Democracy Downloaded

It wasn’t me

Posted by joevoeller on February 6, 2007

In this interesting story from the San Francisco Chronicle, the chief spokesperson for Mayor Gavin Newsom admits that he has posted comments to “local news-oriented Web sites” under the name of a close personal friend. Using the friend’s name presumably allowed the spokesperson (Peter Ragone) to push pro-Newsom messages on the local sites without crediting any to his own name.

Ragone is certainly not alone. Staffers for U.S. Senators and many other politicians have been caught editing the Wikipedia entries of their bosses. It’s probably a safe bet that they have also surreptitiously added commentary to other sites as well.

Which raises some interesting questions about identity, politics and the Web. What if, say,  a high-level staffer for a governor wants to spend his personal time visiting political blogs that mention the Governor. If he leaves a comment, does he need to reveal his identity and affiliation? What if, like many others on the site, he authors his comments using some sort of nickname (like “Sparky12” or “GoldenState26”)? Does he owe it to the blog to be more forthcoming about his identity? What if the person leaving comments is just an entry-level receptionist? What are the rules?

The lesson from the Chronicle story seems to be: if you’re worried about getting discovered, don’t use your home computer. But there are many more fundamental and totally unresolved questions here. It looks like it might take years for a commonly-agreed upon code of ethics to catch up to the new opportunities (and temptations) that technology has to offer.

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