In Aaron Swartz's Shades of Gray post he expresses confusion and concern about the fact that many people in the public eye who have large followings can tell untruths and indulge in acts of hypocrisy without facing recrimination and even more surprisingly have many spring to their defence and agree with them (Up is Down and Down is Up). He asks

What do you do when someone says something obviously false? Do you correct them? Do you ignore them?

On three spearate occasions Bill O’Reilly noted that he previously worked for Inside Edition and said "we won a Peabody award" or "they won a Peabody award", sometimes noting it was the highest journalism award in the country.

Al Franken called the Peabody Award people to investigate; they laughed and said Inside Edition had never won a Peabody award.

Franken told the Washington Post, which published the fact. Newsday picked up the story.

O'Reilly was outraged, and called it "Attack Journalism" on his show. "Guy said about me [...] O'Reilly said he won a Peabody Award. Never said it. You can't find a transcript where I said it. [...] it's totally fabricated."

What if they continue to repeat it? Are they malicious? Misguided? Simply taking another, but still reasonable, point of view?

Then, on 10-07, George W. Bush starts a weblog. Dave Winer complains “The Bush RSS feeds are a total mess. […] I wish someone would explain to me why a user like the President of the United States has to have such a jumble of formats. Does anyone else care how hard it’s going to be to move this mess forward? (Impossible, actually.) I’ve really tried to get people to play together. Didn’t happen. At least we can be truthful about our failures, as it gets too late to fix them. […] Maybe we can have a grown up conversation about this some time, and try to make the best of a very bad situation.”

It sounds to me like a) Bush had to go through a lot of work and confusion to get his RSS feeds to work, b) his RSS feeds are very confusing for users, c) his RSS feeds are going to be very confusing for aggregator developers, d) it’s going to be impossible to update RSS, e) RSS has failed, all because people aren’t playing together. (Which, Dave apparently takes to mean, doing what I say.) None of this is true.

Bush’s feeds were most likely generated automatically, or cleaned up with a simple copy-and-paste, his feeds are very easy to use, they validate and work in probably every reasonably-complete aggregator, his feeds are no harder to update (or “move [their] mess forward”) than if they had done things Dave’s way, and RSS has been an amazing success, and, as evidenced by the Atom project, everybody’s willing to admit RSS’s failures, play together, and move forward with the possible exception of Dave.

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Why is this? Does Dave believe in what he’s saying? Is he saying it, even though he doesn’t believe it, to get other people on his side? Is he upset that people aren’t doing what he says and he’s using this as an excuse to attack them? I don’t really think there’s anyway to know. Even if he claims to believe it, he could just be lying about that strategically.


What if they get people to agree with them? Are they a conspiracy? Biased? Driven by other motivations? Amoral? Immoral?

The White House continues to make nonsensical claims. Iraq could kill us quickly. We need to stop forest fires by cutting down the trees. Giving your money to rich people will help the economy. And the press continues to report them unquestioningly.


What if everyone starts to say it? Do you question your belief? Your sanity? Your life?

The RIAA has been incredibly effective at convincing people that downloading a Madonna MP3 is, if not the moral equivalent murdering innocent babies, at least intrinsically morally wrong. How did they convince everyone of something so absurd?

The entire essay reminded me of one of most influential concepts in shaping how I communicate and otherwise interact with others. I believe the Theory of Cognitive Dissonance explains a lot (but not all) of the behavior that Aaron seems confounded by. In a nutshell the theory is that

According to cognitive dissonance theory, there is a tendency for individuals to seek consistency among their cognitions (i.e., beliefs, opinions). When there is an inconsistency between attitudes or behaviors (dissonance), something must change to eliminate the dissonance. In the case of a discrepancy between attitudes and behavior, it is most likely that the attitude will change to accommodate the behavior.

Two factors affect the strength of the dissonance: the number of dissonant beliefs, and the importance attached to each belief. There are three ways to eliminate dissonance: (1) reduce the importance of the dissonant beliefs, (2) add more consonant beliefs that outweigh the dissonant beliefs, or (3) change the dissonant beliefs so that they are no longer inconsistent.
An example of which is
Consider someone who buys an expensive car but discovers that it is not comfortable on long drives. Dissonance exists between their beliefs that they have bought a good car and that a good car should be comfortable. Dissonance could be eliminated by deciding that it does not matter since the car is mainly used for short trips (reducing the importance of the dissonant belief) or focusing on the cars strengths such as safety, appearance, handling (thereby adding more consonant beliefs). The dissonance could also be eliminated by getting rid of the car, but this behavior is a lot harder to achieve than changing beliefs.

Although it isn't clear whether the behavior of the parties described by Aaron are due to deliberate malicious intent or are simply reflections of different perspectives I suspect that the behavior of the supporters of parties mentioned above (RIAA, the current US administration, Bill O'Reilly & Dave Winer) conform to the theory of cognitive dissonance. People tend to seek out information that reinforces their beliefs. When challenged with information that breaks the consistency their internal model. For example, to many Americans they are "The Good Guys" in the international scene and when the US administration orders an invasion of a country on a flimsy pretext which results in over 7000 civilian deaths or releases pictures of slain "combatants" even though similar behavior had been condemned just a few months before this introduces dissonance with their internal model. From my observations, many have chosen either (1) reduce the importance of the dissonant beliefs [all's fair in love and war on terrorism] or  (2) add more consonant beliefs that outweigh the dissonant beliefs [the US has done lots of good for the Iraqi people by liberating them from an evil dictator] which would explain why there is still much support for the current US administration even though it is clear that many falsehoods have been told. I believe the same applies to supporters of people like Dave Winer & Bill O'Reilly.

Also I believe that both sides of the "Downloading Music: Good or Bad?" argument play the Cognitive Dissonance game. In his followup to Shades of Gray he writes

What’s OK with Downloading

Stealing is wrong. But downloading isn’t stealing. If I shoplift an album from my local record store, no one else can buy it. But when I download a song, no one loses it and another person gets it. There’s no ethical problem.

The evidence that downloading hurts sales is weak, but even if downloading did hurt sales, that doesn’t make it unethical. Libraries, video rental places, and used book stores (none of which pay the artist) hurt sales too. Is it unethical to use them?

His argument seems particularly flimsy to me and smacks of (2) adding more consonant beliefs that outweigh the dissonant beliefs [downloading digital media isn't unethical because used music stores, video rental places and libraries aren't unethical]. Of course, he fails to point out that in all 3 examples he mentioned the content producers were paid for their labors because someone had to originally buy the book, video or CD. My personal take on downloading digital media without paying for it, be it software or music, is that it breaks the social contract of a society based on capitalism (a person labors and is paid a price for it that they set which should eventually settle to what people think it is worth if the market functioning properly ). This doesn't mean that I haven't downloaded w4r3z or music from Kaazaa in the past just that I don't lie to myself and claim that what I'm doing is completely ethical.

To each his own.


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