In the normal, everyday world we recognize certain kinds of behavior as
criminally damaging to individuals and to society. Libel and
fraud are among the most pernicious of actions. A person’s career
and contributions is undermined by libel in an near
instant. The fundamental trust necessary for personal
relationships and commerce is profoundly shaken by fraud.
But somehow in media space, and in its subset, cyberspace, we allow
libel and fraud to go largely unaddressed. And in the political
arena of media and cyberspace, we allow it almost unbridled freedom.
The result is a politics of libel–“negative campaigning” is the nice
word for it. And a politics of fraud–“getting the facts wrong.”
Now, I understand that there are serious concerns about government
involvement in politics, concerns about government repression of
political speech. But on the other hand, with little or no
government involvement, we have evolved a very damaging, unsafe,
unsatisfactory situation. Voters are cynical, campaigns are
fundamentally libelous and fraudulent. Honest, kind people are
driven out of the democratic process.
I think we need a serious national debate about crimes in the political
arena. I think we need to consider how we might define crimes,
and enforce the law in this sphere. And we need to start this debate now–before this summer’s campaigning.
I don’t think watchdog groups
and citizen action can hold the line anymore–particularly not with the
speed and micro-targeting of new forms of media. The candidates
have “rapid response networks” but these don’t seem to be doing the
for example, targets individual voters for phone calls that seem like
unbiased polls, but the “polls” are designed to sew doubts about
candidates. Many believe that push polls were used against Howard
Dean in Iowa, but the allegation is very hard to investigate, much less
Even television ads, when used in negative, targeted ways by disguised
hits fast, hard, and is very difficult to detect and counter.
This, of course, is the nature of libel in the everyday world.
For example, the intent of the
notorious Osama television ad (view the ad here) is only now being fully understood because its
perpetrator has decided to brag about his prowess. This situation
illustrates both the stealth nature of these abuses, and the brazen
stance of the abusers. The abusers are more likely to gain accolades
(e.g. speak at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard) than to be
criticised or charged with a crime. And yet almost any observer
recognizes the harm caused to individuals and society by these forms of abuse.