Hurrah For Buzzfeed: Open-Source Works In Politics Too
You would have had to have been pretty isolated to have missed the flap over Buzzfeed's release of the 35-page dossier of incredulity last Tuesday. CNN, although not quite reporting the same thing as Buzzfeed, stuck their foot right in it when their usual speculation-and-gossip segments - "expert commentary" - lent credence to it. President-elect Trump himself publicly rebuked CNN last Wednesday: "You're fake news!"
Since Mark Dice is a better gloater than I am, here's his take on the fake:
But To Get Serious: Buzzfeed Did Us A Service
As the above video shows, Buzzfeed got a lot of flak for publishing the raw documents - even though the accompanying article said plainly that none of it was verified and an updated cover article said that certain parts of it were false. Although Mark Dice was his usual entertaining self, I have to disagree with his and others' roasting of Buzzfeed. They did us a service by publishing the raw dossier along with the important disclaimer. In so doing, they demonstrated the power of the open-source ethos: the power of crowdsourcing.
Those documents were circulated widely amongst anti-Trump insiders during the campaign, some of whom tried to peddle 'em to mainstream media outlets. The only outlet that bit was Mother Jones, who published a piece about them on October 31st. The author, David Corn, confirmed this week that his Hallowe'en writeup was about the same dossier Buzzfeed published.
I'll stick my neck out and say it again: I'm glad that Buzzfeed did so. We got a chance to look at the exact write-ups that certain anti-Trump folks were shopping around. Seeing the dossier for ourselves gave us a chance to see what they considered credible, or exciting enough to spread around. To be frank, those insiders glomming onto that dossier do not make them look good. In fact, it makes them look rather credulous.
We need to know that; certainly, American citizens need to know that. It's been a great antidote - hopefully an inoculator - against blindly accepting the conclusions of experts who have mutual-admiration-societied their way into an echo chamber.
Their common blind spot is strikingly like the blind spots that surface in a team of professional programmers working on a closed-source security solution.
Why Open-Source Works: Fresh Sets Of Eyes
[ Image from here, tho' differently contextualized ;) ]
Open source software is better software in tricky areas where the fatal bugs are also subtle. There's only so much an individual can do, and there's only so much a team can do. The best defense against subtle and imperilling bugs is a fresh set of eyes: outsiders' eyes that do not share the common assumptions and common blind spots shared by even a top-notch team. In at least one case, a new set of eyes poking around where everyone else thought things were fine revealed a new class of bugs in Linux's venerable Bash shell.
(Image from here.)
As a result, the Linux community owes a big debt of gratitude to the previously unknown Stéphane Chazelas. His eyes were the fresh eyes that spotted a hole that others overlooked. Most likely, the other pros had faith in Bash because it's a venerable app which (presumably) had had all its flaws fixed many years ago. M. Chazelas' fresh set of eyes showed this was not the case.
Similarly, our fresh set of eyes on that 35-page dossier revealed that it was rickety - and that certain parts of it were outright ludicrous. Why did our eyes spot it when the insiders' couldn't?
In a word, anchoring. When we saw the raw report, we has no idea who had wrote it. That's what made our eyes the fresh set of eyes. The insiders who passed it around knew that the reports had been written by Christopher Steele, an ex-MI6 agent who had landed a real fish when his private intelligence work uncovered Russian shenanigans in FIFA.
Because those insiders knew that his previous work had unearthed a scandal, they were anchored into believing that Mr Steele had landed another scoop. They were anchored against seeing the flaws in the Trump dossier. They didn't even think to ask if Mr Steele had been fingered as the whistleblower by the Russians and then strung along subsequently, like a Washington gossip columnist that unearths a real scandal but gets pegged as a useful snitch after his whistleblowing.
Doubts like the above didn't occur to them because they were anchored. Fortunately, we did see the flaws - including the outlandishness - because we weren't anchored. We had a saving naivete that allowed us to judge the dossier on its merits, rather than by the repute of its author.
Open Source Works In Politics Too
The main criticism of Buzzfeed by the journo flak-throwers was that Buzzfeed Ben shouldn't have published a raw document that the ordinary guy couldn't verify for him- or herself. That criticism proved to be unfounded, because each readers of it was not in an isolation booth. The dossier proved to be easy to debunk thanks to the crowdsourcing that comes with a fresh new set of eyes. It wasn't long before Michael Cohen, Trump's chief counsel, proved that an allegation about him was false. On that August 29th in which Mr. Cohen was purportedly in Prague to meet with the Russkies, he wasn't even in the Czech Republic! No, he was in Los Angeles meeting with the basketball coach of the USC team his son was on.
It didn't take long for crowdsourcing to work its magic as the crowd of fresh eyes was joined by a coterie of journalists looking the dossier over for themselves. The bulk of them found it wanting.
So, open-source-style crowdsourcing did what it did best: finding bugs that the "core team" missed. That's exactly what happened to that openly published dossier.
It certainly was in debunking a shoddy set of reports that had bamboozled the insiders who had given it an unrated credibility! Open publication works.
(Image from here.)
Conclusion: Buzzfeed did the right thing by publishing the raw dossier.
Crowdsourcing worked again!
(P.S. If you're a regular on Twitter, I'd deeply appreciate it if you tweeted this post too poor ol' Buzzfeed Ben. I think he needs the love. Thanks!)
(Oh yes: image from here.)
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Crowdsourced news is becoming really popular now that anyone can start up a blog or YouTube channel to analyze the news and even have fans participate in sharing articles and their thoughts. The name "alt-media" is being thrown around a lot but open source news as you describe fits in really well with what's going on there. Interesting stuff.
Thanks! Yes, it is interesting and also important. One war, the Spanish-American war, was started over an item - the explosion of the U.S.S. Maine - that was given a spin which was at least arguably fake news.
If open publication and crowdsourcing didn't step in, whi knows how far this Russia flap would have gone?