Editor’s Note: This past Monday, I was beyond-humbled-and-honored to speak at this year’s “State of Our City Forum,” put on by the Federation of Community Councils and Anchorage’s Community Patrols. The following is the transcription of my speech, and (most of) the accompanying slide show. All week, Alaska Commons will be uploading the eight different speakers’ presentations. My sincere thanks for the opportunity to speak, and I hope you enjoy what I came up with.
My name is John Aronno, I’m the co-founder and managing editor of Alaska Commons. We’re only a little over a year old. If you’ve never heard of us, or me, no worries.
I was thinking about what the state of Anchorage is, and I kept coming back to the fact that, more and more, it’s online.
The Municipal Clerk’s Office has a facebook page now. That’s awesome. Representative Bob Lynn has his own blog. I promise you, that is incredible. You should check that out.
Charisse Millett live-tweeted the MTV Video Music Awards. Hashtag Vomit in capitals, so that happened.
Whether we’re talking about politics, local foods, arts and entertainment, lolcats – it’s done through facebook and twitter, more so and more so now. It’s really changing the face of communication.
But, while no other invention has empowered people to learn more, discover more – it can also be said that no other invention has inspired people to do so little and be so mean while they’re at it.
The internet is the greatest tool in the history of mankind to trick people; to change their behavior. Buy this product. Vote for this candidate. Love this movement. Hate these people.
I really don’t like that last one, but it’s also kind of how I got started writing about politics. I promise, writing about politics was not supposed to be in the cards for me.
My background is actually in music. I was a professional musician for years. I cared about the next show, the next tour, what bands were coming around, and what the front row looked like in terms of women. Politics were not on my radar.
In 2009, a friend mentioned that Anchorage was going to try and pass an equal rights ordinance. Seemed logical. I honestly figured they were just fixing a typo or something.
My fiance and I went down to the Loussac for what we thought would be a ten minute meeting. Any of you who were around during that time know it ended up being a little more complicated than that.
That summer was a whirlwind. My fiance – who would be my wife before the Summer of Hate was over – started a blog, that fact checked a lot of the absolutely crazy claims that were coming out of the Anchorage Baptist Temple and the Alaska Family Council.
I started doing recaps of each Assembly meeting, and transcripts of a lot of the testimony.
By the end of the summer, the ordinance was passed and promptly vetoed. But I also noticed that my blog had a lot of readers all of a sudden. That was kind of unexpected.
And I had been introduced to this amazing community – not just the LGBT community, but this large swath of people dedicated to making Anchorage a better place. And I wanted to sign up for that.
So, Alaska Commons was relaunched in March of last year. What was once a personal blog is now a community-based online news magazine. We kind of run ourselves like a co-op, with a dozen members who each have an equal stake in our organization’s success.
We focus on stories that don’t get as much attention from other news organizations. Maybe they’re boring. Maybe it’s tough to tell them in 300 words or less, or maybe someone tried, but we thought we could do better. We try to provide more context; deeper understanding, stay away from personal politics, and we keep it local.
I don’t care about anything outside of Alaska, because, have you turned on the TV lately?
A few weeks ago, I wrote a story about two anonymous facebook groups that popped up to oppose enrollment in the health care exchanges. One is called “Know the Facts Alaska.” The other is called “Don’t Enroll Alaska.” Both these websites offer slanted content, often steering clear of facts entirely, discouraging people from signing up for health care.
The sites really bugged me. I really hate anonymous blogging. I think there’s a lot of real value in having a name and having accountability.
I dug around, and found out that the “grassroots” Alaska community group calling themselves “Know the Facts Alaska” was actually a Chicago marketing firm.
Laurel Andrews with Alaska Dispatch picked up the story. She was able to tie the sites to an extensive network of national groups trying to influence policy at state and local levels.
This is a new campaign style. It’s cheap, risk free, and depressingly effective. And the only way to fight it is to recognize the scam before we all fall for it.
When the Dispatch story went viral, Democratic Party Chair Mike Wenstrup sent out a press release, saying: “Alaskans get our information from friends and neighbors, not anonymous sources with hidden agendas.”
But we do. Turn on the TV during campaign season, it’s “People for Liberty and Puppies.”
We rely more and more on our friends lists. And social media sites like facebook allow us to unconsciously segregate; limit what you see and experience so that we only hear what we want to. Ads are selected based on that, to fit the behavior. Shady political groups call that micro-targeting, and we’re doing the hard work for them.
There’s a reason that in digital advertising, we call ads “impressions.” There’s something diabolically poetic about that.
The internet is a customizable network of confirmation bias.
Between the labor law and oil tax referendums, the midterm elections, municipal elections, and ballot initiatives like marijuana legalization and raising the minimum wage, the internet is going to go into hyper-drive in a way we have never seen before, telling us how should think. A lot of it is going to be fraud.
So, here are a few red flags that we should all be aware of.
Every message has an author. You should be entitled to know who that person is. Ask. If they won’t tell you, there’s probably a reason for that. Even if you like what they’re selling – it’s better to know where it’s coming from. We don’t take medicine from strangers. Why would we take information?
On pretty much any given issue, you can go on the internet and find someone with the same opinion as you, but they’ll attach their name to it. Go with that.
And if you go on the internet and you can’t find a single person who agrees with you, that might be a “you” issue.
Everyone likes to call what their doing grassroots, because it sounds organic. We all like that. “Know the Facts Alaska,” call themselves grassroots. The Chicago firm. That’s the Chicago firm. The dude trying to look super-Alaskan with the bomber jacket and the sunglasses? That’s their CEO from Chicago. That’s what they have on their page, selling themselves as grassroots in Alaska.
So, the actual definition of a blog: “A website on which someone writes about personal opinions, activities, and experiences.”
How many people have a facebook page, or a twitter account, or a youtube page?
You’re all bloggers!
The term is used to cast a giant net on the internet and categorically dismiss anyone who said something inconvenient.
Journalism is an ethic. Blogging is a medium. It’s a false comparison. There are plenty of amazing journalists on blogs, and horrible journalists on television and in print, and visa versa. So, concentrate on the content. Be wary of anyone telling you to dismiss someone just because of the medium that they’re using.
The internet has tremendous power, but it comes with responsibilities. We need to be more responsible in what we share; what we “like;” what we unconsciously may have just legitimized to our entire network of friends and family.
If we want to weather the storm of false information that’s about to flood our community, we’re going to need to work together as that community to make sure the scam doesn’t work here.
Watch the full speech here:
Home Politics Community Politics John Aronno: The Nine Most Terrifying Words in the English Language Are...