Policy Innovations Digital Magazine (2006-2016): Commentary: Searching for the Ethical Blogger

Oct 29, 2007

We were wondering to ourselves the other day exactly who was the first to utter the familiar phrase, "With great power comes great responsibility." We discovered that it comes from the original Spider-Man comic. Where did we dig up this bit of trivia? Not in Bartlett's Familiar Quotations. We read it on a blog.

The quote is commonly considered a paraphrase of Winston Churchill, a far likelier source for inspiring rhetoric. In remarks delivered at Westminster College in Fulton, Missouri on March 5, 1946, Churchill said, "The United States stands at the pinnacle of world power. This is a solemn moment for the American democracy. For with primacy in power is joined an awe-inspiring accountability for the future." He went on to describe the Iron Curtain then descending across Europe.

But wait just a minute. It turns out that the provenance of "great power, great responsibility" is highly debated, with some people suggesting it has biblical origins. Here is a well-developed blog post on the subject.

We mention our small quest because it is a good example of how blogs can be useful. At their best, blogs are revolutionizing public access to information. Recipes, child rearing tips, the weather, celebrity gossip, political commentary, first-person accounts of ground combat—it's all available for use and reference, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

At their worst, blogs can act as pernicious sources of biased, incomplete, unsafe, or incorrect information. In some cases they have been used as unaccountable smear devices for lobbyists and political action committees. And, of course, these too are available for use and reference, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

It will come as little surprise to readers of Policy Innovations that blogs have evolved into a powerful sociopolitical force capable of shaping opinion, breaking news, and giving a voice to the voiceless. We hope to harness some of that power with our own blog, Fairer Globalization. But we are mindful of the fact that with great power comes great responsibility. And so we are increasingly interested in whether an explicit code of conduct should govern the blogosphere.

How will the new technologies of electronic media impact the political space? How can society benefit to the greatest degree from the free expression made possible by blogs? What role will the blogoshpere play in shaping foreign policy issues during the current election cycle and in general? Should blogs be afforded the same influence, rights, and responsibilities as journalists? What are the ethics of the relationship between a blogger and a source? What personal information, affiliations, or motivations should bloggers be required to disclose? How can we inspire people to behave ethically online so they don't spoil it for the rest of us, forcing governments to step in and regulate?

These are vital questions, and over the next year or so we will work to answer them in a systematic, coherent, and useful way.

This endeavor is timely in light of the upcoming presidential contest. All of the leading candidates have websites and many of them have their own blogs. No candidate can afford to ignore the blogosphere as a medium for voter outreach and message-building. From the point of view of a campaign manager or communications director, a supportive post by a sympathetic blogger could be worth more than a television commercial in terms of fund-raising and good will.

Similarly, a negative post by a normally sympathetic blogger—whether well researched and legitimate, or mere rumor—could jump from the blogosphere to the mainstream media, causing widespread damage to the candidate's meticulously crafted image. Talk about an ethically challenging environment.

The blogosphere could also affect another lamentable trend in American politics. Speaking recently at the Carnegie Council, legal scholar Cass Sunstein referred to several studies showing that when like-minded people talk to one another they tend to become more confident in their views. Anyone who follows online discussions, particularly political ones, will be familiar with this phenomenon.

As Sunstein put it, corroboration breeds extremism. Blogs amplify this perennial human characteristic. If the 2008 election and subsequent ones are to avoid the damaging effects of group polarization, we must be on the lookout for ways to mitigate its effects.

Establishing a universally recognized set of blog ethics may be harder than it seems. Several sets of blogging ethics are already circulating the Internet. One such code by Rebecca Blood is modeled on the journalistic tradition. She views blogs primarily as information media, and her approach requires that questionable sources and conflicts of interest be disclosed. Meanwhile, Martin Kuhn's Code of Blogging Ethics focuses on the science of the Internet, highlighting the role of blogs as human connectors, privileging interactivity.

Which ethical standard should govern the blogosphere? Is it necessary to choose, or can multiple codes coexist? How can we create a set of norms that benefits human organizations to the greatest degree possible?

The Carnegie Council has teamed up with Brown University's Watson Institute for International Studies, Demos (UK), and Oxford University's Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism to try to answer these questions. We have set up a blog to get the discussion going. Check it out and post your thoughts:


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