Blogs And The Suppression Of Dissent

By | September 8, 2004

Do blogs suppress dissent?

Somewhat against the grain, this, but Michael Feldstein of eLearn magazine reckons blogs can “amplify and accelerate the spread of bad information that leads to bad decisions”. Looking at how stock market bubbles and fashion crazes start, Feldstein says that “the same sorts of problems are likely or even inevitable in certain kinds of online information-sharing that are typical in online education, corporate management, and even political discussion”, according to a press release issued by the magazine. Michael is an eLearn Magazine Editorial Board Member and CEO of MindWires, Inc., a knowledge management consultancy.

What happens, Michael says in the full article, is this: As a discussion develops online, other arrivals to the discussion end up influenced by the conclusions and opinions before them, hence making “decisions based on the decisions of others, discounting (or failing to develop or address) their own private information or judgment.” This leads to “a phenomenon that behavioral economists call an ‘informational cascade’, which is essentially a kind of logical trap that leads groups of perfectly bright, sensible people to participate in illogical “herding” behaviors such as stock-market bubbles and fashion crazes.”

More specifically with blogs, Michael says that the tendency of bloggers to link to other bloggers, usually done as a way of crediting them with the idea, tends to smother discussion or debate: “The very same hyper-linking impulse that makes it easy to pass along an idea with a minimum of effort also makes it easy to appear as if I’m agreeing with the post I’ve referenced when, in fact, I’m just deferring to it.”

It’s an interesting argument. For sure, I think that some hyperlinking in blogs tends towards the uncritical. The blogosphere also still a relatively small community, at least the ghettoes that concern themselves with a particular subject, and it’s perhaps less easy to disagree with someone you know or respect without offending them than if you were having a conversation with them in the pub. Indeed, the public nature of blogs — and all the online comments they attract — may have the effect of dampening debate even as it helps distribute the information to millions of others. Who wants to stick their neck out when everyone can read what you say and you can’t easily retract it?

On the other hand, there’s also plenty of evidence to suggest blogs foster a healthy discussion and if someone says something controversial, it’s likely to be challenged. It’s not always easy to see your words criticised on the Internet but once you get used to it, there’s a lot that can be learned. And while rudeness and personal attacks masquerading as debate abound, in general my experience of blogs and the comments system has been that few feel inhibited about pointing out errors or making well-reasoned counter-arguments. Or am I completely wrong?

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