Thursday, March 29, 2007

Rosie O'Donnell and 9/11

On Digg today was a link to a story about Rosie O'Donnell and how she "is certainly not backing away from her public stance about 9/11, and this morning on The View went on a 9 minute rant about the many questions surrounding the attack, reaching around 30 million viewers in the process." For those interested, the Digg link can be found here

I'm not writing to comment on Rosie or her views, nor am I interested in debating whether or not 9/11 was "an inside job" (quote from various users on the Digg forums). What I am interested in talking about is the impact of the Internet and "web 2.0" sites like Digg on freedom of expression and society at large.

As some people reading this know, I live in Canada. Canada, much like our southern neighbours, puts a very high importance on the freedom to express what we want, how we want, when we want. So much so, that we enshrine it in the highest laws of the land.

However, there is a pricetag attached to that freedom. There has always been, and always will be, people who fall victim to "popular theory". "Everybody says this is the case, therefore it must be the case". There's even a name for this form of reasoning: "Argumentum ad populum", which is latin for "appeal to the people". Sounds nice, doesn't it? After all, aren't the "people" the best decider of truth, justice, and what's right and wrong? Isn't that what democracy is all about?

I am a very big proponent of freedom on the Interent. I believe very strongly that regulation of content online is a very bad idea. I believe everyone, whether they are the Prime Minister of a country, or a "bum" living in the streets, has equal right to express him/herself as they see fit.

However, seeing stuff like what is becoming increasingly common on sites like Digg, really makes me question the wisdom of that position. Flaming has been a part of Internet discussion for as long as I can remember, but it seems to me that the world is increasingly becoming confrontational in argument. The goal in most online discussions now seems to be to silence the other guy, rather than make your points in a reasoned, logical manner.

Digg takes this to a new level. For those unfamiliar with Digg, how it basically works is that stories are posted, and people either "digg them" (ie vote that they are good), or "bury" them (vote that they are bad). The same digg up/digg down scheme works for comments in the forums. The idea is that rather than having a central, authoritarian, heirarchical entity telling us what is good and bad, we now have the "people", that arbiter of truth and justice, telling us what is good and bad. No longer do we have Fox News telling us only those stories which fit its republican-biased views, now we have Joe Blow truly empowered to tell us what's really important. No more censorship of the stories that should be told.

The problem of course is that in practice, it only takes a small minority of people to essentially silence the opposing view. Reading the forum attached to the Rosie O'Donnell story, most of the comments which are "dugg up" are ones which support Rosie's position. The ones that are "dugg down" are those which don't support Rosie's position.

This seems to fly in the face of what most philosophers and academics believe is the way to arrive at truth -- reasoned debate from both sides. Since the "anti-rosie" comments are dugg down, nobody sees them, thus only one side of the issue is represented. While I suppose this is democratic, it is far from ideal, as essentially you have "Argumentum ad populum" again, which if you clicked the Wikipedia link, you'll know is actually a common fallacy in arguments.

I sometimes wonder what effect this will have long-term on the political landscape. Will elections in the future be decided by discussions that take place on Internet forums? Will those politicians who can best make use of web technology have a distinct advantage over less technically-saavy (but more reasonable) opponents? Is this a good thing or a bad thing?

Okay, I guess that's enough of a rant for today. As always, comments are welcomed and appreciated (after all, I want to know what the "people" think).... ;)

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