Saturday, October 6, 2007

Corrupt bloggers: part of the dark underbelly of the Internet

Blogs and bloggers have always been romanticized as the ultimate example of freedom of expression. Citizen journalists, with fire in their belly, were expected to give their own unique perspective on events, new information that the traditional media had missed out, and a freshness of outlook and analysis. Information, we were told, would be really free, both as in unpriced and uncontrolled.

Unfortunately some corrupt bloggers are quickly turning that dream to dust. Some bloggers are putting up content on their blog posts up for sale to the corporate sector and other buyers. Their line: pay me and I will put up your news release.

Marketing communications managers in companies currently budget payments to bloggers that, depending on the popularity of the blogs, range from hefty checks to not-so-hefty checks, or even just a meal at an expensive restaurant.

“Soon after we issue a press release or make a product announcement, there are a large number of bloggers calling to discuss payments for running the story on their blogs”, said the communications manager of a leading multinational Internet company.

Why do companies pay ? Blogs are competing as news sources for the public because of their viral nature and quicker time to getting a story online. A good report helps a company, as it goes that much further, and more quickly, across cyberspace. By the same token if one of the more popular blogs ignores the news or publishes a competitor’s news item, the company that didn’t pay up stands to lose.

Bloggers are quickly realizing their importance, and some of them now demand that they be invited for press conferences, media briefings, and even company-paid junkets to exotic locations.

In an earlier posting, I had quoted Google Inc.’s president and chief Internet evangelist Vinton Cerf as saying that the Internet is a mirror to the population that uses it. “When you have a problem in the mirror you do not fix the mirror, you fix that which is reflected in the mirror”, Cerf said while rejecting regulation of the Internet.

The dark under-belly of society has moved to the Internet, but now more powerful, more viral because of the reach, and anonymity that the Internet offers.

There have been many instances through the decades of some small town journalists and publishers, and even some big city journalists and publishers, corrupted by handouts from politicians and companies. I knew a publisher who brought out his newspaper with a circulation of about 5,000 every time a company or a political party had an axes to grind through his newspaper.

But for these few black sheep, there are solid doyens of journalism, both publishers and journalists, committed to delivering to the reader a great, interesting, and accurate story.

This pattern too will likely emerge on the Internet, but the numbers are so many, that separating the wheat from the chaff is an impossible task for readers online. And there are more news and commentary blogs and product review blogs getting added each day. That is because the barriers to entry to becoming a purveyor of news and opinions has come crashing down.

If in the old days you needed to have a degree in journalism, and required an appreciation of the finer points and the ethics of the profession before you were credible, now anybody with an Internet account and access to a blog hosting site can set up a news blog.

Citizen journalism therefore is fraught with danger. I am worried not only of citizen journalism promoting corporate interests, but of citizen journalism promoting political interests, promoting disharmony between religions, at a price. Aggrieved folks may sometimes be able to slap the blog with a “cease and desist”, but the problem with such orders is that by the time your lawyer has finished drafting it out, various versions of the story may be on hundreds, nay a million other blogs.

My guess is that a confused public will eventually go back to their traditional gatekeepers of the news, like online editions of some of the established newspapers, and narrow down to a few blogs they have thoroughly vetted for quality. But until then it will be corruption and chaos in the blogosphere.

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