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August 12, 2009

My Netroots Nation panel: Investigative techniques to expose the town hall mobs

If you're going to Netroots Nation this week, I invite you to join us for Muckraking 101, an interactive investigative reporting workshop sponsored by the Nation Investigative Fund:

Muckraking 101: Documents You Can Use
Saturday, August 15th 1:30 PM - 4:15 PM
Training, 306
Saturday, August 15th, 1:30pm - 4:15pm

How can bloggers and online activists use simple investigative techniques to increase their impact? Participants in this practical workshop will learn how to use free or cheap web tools to trace the assets of public officials, decipher the SEC filings of public companies, file Freedom of Information Act requests for government documents, and much, much more. Sponsored by the Investigative Fund at The Nation Institute.

The panelists are Esther Kaplan of the Nation, Bill Bastone of the Smoking Gun, Brant Houston of the University of Illinois, and me.

You'll learn powerful investigative techniques to make your blog posts stand out. These strategies are based on free tools available to anyone with an internet connection.

Bring your laptops. This is a hands-on training. We're going to be exploring one of the most urgent investigative puzzles facing the netroots today: Who's funding the town hall mobs?

Recommended pre-reading: Addie Stan's AlterNet expose on the mob phenom, and teabagger astroturf oppo research by Kate Thomas of SEIU.


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Alon writes;
There's a difference between directing people to express their personal anger and astroturf. People rarely converge on town halls spontaneously. Mere corporate funding doesn't turn an activist effort into astroturf - is Media Matters astroturf because it's funded by Soros?

It's incoherent to make claims about the real feeling of the protesters. People can feel strongly about something, but without a structure to channel the feelings their feelings are invisible to the public system. Corporate interests provide the means to amplify opposition to 'hate' speech levels about health care reform. The traditional claim about strong feelings is that it is irrational. I don't see that as true, but it is difficult to know how strong feelings apply in the authenticity of this movement. The claim lacks rigor because defining the authenticity of the feelings is beyond detection or authentic measure. In effect we only know what we are told rather than subject the information to scientific analysis.

Alon writes;
And I disagree that showing the money trail is the strongest possible retort. It only tells people the obvious truth that big pharma wants things to stay as they are. Big deal. It doesn't address their concerns about rationing or waits. Those are not trivial issues, and although the death panels comment was moronic, it builds on those concerns in the same way Michael Moore's Ingsoc comparisons build upon real violations of civil liberties in post-9/11 America. The best way of getting people to support you or at least moderate their opposition is to take them seriously and respond to their questions, rather than to tell them what they really think and who's really behind them. That kind of discrediting you do to Sarah Palin, not a random voter who's satisfied with his insurance.

I think from experience that your point is actually harder to do. Persuading people of complex issues takes time and their willingness to listen. Those kinds of resources are in short supply. Normally the mass broadcast media doesn't provide much persuasion. In the fine grain like Lindsey's blog, one can discuss some depth, but the disjointedness of fine grain from large scale education is a serious problem in our culture. There is no big resource like for example wikipedia with some sort of vetting process to authenticate persuasive argumentation. Lacking that strategically I think Lindsey's stance is right.

The health care retorts the Dems are not doing are not complex. They can be reduced to one sentence each plus links: "The WTO has ranked the US health care system 37th in the world"; "88,000 people die in the US every year from infections they acquired at the hospital, which is 3 times the rate in Italy and 4 times the rate in France"; "US cancer survival rates are barely higher than in the richer countries of Continental Europe"; "US obesity rates are computed differently from European rates, and when you use the same method, the US and Britain turn out to have the same obesity rates"; "Britain's health care rationing began only after Margaret Thatcher defunded the NHS."

Of course, those retorts alone are not enough, for rhetorical reasons. You want to listen to your interlocutor, not just hurl statistics at them. But you have to listen. If they're angry, the worst thing you can do is give them more reasons to be angry.

And on top of it, a lot of the anger is fueled by the belief that there is ultimately something to those claims. Maybe not to "Don't let the government get its hands on Medicare," but to the complaints about health care rationing, which have driven opposition to universal health care since 1993. To see one's movement's more thoughtful people lose debates really does raise doubts. The problem is that the leaders on the pro-reform side just don't care to win those debates. Krugman gains nothing from helping defray concerns about universal health care - on the contrary, his entire philosophy that the Republicans are conspiring to destroy America requires him to keep failing.

Alon writes;
But you have to listen. If they're angry, the worst thing you can do is give them more reasons to be angry.

If I am in front of someone who is angry, it's a puzzle what is happening. They usually have shut down meaning of the confrontation to a narrower list of meanings. That's what people mean by losing reason in anger. The details are lost, the nuance is lost. The angry person demands agreement. There is no meaning except their meaning.

So I don't have to listen to their meaning or respond to their meaning since the meaning is not meaning to me or we wouldn't be angrily confronted. What I see is a wall in front of me of their anger in opposition to what I say. I know anger is fluid and transient. As a person grows tired the anger dissipates. A sense of reason returns. The fluctuation of feeling that can lead to reason is what I watch for. Perhaps a moment is reached in which we can return to talking about details. What you allude to is stoking anger, increasing the barrier to reason and connection between people. Yet stoking anger can lead to a peak then to a sense of a return to reason.

What I am saying is your point is too pat.

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