Friday, August 15, 2008

The "Wisdom of Crowds" Meets the Madness of Brute Force

Eugene Robinson's latest column for the Washington Post, "The Original Swift-Boater is Back," is now available through Truthdig. The subject of that title is Jerome Corsi:

Corsi would be known as just another visitor from the outer fringe if he had not been the co-author of “Unfit for Command,” the book that slimed Kerry’s exemplary record as a Swift boat commander in Vietnam. The allegations in that book were discredited, but not before they had been amplified by the right-wing echo chamber to the point where they raised questions in some voters’ minds—perhaps enough to swing the election.

The substance of the new column, as we all can guess, is that Corsi is at it again:

Now Corsi, in what he acknowledges is an attempt “to keep Obama from getting elected,” has come out with a book that similarly tries to turn one of Obama’s strengths—his compelling life story—into a liability.

Corsi’s new volume of vitriol, “The Obama Nation,” seeks to smear Obama as a “leftist” and add fuel to the false and discredited rumor that he is secretly a radical Muslim, or at least has “extensive connections to Islam.” The liberal Web site Media Matters has already demonstrated that the book is riddled with factual errors—for example, Corsi repeats the charge, thoroughly disproved, that Obama was in church for one of the Rev. Jeremiah Wright’s most incendiary sermons. But the point isn’t to tell the truth. The point is to repeat the lie and thus give it new life.

Corsi’s dirty work is more difficult this time because Obama has already written his life story in the autobiographical “Dreams From My Father.” Since he can’t reveal anything about Obama’s past, Corsi is reduced to reinterpretation—or, at times, invention.

None of this should be particularly surprising. However, in the interest of continuing my own argument concerning the dialectical tension between the "wisdom of crowds" philosophy of Wikipedia and the WWE Friday Night Smackdown! conduct of Wikipedia contributors, I found Robinson's following paragraph particularly interesting:

It sounds like the kind of book that should quickly be consigned to the remainder bin, but—unsurprisingly—it is already a best-seller. The Washington Post and other news organizations have noted that this and similar anti-Obama books win the imprimatur of best-seller status by being “pushed by conservative book clubs that buy in bulk to drive up sales.”

This was then followed by a tidbit from "troublesum" in a Truthdig comment on Robinson's column:

Walmart has Corsi’s book promenently displayed in their book sections as well as another book entitled, “The Truth about Obama” which should be called, “Lies about Obama.” On the other hand you have to search to find the two books written by Obama - they are usually on the bottom shelves.

Thus, through the "wisdom of crowds," the systematic distribution of noise about Barack Obama is doing an excellent job of trumping the signal, regardless of the efforts of the Obama camp to raise the amplitude of the signal. Perhaps the real difference between the "wisdom of crowds" and the "madness of crowds" involves not just the level of signal over noise but also a subjective preference of signal over noise. My guess is that Corsi's strategy is based on this premise; and it is, at the least, ironic that he is doing such a good job of turning a "Web 2.0 meme" to his malicious advantage by doing such a good job of playing to the preference of noise over signal.

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