” effectively highlight the drawbacks that impede the ability of blogging to be taken seriously on the main stage. It is still too early to tell whether political blogging will be able to equal or supplant traditional news media, especially with so many questions still in the air about the validity of political bloggers, but there are encouraging signs that show a move towards accountability amongst blogging, which will go a long way towards making political blogs a powerful and reliable source of information in the Information Age.

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