NYT – Myths Run Wild in Blog Tsunami Debate

The New York Times
January 3, 2005

Myths Run Wild in Blog Tsunami Debate

As the horror of the South Asian tsunami spread and people gathered online to discuss the disaster on sites known as Web logs, or blogs, those of a political bent naturally turned the discussion to their favorite topics.

To some in the blogosphere, it simply had to be the government’s fault.

On Democratic Underground, a blog for open discussion and an online gathering place for people who hate the Bush administration (www.democraticunderground.com), a participant asked, “Since we know that the atmosphere has become contaminated by all the atomic testing, space stuff, electronic stuff, earth pollutants, etc., is it logical to wonder if: Perhaps the ‘bones’ of our earth where this earthquake spawned have also been affected?”

The cause of the earthquake and resulting killer wave, the writer said, could be the war in Iraq. “You know, we’ve exploded many millions of tons of ordnance upon this poor planet,” the writer said. “All that ‘shock and awe’ stuff we’ve just dumped onto the Asian part of this earth – could we have fractured something? Perhaps the earth was just reacting to something that man has done to injure it. The earth is organic, you know. It can be hurt.”

The ridicule began immediately. Online insults, referred to colloquially as flames, rose high on other sites.

“What would life be without D.U.?” asked an editor at Wizbang, a politically conservative blog (www.wizbangblog.com), using the initials of Democratic Underground.

“Get out the tin foil hats,” a contributor to the blog wrote.

The interplay between the sites, left and right, is typical of the rumbles in cyberspace between rivals at different ends of the political spectrum. In many ways, Web logs shone after the tsunami struck: bloggers in the regions posted compelling descriptions of the devastation, sometimes by text messages sent from their cellphones as they roamed the countryside looking for friends and family members. And blogs were quick to create links to charities so that people could help online.

But the blogosphere’s tendency toward crackpot theorizing and political smack down could not be suppressed for long.

“It’s so much of what they feed on, so much of what they are,” said James Surowiecki, the author of “The Wisdom of Crowds.”

Blogs have gone from obscurity to ubiquity in a blink. Bloggers were selected as “People of the Year” by ABC News, and Merriam-Webster declared “blog” its “word of the year.” According to a study released yesterday by the Pew Internet and American Life Project, more than eight million Americans have started blogs, and 27 percent of Internet users surveyed said they read blogs – a 58 percent jump since last February – and 12 percent of Internet users have posted comments to blogs. Still, 62 percent of Americans say they are not sure what the term “blog” means.

Odd blog postings are not just for commoners. Norodom Sihanouk, the former king of Cambodia, posted a message in French to his Web site, www.norodomsihanouk.info, saying that an astrologer had warned him that an “ultra-catastrophic cataclysm” would strike the region, but Cambodia would be undamaged if the proper rituals were observed. King Sihanouk said that the thousands of dollars he spent on the ceremonies protected his nation from the disaster, and that he would donate $15,000 to disaster relief.

Mr. Surowiecki pointed out that there is nothing new about ill-informed rumor-mongering or other forms of oddness. “There were always cranks,” he said. “Rumors have always been fundamental about the way people talk, or think, about politics or complicated issues.” Instead of a corner bar or a Barcalounger, however, the location for today’s speech is an online medium with a potential audience of millions.

But there is another, more important difference, Mr. Surowiecki and others say. Internet discourse can be self-correcting, with near-instant feedback from readers.

What was lost in the sniping over the Democratic Underground posting was the fact that the follow-up comments were a sober discussion of what actually causes earthquakes. The first response to the posting asked, “Earthquakes have been happening since the beginning of time … How would you explain them?”

Further comments explained the movement of tectonic plates and provided links to sites explaining earthquakes and tsunamis from the United States Geological Survey and other authoritative sources.

“Not to make fun, as I’m sure it’s not a unique misconception … but the reality is simple plate tectonics,” one participant wrote. “The entire Pacific Ocean is slowly but surely closing in on itself. What happened is that the floor of the Indian Ocean slid over part of the Pacific Ocean, releasing massive tension in the Earth’s crust.

“That’s it. No mystic injury to the Gaia spirit or anything.”

Online discussion can evolve toward truth, said Clay Shirky, an adjunct professor in the interactive telecommunications program at New York University and a blogger. One result is a process that can be more reliable than many new media, where corrections are often late and small, if they appear at all.

Dr. Shirky said the key to reasonable discussion was to get beyond flames and the “echo chamber” effect of like-minded people simply reinforcing the opinions of one another and to let the self-correcting mechanisms do their job in a civil way. “You hope the echo chamber effect and the fact-checking effect will balance out into a better and more nuanced set of narratives, and a more rigorously checked set of facts,” he said. But in such a sharply contentious world, “The risk is it will largely divide itself into competing narratives where what even constitutes a fact is different in different camps.”

To Xeni Jardin, an editor of BoingBoing.net, the “self-healing” quality of debate is one of the most important results of the electronic medium. “When information that is provably untrue surfaces on the Net or surfaces in discussion groups, people want to be right – they want to know the truth,” she said.

In her own blog, she said, “Sometimes people spend really a long time researching background information on an item that we post” and correct the record through comments. In the tsunami discussion on Democratic Underground, some participants continued to post farfetched theories about what caused the earthquake based on pseudoscience and conspiracy, and on Wizbang, the vituperation continued unabated, spreading even to many victims of the disaster.

Copyright 2005 The New York Times Company