The Echo Chamber Redux

Demosthenes has a
response up to my earlier rebuttal of his "echo chamber"
piece. He raises some good critcisms of the blogosphere in general as well as this site. Naturally enough, I have some response to his criticism…

I’m also not quite certain [Jay’s claims of] "depth and honesty" on the part of blog writers, either. because while blogs can serve as "bullshit detectors" (as much as any medium can for any other medium), that is valid only to the extent that they can detect each other’s bullshit, care to call each other on it, and even seperate facts from opinions in the first place. Remove any of these, and blogs can as easily serve as sources of disinformation as information or, more importantly, serve as sources of opinion masquerading as facts, or one-sided assertions of partisan opinion as fact. I’ve seen and linked to several examples of this, including the Jane Galt affair, that dubious "DDT is harmless" article which Glenn Reynolds accepted uncritically, my observation of MWOwatch, Max Sawicky’s InstaDebunking (and my own small contribution to that), and the presence of certain "litmus tests" that are imposed by the right to seperate the "good liberals" from the "bad liberals". As I said on my own site: "A bunch of bloggers passing around the same Krugman article and making the same weak arguments against it is not a debate".

This criticism does hit home to a certain extent. Yes, blogs do present a mixture of speculation, opinion, as well as factual reporting. However, what I feel is important to point out is that conventional media forms do this too. Quite frankly, Dan Rather is every bit as biased towards the left as Glenn Reynolds or I are biased to the right. However, I’m not trying to present myself or this site as objective journalism. The media wants to believe that they’re an unbiased source of information, yet poll after poll shows them to be dominated by leftist thought. (Part of this stems from the "I want to save the world" mentality of many journalists that makes them less skeptical about taking information from interest groups at face value.) When I refer to "honesty" in blogging, this is what I’m referring to.I will grant that there is measure of truth to Demosthenes "echo chamber" criticism of blogs. Yes, bloggers do tend to agree on many issues, but I don’t see that means that the same arguments are merely being passed around. Each blogger tends to add their own perspective on the issues, and while those perspectives to tend to come from the same general ideological space, that doesn’t mean that there isn’t debate and dissent. Granted, some bloggers do fit Demosthenes’ description, but those blogs don’t usually see the kind of traffic or attention that the big players have. Just look at the back and forth arguments between Andrew Sullivan and Jonah Goldberg about libertarianism to see how blogging can serve as a great springboard for debate. (Granted, Goldberg’s column isn’t a blog in the traditional sense, but the point still applies.)

Adding to this, of course, is the tendency of bloggers to agree with each other out of a sense of community. A blog is different than a web forum or a traditional web page- it combines both the relative immediacy and transience of something like Usenet with the relative permanence and high profile of a professional website. Getting caught in a battle between two blogs can be harsh both for the participants and for the readers in a way that is unlikely on Usenet and pretty much unthinkable on a traditional webpage, but I run across examples of these back-and-forth battles all the time. Sometimes they’re beneficial (like that Middle Eastern debate that I mentioned earlier) and sometimes they’re, well, not. (Isntapundit probably still winces when he thinks about our exchange).

Is this a claim that left-wing blogs don’t exist? Nope… look to the left, I’ve linked to a few. (I should and will link to more.. I’ve just been putting it off because there will be a ton of them). There is, however, no comparison to the tight interconnected community that the right takes for granted (as well as the readily-available partisan sources of information online), at least as of yet. (And when I say right, I don’t simply mean conservatism, but libertarianism as well). More to the point, as I’ve said time and again, is that the ideas of the right drive the debate both because of numbers, demographics, and the simple fact that the left is far, far more divided and troubled than the right right now. This isn’t merely an "internet thing", but it exists, and it’s closer to Sunstein’s vision than many are prepared to admit.

I have to agree with Demosthenes assessment of the nature of blogging as a medium, but I differ him on the nature of the way bloggers operate. Especially as bloggers find their voice, they tend to disagree with each other more and more. The debates over Bush and the so-called "rope-a-dope" strategy, the former Sgt. Stryker’s criticisms of some war-bloggers indicate that bloggers are willing to challenge each other if they see necessary.

As to the idea that there’s a tightly connected right-wing community on-line, there also a good amount of truth to that. However, as I’ve maintained before, much of the traditional media’s gatekeepers have prevented a lot of conservative voices from being brought out. This basically forces conservative and libertarian thinkers to stake out whatever ground they can, and the blogosphere was a natural place for them to settle. Now that the Left has begun to join the blogging revolution more fully, I think we’ll start to see that ideological imbalance lessen over time.

(Heck, look at Instapundit. Sunstein was talking about how people would only read sites and look at sources that they agreed with, and who does Glenn readily link and cite? Either right-wing bloggers, partisan "think-tanks" like TechCentralStation or the Cato Institute, right-wing writers such as the staff at NRO, and right-wing mainstream media sources like the Wall Street Journal opinion page. And this is the most popular link source in Blogdom. Sunstein was righter than he knew.)

The New York Times, CNN, the BBC, and ArabNews are all oft-cited sources in blogging, but they’re hardly right wing. The fact is, I believe that there’s more than enough evidence that most of the traditional media other than the WSJ, FoxNews, and a few others lean leftwards to a significant degree. As I mentioned in my first rebuttal, right-wingers can hardly help but hear the opposite side. In fact, without knowing have an opposition to critique, I don’t believe the blogosphere would survive for very long.

Edit: upon reading some of Jay’s page, I’ve got to wonder whether there’s a little bit of "cheering for the home team" here as well. Jay’s blog is well written, but he certainly wears his ideology on his sleeve, and I’ve noticed that what outside observers refer to as the "Echo Chamber" insiders think of simply as community… after all, it’s their own opinions being reflected and reinforced! He also seems to subscribe to the notion of a "liberal media" that I have a lot of problems with and only avoid dismissing out of hand because of my respect for the other, intelligent opinions of those who believe that it actually exists. This doesn’t affect the quality of his postings, but it’s something to keep in mind. (And yes, I’m aware that I may be overemphasizing the hegemony that may exist. No analyst should accept his own analysis uncritically. That’s part of the reason I’ve been looking for examples of both the phenomenon that I’m talking about and counter-examples… because even if we don’t have parity yet, I do think we’re slowly moving in that direction.)

Well, I’ll admit that he does have me there. But then again, I fully admit that I do tend to wear my ideology on my sleeve, although I don’t consider myself to be so ideologically rigid that I’d never consider changing some of my positions. Again, Demosthenes and I agree on quite a few basic points. I do, however, think that there is a dominant liberal media bias out there, although conservatism has made some significant footholds. I also agree that the current ideological homogeneity of the blogosphere is probably going to change as more left-wing bloggers enter the scene and start making arguments that help challenge the status quo. (As Demosthenes certainly has done!) Yet I don’t see the blogosphere as the kind of "echo chamber" he describes. Bloggers tend to be an opinionated bunch, and while most bloggers see eye to eye on many issues, we don’t necessarily always parrot the party line.

Where we part company is with the issue of how the blogosphere functions as a part of political discourse. I disagree with Sustein when he says that the Internet reduces political discourse. While there are some valid criticisms of the blogosphere, I think than even in a community in which there’s a high amount of agreement, there is still thoughtful and cogent analysis going on. Granted, the blogosphere is hardly an unbiased media form, but it is one of the few that acknowledges its biases up front and provides a valuable counterweight to the traditional media.

One thought on “The Echo Chamber Redux

  1. To some extent, I agree with criticism of Sunstein to the same extent I agree with criticism of many Internet “visionaries”… they tended to make these wild prophecies about what the Internet will become and ignore the day-to-day realities of the medium. Most of the technologies that Sunstein I think believed would become common (like heavy intelligent filtering and intelligent agents) are nowhere to be found. The filtering is usually on behalf of the people themselves. 😀

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.