Red Rock Eater Digest Most Recent Article: Mon, 18 Aug 2003
[That Al Gore claimed to have invented the Internet has got to be the
most successful flat-out lie since, well, the last one.  I swear that
I see it repeated in the media at least once a day.  For example:

  Who's the real Al Gore?  Attempts to answer that question expose
  a peculiar tone deafness and low-stakes dishonesty.  Gore says
  he invented the Internet instead of saying, truthfully, that he
  pushed technological research.

This is from a book review in the 3/26/00 Washington Post.  What's so
striking is the projection: here are all of these people telling lies
about Al Gore, while pretending that Al Gore is the liar.  Of course
it's hard to find the dividing line between conscious lying -- people
who know that something is false but say it anyway -- and the mere
spreading of rumors -- also known as the media echo chamber.  How
does it work?  Well, in this case the starting-point is clear enough.
To find it, fire up Google <http://www.google.com/> and type in "Gore
invented Internet".  Mostly you will find the downstream version of
the rumor: comments that simply presuppose that Gore had made such a
claim.  But you will also find an ideological hit-piece on Wired News:

  http://www.wired.com/news/news/politics/story/18390.html

This article repays close reading.  It argues, for example, that Gore
cannot reasonably take credit for the Internet because ARPANET was
invented years before he entered Congress.  That a Wired reporter
could confuse ARPANET with the Internet is disappointing to say the
least.  Yet this same argument appears in a press release from Dick
Armey's office the same day:

   http://www.politechbot.com/p-00285.html

That was echo number one.

Other common tricks are on display.  The Wired article suggests that
Gore is ignorant of Internet technology on the petty grounds that he
once pronounced "router" as "rooter", and the vast evidence that he
does understand the technology and its significance is not reported.
The question of Gore's credit for the Internet is not submitted to
someone who was actually there, like Dave Farber or Joe Traub, but to
a guy from a Republican think tank.  That guy's quote is so twisted
that I don't have room here to describe its full complexity.  Read it
for yourself.

The original Wired article quotes Gore's famous words and glosses
them as claiming to be "father of the Internet" and "took credit for
the Internet".  But the word "invented" does not appear in the text.
(Nor does it appear in the keywords in the HTML source code.  So why
does it show up in a search for "Gore invented Internet"?)  Although
my search facilities are not the best, I cannot find any use of the
word "invented" in the media until it appears in another Wired News
article 12 days later:

  http://www.wired.com/news/politics/0,1283,18655,00.html

This article reads in part as follows:

  Al Gore's timing was as unfortunate as his boast.  Just as
  Republicans were beginning to eye the 2000 presidential race
  in earnest, the vice president offered up a whopper of a tall
  tale in which he claimed to have invented the Internet.

This is an important part of the echo-chamber effect.  Start with a
fact, then circulate a paraphrase of that fact that makes it sound
slightly damning without actually falsifying it.  Then once that
paraphrase becomes widely circulated, circulate a paraphrase of the
paraphrase that sounds even more damning.  Repeat.  In this case,
many paraphrases were circulated.  Wired, for example, summarized
the original article as follows:

  Vice President Gore tells a reporter the Internet was his idea.
  Nice try, Al.

The first few paraphrases, then, were tendentious and polemical,
exaggerated and misleading, but one hesitates to call them "lies".
Gore made clear that the actions he took on behalf of the Internet
were in the context of his Congressional service; he is clearly taking
credit for legislative initiatives, and in fact he frequently used
the word "Initiative" when naming his proposals.  It's only when we
get to the word "invented" that we cross into the territory of clear-
cut falsehood.  The word "invented" suggests technical work, and the
suggestion is that Al Gore claims to have done the technical work
behind the Internet.  That's just not true.  And once that falsehood
entered the media echo chamber, there was no stopping it.  "Al Gore
claimed to have invented the Internet" is a fun thing to say, and it
can spread far and wide without the evidence or context following it.
Look at the Washington Post quote that I introduced at the outset:

  Who's the real Al Gore?  Attempts to answer that question expose
  a peculiar tone deafness and low-stakes dishonesty.  Gore says
  he invented the Internet instead of saying, truthfully, that he
  pushed technological research.

Wired might pretend that "invented" is a reasonable paraphrase of
Gore's words.  That would be, as we say mock-euphemistically when
we're talking about Al Gore, a "stretch".  But this quote explicitly
draws the distinction between pushing legislatively for research
and inventing the thing as a technical matter, admits that the former
is true, and yet claims that Gore said the latter and not the former.
There's no possible excuse here: whether he investigated the facts for
himself or simply passed along a rumor, the author is projecting his
own "low-stakes dishonesty" onto Gore.

These echo-chamber falsehoods are useful diagnostic tools.  They're
like radioactive tracers injected into the system.  When someone is
paid to express opinions in the media, we tend to assume that they
have a privileged access to the facts, when in reality they often
have no more information than the rest of us: being busy people,
they scan the headlines on the Washington Post on their way into the
studio.  Yet their aura of authority powers the echo chamber, so that
even an obvious falsehood (e.g., that liberals control the media) can
be repeated so often that doubters can be certified insane.

This is not, of course, an isolated case.  Remember the one about Al
Gore falsely claiming to have inspired the novel "Love Story"?  And
the author vehemently denying that what Gore said was true?  And Gore
admitting that he had been making it up?  Well, that's all a lie too.
All of it.  Really.  See <http://www.dailyhowler.com/h120699_1.html>.
If this were an isolated example then I'd put it down to randomness.
But no: it's absolutely systematic, and yet it goes almost unremarked.
The country is going nuts.

What causes the echo chamber?  It's partly just laziness, of course.
The Neanderthals probably developed bigger brains so they could spread
gossip.  But it's not just that.  The echo chamber of the electronic
media really has gotten worse in my lifetime.  The reasons are many:

networks, each with a few shows.  Now you have cable.  And the more
talkers you have, the more opportunity you have for echoes.

to opine off the time of their heads, or it can pay a real reporter to
spend days and weeks digging up facts.  Talk is cheap, and the cheap
talkers inevitably recycle stuff they read in the paper or see on CNN.

of 24-hour journalism presents them with pressures to break stories
before they're really reported.  So rumors get injected into the
media bloodstream, and then they get spread around before anyone has
a chance to recheck them.  (See Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel, Warp
Speed: America in the Age of Mixed Media, Century Foundation, 1999.)

to come up with factoids, and then you've got your professional and
amateur conspiracy theorists, all working furiously to put the worst
possible spin those factoids; each theory then propels the hunt for
another round of factoids.  This stuff gets fed into the echo chamber
through the character assassins of the partisan press, and once it
starts echoing there's no stopping it.

You can trace every one of these effects in the epidemiology of the
falsehoods about Al Gore, and you can trace them in the epidemiology
of Whitewater.  (The White House once issued a brief report on the
matter, something like a dozen pages double-spaced, with 200 pages
of news clippings attached to it; the media responding by howling
darkly about the "200-page report" that the White House had prepared
on its enemies.  You've heard that phrase "200-page report", haven't
you?  It's another tendentious paraphrase untethered from the facts.)

And yet even these powerful forces do not suffice to explain the
data.  The various forces have a multiplicative effect, and together
they work to subvert the culture.  And it's that corrosion of truth
and reason that is destroying our society right now.  That's why
you have reporters for serious newspapers reporting the kind of junk
that a very small number of serious people on the Internet, such as
the Daily Howler <http://www.dailyhowler.com/> have been so valuably 
documenting.]


This message was forwarded through the Red Rock Eater News Service (RRE). You are welcome to send the message along to others but please do not use the "redirect" option. For information about RRE, including instructions for (un)subscribing, see http://dlis.gseis.ucla.edu/people/pagre/rre.html
Date: Sun, 26 Mar 2000 16:27:07 -0500 To: ip-sub-1@majordomo.pobox.com From: David Farber <farber@cis.upenn.edu> Subject: IP: yet again -- Inventing the Internet It is nice to see confirmation of something I have said often and loudly coming from someone like Joe DJF >Date: Sun, 26 Mar 2000 16:23:51 -0500 (EST) >From: Joseph Traub <traub@cs.columbia.edu> >To: farber@cis.upenn.edu >Subject: Inventing the Internet > >The media and politicians have had much fun about the Vice-President's >purported claim that "I invented the internet". It is the case that Al >Gore was perhaps the the first political leader to grasp the importance >of networking the country (and later the world). > >In 1986 I chaired the Computer science and Telecommunications Board and >Gore was our dinner speaker at the National Academy of Sciences. He spoke >about the importance of a National Information Infrastructure. At the >time he was a senator from a fairly small Southeastern state and I was >amazed at his national vision. He has continued to be a national leader in >promoting the importance of the internet for commerce and education. >Could we perhaps see an end to cheap shots from politicians and pundits >about inventing the internet.
[Somewhere Consulting Group]