Reviewing Fauxtography: A blog–driven challenge to mass media power without the promises of networked publicity
First Monday

Reviewing Fauxtography: A blog-driven challenge to mass media power without the promises of networked publicity by Nikki B. Usher



Abstract
During the Israel–Hezbollah War of 2006, bloggers caught Reuters publishing doctored images from Lebanon. Known by bloggers as Fauxtography, the scandal provides an important site to analyze the ability of blogs to challenge mainstream media. One blog in particular was almost single–handedly responsible for unearthing and for publicizing the scandal — Little Green Footballs. This paper uses the scandal as a case study to assess how Little Green Footballs was able to mount a challenge to mainstream media. Despite theorizing to the contrary about the collective promise of networked publics, Fauxtography reveals that one of the biggest challenges of late to mainstream media came from the activities of a single blogger.

Contents

Introduction
Theoretical framework
Setting: The Israel–Hezbollah War of 2006
Anatomy of a scandal
Analysis of the scandal
A public on the Web? Assessing LGF as oppositional discourse
Future study

 


 

Introduction

“OK, now things are getting weird. This Reuters photograph shows blatant evidence of manipulation. Notice the repeating patterns in the smoke; this is almost certainly caused by using the Photoshop ‘clone’ tool to add more smoke to the image.” —
 Charles Johnson,
www.littlegreenfootballs.com,
5 August 2006, 3:41 PM

Online journalism — and in particular blogging — has been one of the most obvious examples of how the relationship between mass media producer and consumer have been transformed in a network society. The Internet has enabled a participatory culture to flourish (Jenkins, 2006), giving anyone with access and skills the capacity to publish their views on the Web. As Benkler (2006) has noted, the media no longer produces “finished statements”; instead, the Web creates the possibility for individuals to participate an open, public conversation.

In a world where anyone can be a journalist, mainstream media has seen its authority to constructing official narratives of public events challenged. Bloggers are credited with a number of significant scoops over the past five years. They’ve taken down U.S. Senator Trent Lott after bringing to light his pro–segregation comments; they’ve exposed Dan Rather and CBS for airing false memos about President Bush’s military service; they’ve been partially responsible for the resignation of U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales; and, they’ve even led the way in exposing Mel Gibson’s anti–semitic rant following his DUI arrest. Blogs have also been heralded with producing some of the best footage of breaking news, including images and witness testimony from the tsunami of 2004 in Southeast Asia, the London subway bombings, and most recently, the pro–democracy efforts in Burma.

What does blogging seem to promise that traditional journalism does not? The most utopian blog proponents, whose arguments are voiced eloquently by Gillmor (2006), imagine armies of citizen journalists armed with nothing but their moxie and their Internet connection taking part in a renaissance of civic activism and acting as vigorous watchdogs of public officials and the media. These citizen journalists are imagined as a challenge to “big media” because they seek to provide information that is more accurate and more accountable than information provided by the mass media. Citizen journalists are also said to represent an evolution in news–gathering, as they participate in a process of free exchange, communal truth–seeking and deliberation through interactive online communication. To the most utopian advocates of participatory journalism, blogs are seen as a way to replace the tired version of mainstream news media (Reynolds, 2006).

Scholars have suggested the blogs provide an important challenge to mainstream media. Matheson (2004) notes that blogs encourage mainstream journalists to be more expansive in their thinking, challenge corporate thinking, and foster a democratic, interactive space. Blog advocates note that blogs pick up on stories that journalists do not, seizing on partisan expression, old stories that have been buried, stories that are driven by non–elite sources, and highly specialized content [1]. And the blog form may offer particular benefits to readers: people respond to the personal style of blogging and appreciate the wide diversity of opinions (Grabowicz, 2003); blogs are a source for people who don’t trust mainstream news (Coleman, 2005); and, blogs are portals and aggregators that lead to more expansive content than would be available from just one news source (Hirschorn, 2006).

This paper takes an in–depth look at one particular event where bloggers challenged the authority of mainstream media. This controversy, now commonly referred to as Fauxtography or Reutersgate, involved bloggers spotting doctored photos distributed by Reuters that depicted scenes from the Israel–Hezbollah War of 2006. In particular, the scandal highlighted the capacity of anti–mainstream media conservative activists to mount a challenge to traditional authority. Though it is questionable whether spotting false photography amounts to bloggers acting as journalists in the traditional sense [2], their work had serious consequences. Reuters had to issue an apology to the news organizations that buy its materials, fired a photography editor, and spent six months thinking about how to tighten standards for photos coming from conflict zones (Conway, 2006; Holmes, 2007).

In the past, the errors of newspapers and media organizations spotted by readers remained contained to announcements by anchors or notices in a small corrections column or at the very worst an internal investigation [3]. Now, errors, especially those that invoke ethical breaches by media organizations such as Fauxtography or the CBS memo scandal, are often discovered by citizen bloggers. News of these errors circulates widely on the Web, spread by anti–big media activists; these errors also become major stories in mainstream news whereas in the past they may have slipped quietly by.

This paper seeks takes the Fauxtography as an emblematic event of errors and ethical breach in a new media age. More specifically, Fauxtography provides the setting for a case study of the activities and actions of one particular blog at the center of the action during the controversy — Little Green Footballs. This paper seeks to test some of the claims that have been made about blogs recreating properties of “publics” and stimulating debate and discourse. Slashdot and Indymedia are often sited as examples of “publics” in a new media age (Platon and Deuze, 2003; Poor, 2005) because of their hosting capacities for deliberation. With this in mind, I will apply the same level of analysis to Little Green Footballs and examine it as a public. In addition, this paper looks at Little Green Footballs as a case study of the relationship between independent online media (as an oppositional or counter–voice) and big media, assessing how independent online media mobilizes as opposition.

First, I offer a theoretical outline of the features of discourse that would demonstrate the existence of a viable online public and provide an assessment of how theorists envision blogs challenging established power. Then I provide an in–depth anatomy of the Reuters scandal and explain how the structure of LGF contributed to the circulation of debate surrounding the scandal. Finally, I seek to use this controversy as a starting point to generate other hypotheses for how blogs may behave when they seek to challenge dominant discourse.

 

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Theoretical framework

Habermas’ idea of the public sphere helps orient a discussion about democratic deliberation online. Habermas conceived of the public sphere as a place of deliberative discourse — where private citizens come together to converse about matters of the public interest (Habermas, 1964; 1989). The public sphere has four important features that allow for the free flow of deliberation: first, the status of the speaker is disregarded; second, the common interest in truth in the public sphere means that discourse proceeds by way of rational argument; third, the public sphere opens new topics to discussion; and, fourth, the public sphere is inclusive — anyone may join. Because scholars have been drawn to what seems to be the potential openness of the Internet, it has been conceived of as a potentially new public sphere — or at least a space that has many of the properties of a public sphere because it is potentially more open to new forms of deliberation.

The Internet may enable a deliberative vision of citizenship rather than a market–based vision on consumer because the user is also a producer (Gandy, 2002). Benkler (2006) expands on this idea, noting that the Internet provides the feedback loop to mass–mediated communication from the edges back to the center. Similarly, he notes that commons–based peer production provides opportunities to disrupt mass media, to cultivate matters of public interest, and to create new forms of political engagement [4]. Lim and Kann (2008) make a few key observations about features of the Internet that enable online deliberation and online participation. They note that the internet’s facilitation between one–to–one, one–to–many, or many–to–many provides considerable flexibility in its structure as a communication system. Four features stand out that may enable the Internet to meet the promise of a new public sphere: it represents the convergence of communication technologies, it is low cost, it is widely available, and it resists control and censorship.

A public sphere is composed of publics — and the networked public sphere is composed of networked publics. The “public” is constituted by those who are acting in a public rather than private capacity, coming together to deliberate about issues for the common good (Calhoun, 1992). Warner (2005) suggests that a public is defined by the members in it; a public is created by the reflexive circulation of texts and discourse among strangers; it is to “be a certain kind of person, to in habit a certain kind of social world, to have at one’s disposal certain media and genres, to be motivated by a certain normative horizon, and to speak with a certain language ideology.” [5]. boyd (2008) adds, a public is “group bounded by a shared text, whether that is a worldview or an audience.” Asen and Brouwer (2001) help derive other characteristics of a public: as open to all (like the public sphere); potentially concerning to all (relating to matters of the public interest); known to all (public information); potentially constituted by all; and potential movement towards all (to publicize matters) [6].

A networked public, then, would have these features in an online space along with a few other characteristics. It would be recorded for posterity (persistence), people would be able to find like people (searchability), it would replicate content and discourses from other places (replicability), and invisible audiences would compose it because it is hard to know who is accessing the site.

Under investigation here is whether Little Green Footballs meets the criteria of a networked public. Theorists suggest that online spaces are populated by networked publics that contribute to discourse through open deliberation — and from the case study I will present, it is clear that LGF indeed contributes important and vital discourse to the public sphere. LGF has been successful in bringing oppositional discourse into the center of mass media attention. However, it is my intention to test whether a blog that does have offline impact nonetheless remains true to the aspirations of online publicity.

 

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Setting: The Israel–Hezbollah War of 2006

What follows is a brief attempt to orient the Fauxtography blog controversy in the larger setting from which it emerged [7]. The Israel–Hezbollah War, sometimes called the 2006 Lebanon War, the Israel–Lebanon War, or the July War, began on 12 July 2006 and ended on 14 August 2006 with a ceasefire brokered by the U.N. Border tension between Israel and military/terrorist organization Hezbollah had been mounting over the course of the summer. In a daylight assault on 12 July Hezbollah attacked a military convoy in Northern Israel killing eight Israeli soldiers and kidnapping two others (Myre and Erlanger, 2006). Israel, already engaged in a skirmish with Palestinians over the capture of Israeli soldiers, was now caught in a second conflict in the region. Hezbollah wanted to trade prisoners for prisoners with its move in Israel, but Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert called the attack an “act of war” (BBC, 2006).

As the skirmish unfolded, Hezbollah targeted northern Israeli cities such as Haifa with rockets and the Israelis carried out sustained bombing of multiple Lebanese cities, including Beirut and Tripoli. Attacks targeted major Lebanese infrastructure, such as the Beirut Airport, as well as smaller targets, such as Hezbollah’s southern headquarters. Though Hezbollah was not officially in political control of Lebanon, the Lebanese elected president had voiced his support with the group’s efforts.

The war blasted into international homes thousands of pictures of devastated areas of Beirut, highlighting the destruction of the city and the toll of civilian casualties. However, for those on the right–wing, pro–Israel side, fighting Hezbollah represented a distinctly different and difficult kind of war because terrorist fighters had seamlessly woven themselves into the fabric of ordinary life in Lebanon. This guerilla strategy meant anyone could be Hezbollah. Israeli attacks, while deplorable, were somewhat justified because Hezbollah was everywhere and nowhere. At the same time, these pro–Israel advocates argued that the damage and destruction being showcased in American and British media failed to represent a balanced portrayal of the events as they unfolded. To these pro–Israel, largely conservative Republican voices, media portrayals of the hostilities seemed to reflect a systematic media bias against Israel. The conservative blogosphere, united with conservative talk radio, condemned Hezbollah’s actions and the situation in Lebanon as unworthy of sympathy because of its terrorist orientation and demanded a more accurate portrayal of the news.

A vociferous and angry pro–Israel online contingent began to look closely at images being sent back as evidence of Israel’s atrocities. The practice of having local stringers — those paid per–photo or by contract rather than hired as official staff photographers by media outlets — raised concerns among some bloggers. They worried that these stringers would not have the same “objective” orientation practiced by full time journalists. In fact, some conservative voices worried that these stringers might even have ties to Hezbollah. Similarly, bloggers pointed out that Hezbollah’s tight control over foreign press — taking passports, guiding them on “press tours” and the like was resulting in coverage that portrayed the conflict inaccurately.

 

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Anatomy of a scandal

Though far removed from covering the daily fire of Israel–Hezbollah War of 2006, conservative bloggers could at least provide a sustained critique of the efforts of journalists abroad. Prior to the discovery of the doctored photos, some bloggers had been complaining about photos that appeared to be staged (Ace of Spades, 2006).

But on 5 August 2006, Mike Thorson, a Wisconsin artist, spotted a Reuters photo taken by Lebanese stringer Adnan Hajj on Yahoo News that looked like it had been photoshopped. More specifically, he noticed that the smoke said to be arising from the bombing of Beirut seemed to look like an effect he had used on his own Photoshop experiments. The effect seemed to make the smoke rising from Beirut seem even worse than it was. Thorson passed the tip on to blogger Charles Johnson of Little Green Footballs. He thought of Johnson because the blogger had made his name as a counterpoint to “big media” for his role in proving that CBS had used fake memos to document a story about President George W. Bush’s national guard service right before the presidential election (Johnson, 2006).

The photo (Figure 1) had the caption, “Smoke billows from burning buildings destroyed during an overnight Israeli air raid on Beirut’s suburbs August 5, 2006. Many buildings were flattened during the attack. REUTERS/Adnan Hajj.” But as Johnson quickly pointed out, the smoke appeared to be cloned using a Photoshop tool. Buildings in the background also repeated. Within two hours, another blogger at Left & Right had constructed an animated GIF to demonstrate the repeating patterns.

 

Figure 1: Screenshot from one of the participants
Figure 1: Reuters photo, 5 August 2006; source: http://littlegreenfootballs.com/.

 

Into the evening and the afternoon, Johnson continued to blog about the photo, creating his own animated GIF to highlight the cloned areas. A professional sports photography Web site also noted the photo looked faked, adding credibility to Johnson’s claims. Other bloggers (Jawa Report, Powerline, HotAir) began combing Lebanon photos, searching Hajj‚s past work and the work of other photographers for evidence of manipulation.

A Canadian Reuters employee spotted the LGF post and alerted superiors (Seeyle and Bosman, 2006). On 6 August, Reuters notified its customers and sent out this warning about the photo.

“Photo editing software was improperly used on this image. A corrected version will immediately follow this advisory. We are sorry for any inconvenience.” (Lappin, 2006)

Reuters public relations acknowledged the error and Reuters became the first mainstream news organization to report the error over its wires [8]. In this first article, Reuters announced that that the photograph was indeed doctored and acknowledged that the incident represented a serious ethical breach. In addition, Reuters denied accusations from “blogs critical of the mainstream media’s coverage of the Middle East conflict” that Hajj’s photographs from a previous bombing attack were staged (Holmes, 2006).

Following this story on 6 August, the blogger who calls himself “Rusty Shackleford” of the Jawa Report found another Reuters/Hajj photo taken on 2 August that appeared to be doctored. The photo seemed to show an Israel war plane firing missiles. The caption noted: “An Israeli F–16 warplane fires missiles during an air strike on Nabatiyeh in Southern Lebanon.” But Shackleford and others pointed out that the missiles were a) actually defensive flares and b) one flare had been cloned with the same clone tool to produce three flares. This fake immediately received publicity on Little Green Football’s blog, as well as on other prominent conservative blogs.

Reuters promptly began an investigation into all of Hajj’s work and within 18 hours of Johnson’s initial post suspended Hajj. They also pulled all 920 of his photos from their archives. Hajj had worked intermittently for the news service from 1993–2006. In an online story that ran on Yahoo News, Reuters showed both the doctored and undoctored photos Hajj took of Beirut, noting that an urgent investigation had prompted such action. Hajj, to his defense, admitted to doctoring the photos to remove dust flecks (Reuters, 2006).

Following the revelation of the second photo, Reuters wrote another article and issued another statement. The organization’s public relations statement, featuring a quote from global photo editor Tom Szlukoveyni, details both the efficiency with which Reuters planned to deal with the situation and the serious threat facing Reuters’ credibility in the Middle East:

“Manipulating photographs in this way is entirely unacceptable and contrary to all the principles consistently held by Reuters throughout its long and distinguished history. It undermines not only our reputation but also the good name of all our photographers ... . ... the mere fact that Hajj had altered two of his photographs meant none of his work for Reuters could be trusted either by the news service or its users.”

The revelations and the recall prompted tremendous coverage in the mainstream media. Dozens of American media outlets ran stories about the doctored photos [9] — and op–eds were written decrying the need to make war look worse than it already was (Jarvis, 2006). Johnson himself appeared on Good Morning America, on the Laura Ingraham radio show, and in interviews in the New York Times and Washington Post among others.

What had been at stake — and what LGF challenged with the help of other bloggers — was the authority of Reuters as a news agency to be a primary truth–teller of controversial events. In showing that its photos were digitally altered, the reputation of the news organization as providing objective news coverage was called into question. Even if the photo had gotten through because of lack of editing oversight, it demonstrated a breach in Reuters‚ standards. And unlike most news organizations, Reuters is a wire service: news organizations around the world depend on it for accurate, responsible coverage about topics they themselves cannot cover — making potential breaches even far more reaching.

Reuters launched an internal investigation that ended six months later. A photo editor was fired for his or her role in the affair, and a new code of conduct for dealing with sensitive material was detailed — including greater oversight by senior editors (Holmes, 2007). The influence of bloggers on changing the course of coverage at Reuters was duly noted by Reuters CEO Tom Glocer. In a speech called “Trust in the Age of Citizen Journalism,” Glocer (2006) tried to draw lessons from the Reuters photos, noting the need for accountability, the need to be vigilant about the organization’s reputation, and the need for unbiased coverage of conflict zones. In his remarks, he noted the importance of blogging:

“The upside of the flourishing blogosphere is that beyond our own strict editorial standards, there is a new check and balance. I take my hat off to Charles Johnson, the editor of Little Green Footballs. Without his Web site, the Hajj photo may have gone unnoticed.”

 

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Analysis of the scandal

With the anatomy of the scandal clearly delineated, it now becomes possible to probe some of the other dynamics posed earlier. These include how blogs might serve as a space for oppositional discourse formation, what conditions must exist for oppositional discourse to pose a challenge to mainstream media, and the results of such challenges.

Structure

Examining Little Green Footballs helps explore some of the conditions that may have spurred the evolution of the Fauxtography scandal into international news. Little Green Footballs, also known as “lgf: if you have to ask, it isn’t shock and awe” is the 97th most popular blog on the Internet [10]. The site is run by a quirky musician from the Los Angeles area. He is the only one who writes major posts, but he has thousands of commentators. There were three million comments on the site when the scandal broke and there are about 4.5 million currently. The blog is a founding member of the blog aggregator Pajamas Media, which has raised venture capital and streamlines advertising for about two dozen conservative blogs.

The blog posts often reference other blogs as well as mainstream media. Columns on the homepage list links to mass media (news/opinion links); current events (ABC News); Iraq blogs; and, favored blogs (under the “anti–idiotarians” heading). The comments are unmoderated by Johnson, though users are required to login. Comments, however, are not immediately viewable — one has to click to see them. Johnson can and does delete comments he finds stupid, according to the comment policy, and screens comments to eliminate personal information. Readers can contact Johnson directly from an “email” function to pass on tips that are not relevant to existing posts, for instance (such as the genesis of the Fauxtography scandal).

Dialogue on this blog comes from commentators, but there is an authoritarian and elite ethos that gives this blog its unique identity. Anyone can comment, but only if they understand the norms and rules of the blog and Johnson doesn’t find the comment stupid. There is a specific language that is featured in a multi–page “about” section that explains commonly used acronyms and abbreviations. For instance, Johnson calls his readers lizardoids and often refers to the media as idotarian (Dotinga, 2006).

The power in this blog rests with Johnson, who has ultimate control over what gets said and who has the authority, readership and connections to promote particular stories. Even when tipsters help break news, such as with Fauxtography, Johnson got most of the attention. The blog also features a tight network of self–referencing links to other like–minded blogs on the Internet, such as to Powerline and HotAir/Michelle Malkin — both of whom played important roles in furthering the Fauxtography scandal and in suggesting additional evidence in other media organizations of manipulation. Johnson’s role as the head of Pajamas Media means that he is often citing blogs not only because he agrees with them but because they are part of the same company.

Taking a step back to look at the structure Little Green Footballs reveals some important features that may explain why the site was able to successfully force Reuters to respond directly to its action. LGF links back to a wide circle of anti–media networks that are all invested in a tightly connected hub of conservative (and in this case) pro–Israel audiences. LGF, as the genesis of the story and one of the top–ranked blogs, has considerable authority in bringing new findings from other less visible blogs to the surface. LGF is also all organized in a top–down hierarchy where a single blogger runs the show with feedback from commentators taken only based on the bloggers’ fancy. This gives readers the opportunity to be part of something larger, but also creates a system of control and order for the site. Johnson’s personality shapes the tenor of the discourse as well as its network and linkage to other blog sites.

LGF can serve as a central point of distribution of conservative ideas and collaboration because of its readership. Though the blogs it connects to each provide its own set of commentary, the blogs feed off a system where blog posts from different blogs are interlinked. Ownership by Johnson’s Pajamas Media facilitates aggregation and systemization across blogs. Thus, LGF is not working in isolation but is pushing forward a particular point of view in concert with other like–minded blogs.

Instead of a sustained, grassroots opposition, the picture that emerges is of a major and influential blogger given the power to talk from an audience that feels like it is really contributing to the conversation. But the responses are nowhere near as significant as the authority that comes from being the main blogger on the site. Consider, for instance, that the tip about Fauxtography was passed from a reader of LGF. This reader needed the hosting of LGF and Johnson’s authority as a blogger for the scandal to gain any legs. The audience is a deliberating body, but the lead blogger takes all the credit.

Mediation

This scandal helps reveal the conditions that must exist for a blog to pose a challenge to mainstream media. A number of important factors helped LGF insure that this scandal would gain traction in the mainstream media. First, that it served as a mediating space between oppositional voices and mainstream media; second, that it relied on existing ties with mainstream media to gain traction for its critique; and, third, that LGF was able to successfully mobilize its readers and other conservative blogs.

First, LGF had audiences that included both conservative pro–Israel proponents and members of the mainstream media. The scandal became a scandal only after it was brought to the attention of Reuters editors by only because a Reuters employee was surfing Little Green Footballs. The doctored photos would otherwise have been a self–contained online debate. A mainstream media organization needed to pay attention to the blog in order to recognize the danger of the complaint. In this regard, LGF relied upon the mass media to recognize its critique as meritorious. But in bringing the mass media to the blog, LGF also served as a mediating space between oppositional groups and the mainstream media.

Online blogs serve as spaces where oppositional groups can broadcast their viewpoints to the mainstream without being filtered by other groups. The Internet represents the best chance for opposition groups to get out its message. But most significant is that these sites are open to all potential members for viewing — those who do not agree with the oppositional group can and do come across these sites of opposition. Little Green Footballs serves as a space where a photographer from Reuters can in fact also be reading the site for information and inform his or her editors about the potential of doctored photos, even though the site is primarily intended as a place for partisans that are pro–Israel to gather together. In this regard, LGF gets an opposition message out to a wider audience.

Second, LGF built on existing ties with the powerful to create links to mainstream media. LGF’s critique of Reuter’s photos did not remain cloistered because of Johnson’s existing connections with non–Internet media. This scandal gained traction in part because of the relationship between right–wing bloggers and talk show radio hosts looking for material. Coverage by conservative radio show hosts of the scandal in turn prompted coverage of the scandal by mainstream media. Blogger Thomas Lifson at American Thinker pointed out that it took more than a day for mainstream media organizations to realize that Reuters had admitted it sold doctored photos. He noted at the time, “If the past is any predictor, expect talk radio to play a key role in spreading news of the scandal to millions, and therefore forcing major media outlets (many of them Reuters clients) to cover it” (Lifson, 2006). Rush Limbaugh, the nation’s most listened to talk–show radio host, went on a rampage on 7 August 2006 attacking Reuters for its doctored photos. He also expressed his solidarity for the work of Johnson at LGF. Stories about the scandal quickly appeared in the New York Times, NPR, and the Washington Post, among others, within the next two days.

This scandal also gained traction because of the previously existing relationships of Johnson with mainstream and traditional media. Johnson became the centerpiece promoting the scandal and appeared on CNN, Fox News, and in interviews with dozens of mainstream media outlets. However, he had already established his reputation as a blogger known for proving the media wrong by playing a crucial role in the Dan Rather “Memogate” scandal [11]. As a result, his credibility in calling the mainstream media on its bluff was well–established, with his site drawing attention from not only right–wing talk show producers but also from mainstream news. Existing connections based on Johnson’s anti–media persona helped spur coverage of the discovery in the mainstream news.

Third, LGF was able to mobilize the conservative online blog–reading and blog–writing world. Pushing the scandal forward relied on the coordinated mobilization of a tightly–connected circle of bloggers and readers. When Little Green Footballs revealed the original doctored photo, other bloggers and commentators began looking for evidence of manipulation of images coming out of Lebanon. Conservative bloggers began collecting and compiling evidence of “staged” photos and misleading captions in a unified and collective effort targeted at proving the inaccuracy of news coming out of the mainstream media. Cross–posting between blogs featuring similar content created momentum for the scandal.

Little Green Footballs has managed to develop a huge audience. LGF has also managed to create an entirely new alternative media company dedicated to the perpetuation of like–minded blogs — giving them the opportunities for monetization and aggregation across the Web. The audience of these blogs grows and begins to take on the proportions and features of a mass media audience in size and scope, with one difference — this audience can respond back. These networks become self–sustaining as they grow with audience members becoming loyal commentators and tipsters, driving traffic and content forward. The growth of audiences has become a self–perpetuating feature in linking these sites to the attention of those who are not aligned with right–wing, pro–Israel groups: these audiences draw the attention of those who may not agree with the oppositional discourse. These sites can now produce critique with the power of numbers behind them.

In this case, LGF mobilized readers in a way that gave their energy order and direction. As mentioned previously, LGF allows for bottom–up discoveries to have wide–ranging impact. This bottom–up process of uncovering fraud with the reliance on commentators for tips suggests that every commentator has something to contribute. Blog readers were also mobilized to act in traditional ways, such as to contact mainstream media directly to complain. Thus, the conservative would–be pundits in the audiences of conservative bloggers were mobilized to draw attention to the controversy in a number of ways.

 

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A public on the Web? Assessing LGF as oppositional discourse

Does LGF fulfill some of the promises set out by theorists who promise that the Web offers new potentials for discourse and new opportunities for openness? Does LGF showcase the qualities of the networked public that supposedly will enable new challenges to power from the edges back to the center?

To review, a public has (but is not limited to) the following qualities: it is a group that shares a worldview or an audience; it is potentially open to all; it is relevant to the public interest; it is accessible by all; and, it can publicize its content. Further, publics online (networked publics) leave a lasting trail of documentation; people can find like people; discourse gets repeated and replicated; and, invisible audiences compose its members.

LGF does in fact offer a place for those who share a set worldview and enables people who have shared views to find each other — it is a conservative site where those who are anti–big media gather to express their views. Further, because of the system of linking between like–minded blogs, LGF provides its readers with an even broader world of those who share the same conservative, anti–big media worldview. Thus, in this regard it meets some of the criteria for being a networked public.

The criteria of a public being potentially open to all offers some vague guidance for analyzing LGF. Certainly, anyone on the Web can read LGF. But not everyone is an equal contributor. If openness is defined by equality in participation and deliberation, LGF is not a public. In fact, it may fail the most important test of publicity — deliberation on LGF is controlled and managed by a single individual who wields the power to promote comments and to delete them. Johnson is the single author of the main blog posts on the site, which means that it is primarily his work that puts him as one of the top 100 blogs online. Certainly anyone can contribute by way of comments, but the comments are hidden from view. Similarly, tips and other contributions must be sent to Johnson before they are written about on the main posts. As a result, not everyone who comes to this blog has equal opportunities for deliberation.

When the news of Reuters broke, it was not the voices of many of the commentators that were credited with stirring the scandal. Instead, it was the single voice of Johnson that got the acknowledgement for helping to break the news of the doctored photo. This focus on Johnson suggests that true deliberation and debate is not an ongoing feature of this blog; if it were, it would be difficult to single out just one voice responsible for breaking the scandal and the work would likely have been viewed more as a collaborative effort.

In addition, while a public does require some cohesion around a single idea or text, LGF is not as open to new readers as it may seem. To be a full participant and commentator, one must understand the language and terms (a long litany of rules of behavior and specialized slang) or risk having one’s comments ignored. Similarly, the site is engineered as a conservative, anti–big media site. Therefore, it is unclear how open these commentators might be to deliberation from those who support big media. While anyone can access the site to read its postings, those who are posting have to conform to the value system set in place by the norms and structure of the blog. Therefore, the limitations on deliberation, both from the strong presence of Johnson as the arbitrator of dialogue and the insular nature of the discourse on the blog, suggest that LGF fails to meet the aspirations of those who believe that blogging and citizen journalism represent opportunities for new publicity.

LGF does, however, employ other features of network publicity to its advantage in order to gain traction for the discourse that it does display. First, its work is accessible to all and it is content is publicized. Similarly, because it is online, it has an invisible audience of readers who may make themselves visible, but who may also choose to remain invisible.

LGF’s positioning as a blog that is both read by opposition groups and members of the mainstream media gives it wide reach, though the conditions for such publicity have in turn limited full participation by commentators. However, as mentioned previously, one of the features of online discourse is that it does reflect new opportunities for openness and transparency for opposition groups that may not have existed in a world where dialogue is dominated by producers of mass media content. Voices like Johnson’s might not have produced a world–wide media scandal and uproar; instead, the widely publicized scandal received airing on the Web for millions of readers. This is no longer a world where a lone editor reads complaints filed from a single reader; instead, complaints are widely circulated among mass audiences. As a result, a Web site with a substantial audience is now able to force action from edges to the center. As a public relations officer noted, “We actually welcome the scrutiny of blogs — it is no bad thing for media organizations to be challenged.” [12]

In addition, true to the spirit of a networked public, LGF leaves a lasting trail of documentation showing the comments, posts and evolution of the scandal. In addition, the close interweaving of blogs and cross–posting allows discourse to be repeated and replicated. In this regard, LGF does provide an opportunity for discourse to retain lasting visibility and for discourse to have an effect beyond its initial audience.

However, LGF has failed to meet the most significant test of publicity because of its problems with remaining open and facilitating equal deliberation. This blog provides an interesting test case to show how oppositional discourse online can be effectively marshaled to have a significant impact. In this regard, this blog seems to aspire to the ideals of those who believe in the capacity of the Web to provide new space to emerging publics that facilitate open discourse. Yet it is significant to note that this blog is not a true public — instead, it offers audiences greater power to help influence a single message that is then broadcast to the Web. Some power dynamics have been reconfigured, but not all. However, this blog does represent a successful moment of opposition to mainstream media. This creates the question: can network publics effectively foster democratic deliberation, provide opportunities for oppositional discourse and be able to mount a significant challenge to entrenched centers of power? Or do new centers of power and authority have to form to challenge the already powerful?

In addition, the reliance of LGF to use existing centers of power to broadcast its message suggests that it may not truly be a networked public that represents a true alternative to existing modes of deliberation. The critique needed to be recognized and acknowledged by the mainstream media. For the critique to have any bearing in the mainstream, it required attention from the mainstream. This is somewhat of a frustrating paradox: for LGF’s oppositional discourse to create change and make an impact, the very discourse it seeks to oppose must acknowledge its existence. The Reuters Fauxtography scandal became a scandal not because some doctored photos were found, but because the knowledge of the doctored photos was picked up by Reuters staffers and other members of the mainstream news.

The Fauxtography scandal, then, illuminates some of the difficulties that emerge when online projects seek to challenge power. The openness of the Internet as a space that encourages deliberation and alternate viewpoints may be limited by the structures that are created to facilitate this deliberation. Similarly, the ability for new viewpoints to exist and to emerge in online space does not automatically translate into their ability to effectively create and craft resistance to power. At this point, Fautoxgraphy is a case study that demonstrates the dependence of oppositional discourse on power for creating resistance in a networked society.

 

++++++++++

Future study

This paper looks at the actions and structure of the leading blog during a single instance where mainstream media was challenged. In so doing, some major issues are left unexamined and may provide significant points of departure for future research. Significantly, Fauxtography also involved the participation of other blogs in order for the scandal to develop and flourish. It is important not to lose sight of the significance of these interlocking blogs, and future study would examine the networks of blogs within this scandal.

Additionally, this paper has chosen to define Little Green Footballs as a candidate for publicity because it is a space where like–minded individuals congregate around a common text and participate in a larger discussion. However, it is also possible to consider Little Green Footballs as a voice within a larger dynamic of the “public” of conservative blogs. Perhaps Little Green Footballs is a closed voice within a more open system, allowing the promises of the networked public sphere to remain viable. Conducting a network analysis of conservative blogs might illuminate how these sites overlap, what common discussions they may share, and whether they have similar structures.

Also significant to this discussion but not elaborated here were the discoveries made by bloggers that were not taken seriously by the mainstream media during Fauxtography. Bloggers claimed that there were many instances of staged photos — both as Hezbollah photo shoots and by photographers looking for the perfect shot. But these critiques never were able to generate the same kind of controversy as Fauxtography. Bloggers also noticed what they considered to be caption errors, but only on one occasion were bloggers able to convince a mainstream media organization to make a correction; this correction again failed to ignite a firestorm. Examining these critiques may tell us more about what blogs do well when they challenge mainstream media and what blogs do not do well.

Finally, this is a case study of one particular instance where mainstream media was challenged. Future research would do well to look across a variety of instances where mainstream media faced challenges from blogs to begin to draw some generalizable ideas about blog–mainstream media engagement. Similarly, future research would do well to look at a more expansive view of the networked public sphere to examine a variety of different kinds of networked publics (or candidates for publicity) to begin to tease out the conditions through which online oppositional discourse can mount a challenge to entrenched power structures. End of article

 

About the author

Nikki Usher is a doctoral student at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication whose focus is on journalism studies and new media.

 

Acknowledgements

I kindly thank Dr. Larry Gross and Dr. Francois Bar, both of USC Annenberg, and First Monday’s anonymous reviewers.

 

Notes

1. Lowrey, 2006, p. 478.

2. Only 5 percent of all bloggers produce what can be considered original journalism — Project for Excellence in Journalism, 2006.

3. Consider the Janet Cook story fabrication scandal at the Washington Post; see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Janet_Cooke.

4. Benkler, 2006, p. 220.

5. Warner, 2005, p. 10.

6. Asen and Brouwer, 2001, p. 9.

7. Given the contentious nature of Middle East politics, I am simply offering the clearest retrospective overview that I can.

8. S. Brendel, personal communication, 7 December 2007.

9. Including Slate, the Guardian, Jerusalem Post, New York Times, New York Sun, CNN, UPI, AFP, and AP.

10. See www.technorati.com. This listing was as of 5 December 2007.

11. Johnson used his Web design skills to help demonstrate that documents supporting President Bush’s favorable treatment while in the National Guard were faked.

12. S. Brendel, personal communication, 7 December 2007.

 

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Editorial history

Paper received 6 April 2008; accepted 18 November 2008.


Copyright © 2008, Nikki B. Usher All Rights Reserved.

Reviewing Fauxtography: A blog–driven challenge to mass media power without the promises of networked publicity
by Nikki B. Usher
First Monday, Volume 13, Number 12 - 1 December 2008
http://firstmonday.org/ojs/index.php/fm/article/view/2158/2055





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