Can Politicians Outsmart the Internet?

I was watching The Daily Show with Jon Stewart at home last night, and Jon Stewart's guest for that show was Dan Rather, the former CBS Evening News anchor who had come to promote his new book. They talked about Rather's childhood, the perception of a liberal bias in the media, and how politicians have outsmarted TV.

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I would like to take a brief moment to discuss what Rather had to say about liberal bias in the media. He said that in his time as a TV journalist, he found that among his colleagues, there was an even split between those who identified as being politically conservative and those who identified as being politically liberal; he further explained away the idea of liberal bias in the news media as being the creation of the conservative journalists who were really just admitting that not all journalists were conservative like them. Yet I can't help but ask, why is it only conservative journalists who raise the issue of a liberal bias? If there was an essentially equal distribution of political viewpoints in Rather's time, shouldn't there have been an equal stink raised by liberal journalists about a conservative bias? Or were conservative journalists more likely to feel victimized for their political beliefs even before FOX News came on the scene?

I do agree with Rather that today's journalists have no guts, and that is because politicians have bent TV journalism to suit their wills. And I think that if there does exist a liberal bias in TV news, then it has evolved to reflect this as well. For instance, it has recently become known that Walter Cronkite was way more unabashedly liberal than anyone could have imagined. He used his liberal bias to actually ask tough questions of politicians with whom he disagreed. Now, many journalists like the majority of those on CNN use their liberal bias to ask stupid, uninformative "gotcha" questions just to make conservative politicians look bad to boost ratings; for a concrete example, see Wolf Blitzer trying to trap Mitt Romney a few months ago by asking him really silly questions about the movie The Hunger Games.

But the bigger question is, can politicians bend the Internet similarly to TV and print media? I think not. The Internet really is fundamentally different from TV and print media because it is a two-way medium, whereas TV and print are one-way media. Hence, TV and print can be used as mouthpieces for politicians or journalists with an agenda, and no one can really do anything about that except for perhaps writing letters to the editor. The Internet has a far more diverse set of viewpoints than TV and print could ever have just because it is open to anyone and everyone to publish anything and everything, rather than being restricted to a particular set of journalists. I mean, the fact that I can write this up on my own blog and have other people see it, leave their own comments, and possibly write their own blog posts in response rather than me simply disagreeing in my own head after watching that interview on TV shows how truly different the Internet is. Sure, politicians could manipulate the New York Times, the Washington Post, and other mainstream news publications that have online sites, but they can't possibly begin to manipulate every single online news source out there, because so many of them are from alternative, nontraditional sources of news.

I think the best example of how politicians will continue to be powerless against the Internet until they have a deep working understanding of how it works comes in the SOPA debate that happened many months ago. There, politicians seemed to take pride in their ignorance of how the Internet works, and for once, that totally backfired on their efforts to massively censor it. The traditional news sources by and large simply parroted the words coming out of politicians' mouths about SOPA, but people knew better that time because the tech companies (of all sizes) behind the websites people use frequently showed exactly why SOPA would be so harmful. Furthermore, alternative news sources, especially technology-related news sites that were not beholden to any politicians or political parties, had excellent news pieces about why SOPA would severely curtail the goings-on of the Internet. Through these efforts, thousands upon thousands of people petitioned Congress and the President to stop SOPA, and only after politicians realized the magnitude of the backlash did SOPA and PIPA stall and die.

Another way that politicians will never be able to outsmart the Internet lies in the Streisand effect. Most Internet users route around restrictions by any means possible on the Internet. Before the Internet, if a politician said or did something controversial or embarrassing, that politician could hope to survive politically by manipulating the TV and print news media to downplay its significance or, more directly, expunge mentions of the incident from the media. Now, however, if a politician tries that and attempts to remove controversial or embarrassing material from the Internet, users will simply copy and reupload said material elsewhere. The name for the term comes from the time when Barbra Streisand's house was accidentally shown in some news piece. When Streisand tried to have it removed from the Internet, users simply copied and uploaded that picture to even more news sites, so the effort to have it removed was completely counterproductive in that it had the exact opposite effect of what was intended. Thus, as long as politicians believe that they can manipulate the Internet in the same way that they have manipulated TV and print news media, the Internet will always outsmart politicians.

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