Tell CBS the Blogosphere Doesn't CountGo ahead... I dare ya. John Kerry may have conceded his loss in the presidential election but the blogosphere is still abuzz with charges of e-voting machine fraud and other conspiracy theories claiming that President Bush didn't fairly (or actually) win.
One of my main criticisms of the blogosphere is that it can a haven for crackpots and conspiracists galore. Mainstream media and most reasonable Bloggers dismiss these charges, distinguishing the 2004 election's outcome from the actual hanging chad mess of 2000. Nonetheless, as blogs became a more influential voice in the run-up to this year's election, it's interesting to note how bloggers and the Internet in general continue to play a huge role in parsing through the results of this year's campaign. Wacky or not, the back-and-forth online chatter about alleged election fraud is a sign that technology's impact on democracy continues to play out.
A number of influential news organizations, including The New York Times, made it a point to delve into the online rumor-mongering: "In the space of seven days, an online market of dark ideas surrounding last week's presidential election took root and multiplied. But while the widely read universe of Web logs was often blamed for the swift propagation of faulty analyses, the blogosphere, as it has come to be known, spread the rumors so fast that experts were soon able to debunk them, rather than allowing them to linger and feed conspiracy theories. Within days of the first rumors of a stolen election, in fact, the most popular theories were being proved wrong -- though many were still reluctant to let them go." The article cited postings on CommonDreams.org and BlackBoxVoting.org.
"Ground zero in the online rumor mill, it seems, was Utah," the Times said, noting that Kathy Dopp, armed with a master's in math, posted a table of data on her www.ustogether.org Web site "comparing party registrations in each of Florida's 67 counties, the method of voting used and the number of votes cast for each presidential candidate. Ms. Dopp, along with other statisticians contributing to the site, suggested a 'surprising pattern' in Florida's results showing inexplicable gains for President Bush in Democratic counties that used optical-scan voting systems. The zeal and sophistication of Ms. Dopp's number crunching was hard to dismiss out of hand, and other Web users began creating their own bar charts and regression models in support of other theories. In a breathless cycle of hey-check-this-out, the theories -- along with their visual aids -- were distributed by e-mail messages containing links to popular Web sites and Web logs, or blogs, where other eager readers diligently passed them along."
Traffic to Dopp's site jumped from 500 to 17,000 and her findings were highlighted by some in Congress calling for a probe into voting machines, the paper said. "But rebuttals to the Florida fraud hypothesis were just as quick. Three political scientists, from Cornell, Harvard and Stanford, pointed out, in an e-mail message to a Web site that carried the news of Ms. Dopp's findings, that many of those Democratic counties in Florida have a long tradition of voting Republican in presidential elections. And while Ms. Dopp says that she and dozens of other researchers will continue to analyze the Florida vote, the suggestion of a link between certain types of voting machines and the vote split in Florida has, at least for now, little concrete support."
• The New York Times: Vote Fraud Theories, Spread By Blogs, Are Quickly Buried (Registration required)
The Washington Post weighed in with its own piece on the post-election online rumor-mongering yesterday, and like the Times, the Post made clear that "each of the claims is buoyed by enough statistics and analysis to sound plausible. In some instances, the theories are coming from respected sources -- college engineering professors fascinated by voting technology, Internet journalists, election reform activists. Ultimately, none of the most popular theories holds up to close scrutiny. And the people who most stand to benefit from the conspiracy theories -- the Kerry campaign and the Democratic National Committee (news - web sites) -- are not biting."
• The Washington Post: Latest Conspiracy Theory -- Kerry Won -- Hits the Ether (Registration required)
The Philadelphia Inquirer weighs in today with it's own look: "Armed with thousands of reports of malfunctioning voting machines, lost ballots and suspicious vote counts, they are filling the Internet and the airwaves with arguments that President Bush's victory was a fraud. Web sites and blogs are streaming headlines such as 'Votescam: The Stealing of America' and 'Evidence Mounts That the Vote Was Hacked.' Groups such as stolenelection2004.com contend that electronic voting machines were tampered with to tip the election in Bush's favor." A report in Tuesday's Atlanta Journal-Constitution said: "None of the conspiracy theorists has provided proof of widespread errors that might have changed the outcome of the election, which official tallies say Bush won with a 3.5 million popular vote margin and 286 electoral votes, 16 more than needed. Independent groups that monitored the voting found problems scattered around the country, but nothing decisive, and election officials have generally dismissed the Internet chatter. Even so, Doug Chapin, executive director of Electionline.org, a nonpartisan research group set up to study the nation's voting system, is not surprised that doubts are surfacing. After the 2000 election, he said, 'any problem is going to get noticed, no matter how small.'"
• The Philadelphia Inquirer: Some Still Fighting Election Outcome (Registration required)
• The Atlanta Journal-Constitution: Election Conspiracy Theories Persist (Registration required)
Sometimes conspiracy theories can actually influence public policy. Earlier this week, a Boston Globe noted that "with reports swirling on the Internet, six Democratic members of Congress have asked the Government Accountability Office to investigate. Leading academics have joined the fray as well, saying that the integrity and future of the nation's voting system demand a vetting of all claims."
• The Boston Globe: Internet Buzz On Vote Fraud Is Dismissed
Post-Election Online Therapy
The Washington Post's Hank Stuever wrote an essay today about how Kerry supporters have taken to Internet postings and e-mails to mourn their candidate's loss: "Forty-eight percent of the nation is still sad and upset about the defeat of John Kerry, and you know so because they won't stop forwarding the same few links, cartoons and manifestoes to you, over and over again, as if it were 1998 and the Web were still new and you cheerfully opened every e-mail you received," Stuever wrote. "The post-electoral mass CC'ing seems to reflect a new stage of grief, a regression into the old-fashioned Internet of yore: Maybe if I forward this Jesusland map along to all my friends, the election results won't feel so bad." Stuever particularly cites SorryEverybody.com, a Web site that, well, takes self-flagellation to a new level.
• The Washington Post: Post Election Blues Driven Ever FWD Into the Past (Registration required)
The San Francisco Chronicle said debunking the election conspiracy theories "isn't likely to change the minds of those on the Internet claiming election fraud, said David Emery, a San Franciscan who debunks rumors and urban legends on the popular Web site at urbanlegends.about.com. 'Any discussion of a rumor or conspiracy -- even when people debunk it -- seems to help its longevity,' Emery said."
• The San Francisco Chronicle: If It's Too Bad To Be True, It May Not Be Voter Fraud
Wired News offered some analysis of how the online discussions can have a positive and negative impact. "The academics say the intense scrutiny has been good for democracy and has highlighted the need for instituting mandatory election audits that would help catch anomalies with voting machines and restore voter confidence in results. But Stanford University professor of government Jonathan Wand said the analysis can be harmful if done improperly. 'It's important that when allegations are made that people bring to bear the correct evidence and statistical analysis to actually back it up,' Wand said. 'What is destructive is when the allegations are made and they are misconceived or implausible. That's not helping anything. But the general process of people paying attention is a very good one.'"
• Wired News: Florida E-Voting Fraud? Unlikely
Blogging The Next Race
Blogs certainly edged closer to joining the mainstream media in 2004, but that doesn't mean politicians are likely to take up the online communications form any time soon. Lest we forget that the ultimate online candidate -- Howard Dean (news - web sites) -- proved that getting buzz on the 'Net does not necessarily translate into real votes. As Wired News notes, "Many of this year's major campaigns, including both Kerry's and President Bush's, had active blogs. But to many observers, few candidates at any level used their blogs effectively to make much of a difference in reaching their constituents. Many in the blogosphere are acutely aware that most political campaigns, like most companies that have started to publish corporate blogs, have yet to discern a way to incorporate blogs in any meaningful way. And at last weekend's BloggerCon at Stanford Law School, many bloggers bemoaned the fact that most candidates are missing the boat on what could be a powerful political tool. One issue raised at BloggerCon was whether candidates' blogs need to be written by the candidates themselves to be effective. 'It's very important for campaigns to have a voice,' said Cameron Barrett, the author of the blog CamWorld."