Monday Musing: The Blogosphere, the Islamist at The Guardian and some things for us to think about

For me, blogosphere triumphalism is usually just a minor irritant. Don’t get me wrong; I was impressed with the speed and thoroughness with which the blog realm raised questions about the authenticity of the Killian (George W. Bush’s National Guard performance) memo that cost Dan Rather his anchor. (Though, as I recall, it was The Washington Post and USA Today that really disproved the authenticity of the documents.) The sadly non-terminal case of self-love and occasional megalomania you find (“the blogosphere will punish”!) seemed more embarrassing than anything else; it also seemed harmless. But the whole Dilpazier Aslam affair has made me rethink this virtual mob.

For those of you who haven’t been following the story, Dilpazier Aslam, a 27-year old Muslim and journalist from Yorkshire, was a trainee for The Guardian. He had been recruited for a year-long apprenticeship under one of its diversity programs.

The Guardian wound up casting its net wider than it had intended. Following the June 7th bombings in London, Aslam wrote a comment on its editorial pages entitled “We rock the boat: Today’s Muslims aren’t prepared to ignore injustices“. In it, he offered some disturbing lines, but, it should be sadly noted (and with litotes, at that), not wholly uncommon ones.

“If, as police announced yesterday, four men (at least three from Yorkshire) blew themselves up in the name of Islam, then please let us do ourselves a favour and not act shocked. Shocked would also be to suggest that the bombings happened through no responsibility of our own. . . . Shocked would be to say that we don’t understand how, in the green hills of Yorkshire, a group of men given all the liberties they could have wished for could do this. . .Second- and third-generation Muslims are without the don’t-rock-the-boat attitude that restricted our forefathers. We’re much sassier with our opinions, not caring if the boat rocks or not.”

Needless to say, the implication that the suicide bombing of civilians is a “sassy” way of expressing opinions was not received well.

And in an era with declining search costs for information, it really didn’t take much time to discover that Aslam belonged to Hizb ut-Tahrir, a radical but legal Islamist group whose chief and predictably tragic-comic-scary objective appears to the reestablishment of the caliphate. (The UK Home Office considers it a “radical, but to date non-violent Islamist group”.) While waiting to undo what Attaturk wrought, Hizb, like many millenarian movements before it, occupies itself by producing conspiracy theories and aiming to be a major player in the growing world market for anti-Semitism.

The story of Aslam’s membership in Hizb was broken by Scott Burgess, a libertarian blogger who lives in London and who oddly had been beaten out for the traineeship by Aslam. (This fact is regularly mentioned in narratives of the whole affair; for my part, I’d like to say that I don’t want to imply that resentment was a factor. Aslam may have been simply brought to Burgess’ attention as a result of the consideration.) Posts from Burgess’ blog (The Daily Ablution) about Aslam, Hizb, the bombings made their way across the Internet and the media. Blogs on the left and right—Harry’s Place, Norman Geras, Andrew Sullivan, and the terrible Michelle Malkin—chimed in and called for his dismissal. And he was dismissed.

For the megalomaniacal wing of the blog realm, the dismissal “has resounded across the blogging universe like a shockwave from a supernova”. And again the blogosphere had triumphed, correcting a crime and a sin. Ablution indeed.

I recall a post, though I don’t recall exactly where, that urged the blogosphere to move into action on Aslam, which it did. And I was suddenly reminded of a mob. Not an SPQR populusque mob; but an Ox-Bow Incident mob. I had read Aslam’s piece and pieces at Hizb’s site and also thought that The Guardian should remove him (unless of course they wanted a radical Islamist journalist, in which case they should’ve come out and said it). But the blogosphere was over the top and was beginning to resemble a drunken bar fight or, rather, frenzy. Its peak (or is it trough?) may have been Dreadpundit’s following statement.

“That’s why I’m issuing a secular fatwah and asking for some loyal Briton to saw off your head and ship it to me (use Fed-Ex, please, so I can get a morning delivery, and do remember the dry ice, also, a videotape of the ‘execution’).”

Though, in fairness, he included a disclaimer in small font, consoling that he was “not really interested in receiving the head of Dilpazier Aslam, nor do I advocate any act of violence against him.”

I raise this whole affair because Richard Posner’s review (as well as my own obsession with cognitive ghettoes, the media, and segmented markets in information) in The New York Times Book Review raised some interesting, if not novel, points, related to it.

“The public’s interest in factual accuracy is less an interest in truth than a delight in the unmasking of the opposition’s errors. Conservatives were unembarrassed by the errors of the Swift Boat veterans, while taking gleeful satisfaction in the exposure of the forgeries on which Dan Rather had apparently relied, and in his resulting fall from grace. They reveled in Newsweek’s retracting its story about flushing the Koran down a toilet yet would prefer that American abuse of prisoners be concealed. Still, because there is a market demand for correcting the errors and ferreting out the misdeeds of one’s enemies, the media exercise an important oversight function, creating accountability and deterring wrongdoing. That, rather than educating the public about the deep issues, is their great social mission. It shows how a market produces a social good as an unintended byproduct of self-interested behavior.”

I’m usually wary of willy-nilly extensions of the market to questions of information—Ken Arrow pointed out a long time ago, you’d have to know the value of information already to assess whether it’s worth the cost of acquiring it, and in some cases you won’t know that until, well, you know the information. And I’m exceptionally wary of Richard Posner’s extensions of the market metaphor and market solution, mostly as a matter of taste, like when he suggested auctioning orphans. But this one, like most of what Posner writes, raises interesting questions and it worth following because he extends it (and then something else to) blogging.

“What really sticks in the craw of conventional journalists is that although individual blogs have no warrant of accuracy, the blogosphere as a whole has a better error-correction machinery than the conventional media do. The rapidity with which vast masses of information are pooled and sifted leaves the conventional media in the dust. Not only are there millions of blogs, and thousands of bloggers who specialize, but, what is more, readers post comments that augment the blogs, and the information in those comments, as in the blogs themselves, zips around blogland at the speed of electronic transmission.

This means that corrections in blogs are also disseminated virtually instantaneously, whereas when a member of the mainstream media catches a mistake, it may take weeks to communicate a retraction to the public.”

That is, the blogosphere, like the market, acts as an information aggregation mechanism.

“The model is Friedrich Hayek’s classic analysis of how the economic market pools enormous quantities of information efficiently despite its decentralized character, its lack of a master coordinator or regulator, and the very limited knowledge possessed by each of its participants.

In effect, the blogosphere is a collective enterprise – not 12 million separate enterprises, but one enterprise with 12 million reporters, feature writers and editorialists, yet with almost no costs.”

The comparison of the blogosphere with the market raises an issue that Posner didn’t fully consider, the question of norms in the market. However imperfect they may be, organizations in the market, in addition to being governed by regulations, also adhere to norms that they have developed over the long haul. There are occasional violators such as Enron, but facets like transparency and accuracy are seen as necessary for its well functioning. These norms have developed partly in response to state regulation or the threat of state regulation, but also in Hayekian fashion—a spontaneous order generated by interactions, which in turn require shared norms to effectively coordinate and execute action. Here, the “contracts” are implicit, not spelled out. And the blogopshere remains in need of them, though the only thing to be done is wait while adhering to deceny and point out when others aren’t

(I was reminded of this problem when I came across this story about the terrible John Lott on Tim Lambert’s blog, and thought that were it not for the decency of the students at the Federalist Society, it would’ve been simply two different accounts.)

Things like a Blogger’s Code of Ethics are not what I’m talking about.  Rather the norms will have to emerge out of actually practices. I hope that self-congratulation is proscribed by these norms, and if so, their emergence can’t be quick enough.  (Fafblog—my nominee for first mover/signaler of the blogoshpere’s self-disciplining mechanism—should make every instance of self-congratulation an object of ridicule.)  But more importantly, calls to gang up on someone should be seen as a “no-no”, even if it did produce the desired results in this instance.

In the meantime, I was struck in the wake of whole Aslam Affair by the feeling that here (the blogosphere) is a thing that I like in the whole but not really so much in its parts—a sort of fallacy of division. (I should clarify, that Brad de Long, Crooked Timber, Majikthise, Three-Toed Sloth and the rest of those on our links page are excluded from “parts”.) But still, blogs, and not just the blogosphere, remain an obsession.

Happy Monday.