Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Blogging socialite

Kind of an interesting story that includes social media, class, bad journalism, privacy, bad behaviors, elitism, inefficiency of the law, in-group/out-group outrage, and communication. From the Washington Post, They trashed their wedding photographer over a $125 fee, so a jury told them to pay her $1million by Avi Selk. It is, in the Washington Post's telling, a modern day version of a traditional morality tale and human interest story.

Basically a socially powerful "high-society" (aka nouveau riche) blogger deliberately sets out to destroy her wedding photographer's business because the blogger hadn't read her own contract, a contract that was an industry norm. Blogger succeeds in closing the working woman's business. Brought to court under a defamation charge, the blogging socialite loses and is ordered to pay $1 million. There is an open question as to whether the woman whose photography business was destroyed will ever collect.

The blogger leveraged her position to drive local media coverage. Regrettably all the original local journalism (from NBC) misreported the facts and NBC eventually had to amend and correct their reporting, by which time the damage was done.

The meta aspect of this is a great illustration of Michael Crichton's Gell-Mann Amnesia Effect. From Michael Crichton:
Briefly stated, the Gell-Mann Amnesia effect is as follows. You open the newspaper to an article on some subject you know well. In Murray's case, physics. In mine, show business. You read the article and see the journalist has absolutely no understanding of either the facts or the issues. Often, the article is so wrong it actually presents the story backward—reversing cause and effect. I call these the "wet streets cause rain" stories. Paper's full of them.

In any case, you read with exasperation or amusement the multiple errors in a story, and then turn the page to national or international affairs, and read as if the rest of the newspaper was somehow more accurate about Palestine than the baloney you just read. You turn the page, and forget what you know.

That is the Gell-Mann Amnesia effect. I’d point out it does not operate in other arenas of life. In ordinary life, if somebody consistently exaggerates or lies to you, you soon discount everything they say. In court, there is the legal doctrine of falsus in uno, falsus in omnibus, which means untruthful in one part, untruthful in all. But when it comes to the media, we believe against evidence that it is probably worth our time to read other parts of the paper. When, in fact, it almost certainly isn’t. The only possible explanation for our behavior is amnesia.
We are reading the Washington Post, a newspaper which has had to correct, amend, or retract many major articles over the past six months. Their capacity for accurate reporting is in question. So, from a questionable source, we are reading their account about another media company's misreporting. And we are expecting this final report to be different from all the others and to be accurate.

When NBC initially reported the story of the sleezy wedding photographer ripping off the high-society blogger, they generated thousands of angry readers (digital mob) doing their best to close the wedding photographer's business. Now the Washington Post is reporting the story of the high-society blogger who bullies a working woman out of business, generating thousands of reader/commenters (digital mob) condemning the socialite. One set of events, two sets of reporting, two different conclusions, two angry mobs seeking to exact punishment on someone they suspect of Double-Plus Bad Behavior.

The irony is the readers of the Washington Post have the advantage of seeing the damage done by the first, misinformed, digital mob as a consequence of the original faulty reporting. Despite that as a cautionary tale, the WP readers assume that the Washington Post must have it right this time, unlike NBC before, and therefor the outrage of the digital mob is now justified. Gell-Mann Amnesia in action. Where's the truth?

I am guessing that the Washington Post does indeed have a reasonable representation of the facts. But with its own history of repeated and extreme misreporting and the example of the other mainstream media company having let itself be manipulated into representing only a single side of the facts, I would have thought that most readers would be cautious of leaping in to condemn to blogging socialite. But no, the mob will have its sacrifice.

In a complex interconnected society where communication has consequences, we do not appear to have reliable norms about accuracy and precision of reporting, critical thinking on the side of content consumers, and a legal system that has a hard time exacting consequences on damaging behavior. My suspicion is that no matter what we are able to do with technology, the limiting factor will continue to be human behavior.

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