Just the facts: truth and the internet

Åsne Seierstad Jacob Weisberg Susan Tifft George Saunders Carol Darr Ammar Abdulhamid
13 June 2006

"Just the facts: truth and the internet" took place in April 2006 as part of the PEN New York World Voices festival. For more information see www.pen.org.

The panel included Ammar Abdulhamid, Carol Darr, George Saunders, Åsne Seierstad, Susan Tifft, and Jacob Weisberg.

Listen to the full event (57.38mins)
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Jacob Weisberg: The subject of the internet is an intense and complicated one for me. I'm the editor of an internet magazine, I've been working on Slate for nearly 10 years. When we started Slate in 1996, a lot of people, like my mom, didn't even know what the internet was. First you'd have to start with the question "what is the internet?" When we started we didn't exactly know but we figured it out. And now after ten years, it's starting to feel like a lot of the world, at least a lot of the media world, is coming to see the point about what we've been trying to do.

What's terrific about this panel is that we have people from the world of international politics, people who have been activists for freedom and democracy in other parts of the world, we have literary writers, we have people who's work draws on both, and the internet has had a kind of transformative effect on everyone in different ways and I hope we'll get at that and find some commonalities and maybe some points of difference.

First question is: how has the internet changed what you do, either as a literary writer, a political activist or a journalist?

George Saunders: Well, it's had a profound effect because I'm spending about seven hours a day self-Googling. The one exciting thing I've found, and not to be too much of a kiss-up, but the Slate pieces were pretty leftist in their politics and it was amazing that the response was really big and confused, in the sense that I felt that I had gotten out of the leftist ghetto.

If you publish in the New Yorker, to a certain extent the New Yorker audience is self-selected to approve of what you're saying. Suddenly I was getting emails from all kinds of disparate people. I had some great conversations with people I never would have met or talked to. In a certain sense, the audience was thrown wide open, and plus you get the wonderful follow-up benefit of being able to communicate directly, so it's expansive of the literary community as well.

These recordings are part a series of audio features from the PEN World Voices literary festival in New York

Also in the series on openDemocracy:

"Freedom to write: Orhan Pamuk, Margaret Atwood and Salman Rushdie" (April, 2006)

"Argumentative Indians: Amartya Sen and Salman Rushdie in conversation" (May, 2006)

"Idols & Insults: writing, religion, and freedom of expression "
(May, 2006)

Jacob Weisberg: When you're working on your stories and your fiction writing is the internet a way of wasting time and avoiding work? Or is there a way that you draw inspiration and ideas?

George Saunders: Honestly, neither. To me, it's a separate kind of thing but the one difference is that, to an extent, as a fiction writer you project your audience, the internet has complicated my projection of my audience. And I think in a good way, in a deep way. But in terms of actual fiction work, there's just no crossover.

Jacob Weisberg: Ammar, well I guess the internet is probably responsible, among other things, for the fact that you're here and not in Syria right now.

Ammar Abdulhamid: In many ways, the internet was an instrument that freed me from censorship. Whenever I got censored before, whether I wrote a poem or an article, I ended up publishing it on the net anyway and getting some responses.

At the same time, the internet sort of made me face myself because for a long time – the same as many authors – you speak about human rights, you criticize the system, but with the internet I had to put some of my body and soul where my mouth was. It facilitated activism and interaction with like-minded people all over the world. All of a sudden I found myself being asked "so what are you doing about this?" The reality of the internet woke me up and made me become an activist. So instead of being this bohemian author, I ended being a politicised figure.

The more I used the internet, the more I realized that there's a greater chance to communicate across borders. One of the outcomes was to start a peace dialogue between Syrians and Israelis, which is very much against the laws and norms in Syria. This initiative is what created the dilemma that I'm currently in and led to my exile. In a sense the internet freed me but it also put a lot of obligations on me and it ended up paving my way into exile. It dragged me away from my literary life – I was an author and I wanted to write – but I got involved in activism. In my case, I owe a lot to the internet but sometimes I even curse it.

Jacob Weisberg: Your blog was written in English, even when you were in Syria. What kind of response did you get? Was much of it from abroad or was there a lot that was domestic? Were people responsive to your ideas in Syria?

Ammar Abdulhamid: A lot of Syrians only speak Arabic, so by choosing English I was also really protecting myself. I didn't want a vast readership inside Syria as I did not want to be known to the authorities. But I was essentially communicating to an English-speaking audience and this definitely increased my reach.

The reason I started the blog was because one day I was interrogated. Instead of sending separate emails to a lot of people, I started a blog and I wrote about everything that had happened to me. For instance, one of the most hits I ever got was this entry where one of the interrogating officers asked me "So you believe in this American democracy? The democracy of 'fucking' in Guatemala?" He meant of course Guantanamo. I responded "Did you say Guatemala? Can I speak to someone higher up on the 'fuck' chain?"

Their stupidity was really something that was amazing to talk about. It is surreal to be in their hands. They can have you anytime they want. They can stamp out your freedom and your life, but at the same time, you can go home and really poke fun at them.

Jacob Weisberg: You seem remarkably cavalier about this. My impression was that people who made fun of interrogation in Syria tended to have things happen to them which we might not want to discuss here. Was it because you were as connected as you were to the "outside" that you felt you had some immunity or did you think you were going to be tortured?

Ammar Abdulhamid: I was connected to a lot of people "outside", and including the US. I made a point of making this known on my blog as a form of protection. But, I also didn't want to make it too big, so people wouldn't think that I'm proposing myself as an alternative to the president. I have no ambition of doing that. I think people who run for the presidency of any country really need to have psychological checks on them.

Another reason why I was protected was that my mom was a very famous actress, so I always played on that and felt rather guilty about it. Other dissidents will have a rough time, but when it was my turn they were often fascinated by my background – "You're the son of so and so" – which is a useful thing to play on.

I've always been lucky. I land on my feet all the time, so I depended on that. Finally, I'm quite selfish. I don't think of the consequences. The more I got interrogated, the more I went back home and I looked at my wife and kids and began to see the demoralising effect this was having. I began to re-examine my activism and realized that I've neglected other important things in my life.

Jacob Weisberg: Susan, what about journalism school and the work you do as a writer?

Susan Tifft: There are three things that have changed for me because of the internet. As a writer and a journalist, the research function of the internet has been a huge change.

Secondly, it has affected how I work. I live in New York and commute to Duke to teach. That would have been impossible if we didn't have the internet. My students can email me, I can email them – we can communicate at godawful hours.

Finally, it's really changed the conversations that I've been having, and other journalists are having, about basic questions like "who is a journalist?" If someone throws something up on the internet, does that make them a journalist? What's true and what's not? Is it okay to use Wikipedia when you're writing papers? The things we used to take as sources of truth, like an encyclopaedia, are now up for grabs, as are the definitions of journalism.

Jacob Weisberg: I want to come up to the 'who is a journalist question' later. Åsne, you've written about very traditional societies. Has it had an effect on what you do as a writer?

Åsne Seierstad: Not so much. I think I seem to be technologically the most old-fashioned on the panel. I mostly never use the internet. In Afghanistan, where the illiteracy rate is more than 80%, how are you supposed to use the internet? It is the educated world who is able to do that.

Why I haven't used the internet? Probably because it doesn't suit me. What I try to achieve in my books is the feeling that the reader has met someone, or something, new. That he or she has learned something about a different society from where they live in.

You can get a lot of important information on the internet, but you might not get so much knowledge, and I think that's what you can get through books. You're sitting in a different way, maybe in good chair, and you're not looking at the screen. You can interact in a different way with a book, and perhaps what we need in our society is not overwhelming information, but to try and understand others. This is one of the reasons why there are so many conflicts in the world. I'm interested in going somewhere, sitting on a dirt floor and waiting for people to speak, not rushing, but just getting their story. That is a face to face thing, not something you can do through email or internet.

Jacob Weisberg: Do you think that's also true because the places that you've studied and have been interested in are traditional societies? If your next book were about California, would it be quite different?

Åsne Seierstad: No, it wouldn't. What can I do through the internet about California that people don't already know? But if I go there and sit on a street corner for a year I'm sure I will hear some new stories, so I don't think that is the reason.

In the case of Iraq, I was there before the war when Saddam was ruling. What was important to me was that I was from Norway, and the government hadn't yet taken a stand on the war. They were still wondering what opinion to have. It was important to me and my readers and for the government to meet the Iraqis. Who were these people that we are considering to bomb or not to bomb? How do they live, what do they think? That was something you had to do on the ground, and at that time, we could. But today, three years after the war, what reporter is going to walk around the streets of Baghdad spending and taking the time to get these real stories? You can count these journalists on one hand in the world today.

Then you have bloggers – from Baghdad, Syria for instance – they are telling us about real life now, not through the eyes of Western reporters. So that shows how important the internet is. Even though it's not my tool, I am happy to see that it's used in that way. Riverbend, one of the Iraqi bloggers has had her blog published into book form. Maybe that will have the connection that I'm trying to find.

Listen to the full event (57.38mins):
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Jacob Weisberg: Carol, let me turn the question a little bit around for you. I'm a political writer by background, worked on the internet for ten years and I've been sort of frustrated that the internet hasn't done more to transform politics. Early on we had such high hopes in terms of what it can do in building participation of different kinds in American politics and obviously it's done a lot, but am I wrong in thinking that politics has not been transformed by the internet in nearly the extent that we might have hoped it would be?

Carol Darr: Yes and no. There has been a huge effect already on politics both with regard to people who are volunteering, or people who are giving money – but you haven't seen even a fraction of what you're going to see. Phil Noble, an internet consultant, has described it as "it is still 9 o'clock in the morning, on the first day of the revolution".

I've been involved in presidential politics off and on for about 30 years and it's always been the same little clique of people. My best guess around the country is that you probably had 150, 000 people giving money and contributing. With the internet, the people who were involved at the last election is estimated at around 7-10 million. John Kerry raised $82 million on the internet, compared to Al Gore's $50 million in 2000.

What you're seeing is that the internet really is democratising democracy. It's lowering the barriers to entry. It's becoming easier for people to get involved. You can go on the internet and dip your toe in and so a lot more people are coming into the process.

Jacob Weisberg: What do you think about the internet as a tool of literary expression (I think you maybe a little bit sceptical about this)? On Slate right now, we're publishing a novel by Walter Kern called the Unbinding. He's writing this novel in real time – week by week, the way Dickens wrote (but without the delay in publishing). He's responding to responses to the novel, he's responding to things happening in the news. To me this is a wonderful, new experimental literary form, and depending on how things go over the next few years, we may see a lot of people trying to write novels on the internet. What do you think as primarily literary writers about the internet as a vehicle? Have you at any point tried to use the properties of this medium to write?

Åsne Seierstad: It is of course interesting because of the fact that it is so quick – printing will never be that quick. I often print out things that I want to read – it's more comfortable than looking at the screen all the time. Would I ever write a novel on the internet? I have nothing against it, but I think that in order to get to deeper reflection that our society needs, it takes time and not everything has to happen at the moment. It's great to instantly talk about things that are going on around you, but it is also good to think slowly and carefully.

George Saunders: I am sceptical about me doing it, because I know for sure what the difference is between draft one and draft fifty. If there's anything that I've learnt over the last fiteen to twenty years is that you wait. The kind of wisdom that you're talking about, it's not on a conscious level and often it doesn't want to come out. In my experience revision is the only way that it happens, and revision way past the point of when you're tired of revising and when you let it sit for six months and come back to it.

On the plus side, the critical community is now more open – everyone is a critic. On the bad side, some of the criticism you see is literally just being fired off in one draft. It can be very tempting once you've typed it just to hit send, but I would say, just to be a little bit hyperbolic, the biggest danger of the internet is that we are going to be seduced by our own first draft charm. Just because it's quick doesn't mean it's smarter.

As anyone who spends any time writing knows, you're stupid in a first draft. You're supposed to be. To go through that process is so purifying in a way. If you look at the political discourse of the last say eight years, it's gotten quicker, stupider and more polarised and I'm sure it has something to do with the fact that you're sitting in your underwear at two in the morning and you're thinking "that's pretty good." If you multiply that by 20 billion, you get what we're getting now.

In fiction – in all writing for that matter – you have a projected imagination of your audience. If you have six months to do that, you moderate. If you don't, you're actually talking to a projection you're creating in real time, and if you're doing that in response to something, it's even worse. I sometimes get this cross-firing of mutual projections that's quite nightmarish. If you took some time that probably wouldn't happen. It's not a big deal except when you multiply it by the billions of people using it. I think it can actually cause a shift in the way people think and function.

Carol Darr: The architecture of the internet allows anonymity. You see people saying things to other people that they would never dream of saying in real life. There was a congressman who had done an editorial on Terry Shivo and had misstated some factual statements. Someone on the internet called him a "simpering, sadist, suck-weasel". What moderates people towards the centre and what makes groups more extreme?

What moderates people towards the centre is large heterogeneous groups focused on the task at hand. On the other end, there are groups of homogenous, like-minded people (particularly people who feel disaffected) who get together, bounce ideas off each other and end up angrier and more polarised than when they started – those are the extreme groups.

Jacob Weisberg: If there are six lunatics around the world who have something in common they can find each other on the internet. In a previous lifetime they would have remained isolated. Which is a real effect, it can concentrate the extremity. But this is only one effect. There are other kinds of dialogues taking place which do just the opposite. It is a wonderful vehicle for crazies of all kinds. It's absolutely true that when you make any kind of mistake on the internet that you are abused, but that's a very good incentive for journalists. It raises the cost of error because it is so humiliating.

Susan Tifft: What you're losing though is a sense of civility. It's one thing to point out a mistake or to say that something is wrong – but the kind of language that's used can be poisonous. I wrote an op-Ed for USA Today on the National Rifle Association (I should have known better) which had just started "NRA News" and they wanted the protection of a news agency – but of course it wasn't really news but advocacy. After I wrote this Op-Ed, instantaneously I started getting very angry and sometimes obscene emails – my error was my point of view. There has to be the encouragement of a civil discourse, we've seen what it can do politically and it's not a good thing.

Jacob Weisberg: You are going to have uncivil discourse, the goal should be to have civil discourse alongside of it and have places where people want to have civil discourse can have it. The difficulty is creating a space for those discussions and protecting them from people who can very quickly sabotage.

One of the things that I like about the internet, which I suspect you may not like as much, is that it breaks down the barriers to entry to journalism and tears down the wall a bit between who is and who isn't a journalist. There are people who get into journalism now by way of blogging who emerge as very interesting and influential voices. I see that as freedom of expression, democracy and open dialogue. At the same time, there are a lot of costs. One of them is the idea that journalism is a distinct profession and can be identified as such comes under threat.

Susan Tifft: This is the "is you is or is you ain't a journalist" question. I used a piece that Jacob wrote called "Who's a journalist?". I'm not actually as hostile as you might think on lowering barriers to entry – journalism is a weird profession. It's not like medicine or law or accountancy, you don't need to go through a defined education process, so in a sense anyone can be a journalist and that was true before the internet.

What I feel about bloggers for instance calling themselves journalists is that all of what passes as journalism, in their eyes, is actually just asserting an opinion. It's not doing any of the things that journalists actually do, to report and to verify. Some bloggers feed on the information that bloggers produce. What I'm concerned about most is having standards of accountability and verification. At the same time, I'd be the first person to admit that a lot of the things that bloggers have done have been very good for the internet.

Jacob Weisberg: Ammar, a question for you. Are you concerned by how the internet can be used by illegitimate and undemocratic regimes as a tool of oppression?

Ammar Abdulhamid: On the surface of it the internet may appear to be too egalitarian, anyone can have access to it, but the reality is, in my part of the world, the government operate the internet. There are no private providers, and even those which have some degree of independence are still affiliated to the government, but even they would not want to jeopardise their livelihood by allowing access to dissidents, for example. So for all the criticism you see on the internet, the Syrian government has the ability to shut everything down. It won't do this because it knows it will look very bad, while they are claiming to be reformist. But they occasionally jail dissidents because of views found on the internet, and they do monitor the emails of certain people, and there are several cases of people in prison because of email exchanges, for whatever reason. At this stage it's still not clear whether it really will "free us". It's still in the beginning stages. The internet is just an instrument and it cannot be divorced from the overall struggle for greater liberalisation of our system for greater freedom, we can use it as it is to communicate, but there needs to be parallel activity. We need to push our regimes. The internet does have its limitations, and as we've noted, there are a lot of morons out there, which can adversely affect the quality of intelligent discussion – the debate can be completely diluted.

Jacob Weisberg: Why hasn't the Syrian regime, just as an example, censored the internet the way the Chinese have? The theory is that the reason why the Chinese government hasn't pulled the plug is because it's worried it will undermine its drive for economic growth, and that it can't separate political freedom from economic freedom effectively. It doesn't sound to me like that's the issue in Syria, but maybe it is. Is it because of incompetence that they don't censor the internet better?

Ammar Abdulhamid: Actually I would like to think that it is partly incompetence. But also it's because the regime is diffused internally. Here you get into the particular nature of the Syrian regime. It's not one person calling all the shots, there is competition internally and we benefit from this competition. Some people want to use the internet for their own private purposes so people can still have access to websites where they're propagandizing their own points of view on them. So they don't want to cancel it directly because it's just another media outlet for them to compete through. I think we're benefitting from this kind of situation. But if you have one point of view in the Syrian regime, let's say if the president is really in control, and he has only one point of view, I think that he can easily make the decision to disallow the internet. <?p>

There are power centres, like in many authoritarian regimes, and people simply don't realize. No matter how strong and ruthless a dictator is, they are still power centres and they do compete. The internet now is a new field for their competition to take place. Which is why we have several websites sponsored by different government officials, basically so that they air different points of view. As a reader from the outside you might not be able to tell the differences but you can see what's really taking place.

Listen to the full event (57.38mins)
High bandwidth: 128kbps / Low bandwidth: 64kbps

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