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On Holding Bloggers Accountable

Post-script: As my friend and colleague Ethan Zuckerman points out here, the New York Times does in fact have more of a responsibility than the Iranian blogger who reported on this story. I do still believe that we need to hold bloggers accountable as well, but in taking into consideration the fact that The Lede blog is doing precisely the same work as Global Voices – and GV’s doing it substantially better, with a volunteer staff of local “experts” – I too am going to call out Mackey for his irresponsibility.”

Enough people have discussed this with me over the course of the past two days that I feel compelled nearly to issue a statement. Given that I’m not nearly famous enough to do so, I will instead blog my thoughts on the issue.

The issue at hand, of course, is the New York Times’ alleged accusation that Hossein Derakhshan is collaborating with the Iranian government in a battle against Iranian opposition bloggers. The story goes something like this: The New York Times’ Lede Blog, written by Robert Mackey, has been liveblogging the protests (and by liveblogging, I mean they’ve mostly been quoting bloggers and tweeters, and rather poorly at that) happening online and on the ground in Iran. They’ve made all sorts of missteps along the way, the most recent being an accusation that Derakhshan is a government agent. Following a comment from GV’s Solana Larsen, Mackey edited the story for clarity, leaving in the quotes from Iranian bloggers which state Derakhshan to be working for the wrong side. The bit currently reads:

After we published that previous blog post on Mr. Derakhshan, one of our readers, Javad Ghorbati, commented:

it also should be stated that many internet-based Iranian communities are sceptical and puzzled about Hossein Derakhshan (aka Hoder) work and his relationship with the Iranian authorities. There is a silent agreement within them that Mr. Derakhshan may have been employed by the Iranian authorities to collect information on internet-based Iranian activists during recent years when he was heavily involved with developing the Iranian blogosphere. As it is widely reported, Iranian Revolutionary Guard which is known as the core of the Iranian intelligent service has been recently involved with creating a new division for surveillance of the political websites and weblogs on the religious and national security grounds and many Iranian believes that Hossein Derakhshan might have some involvement with the new division.”

While there is no evidence to support the rumor that Mr. Derakhshan is cooperating with the authorities in their battle against Iran’s opposition bloggers — and the people running the online campaign to free Mr. Derakhshan vehemently deny the rumor — the fact that some Iranian bloggers are again talking about this possibility seems to indicate that the “cyber army” set up by Iran’s Revolutionary Guards has helped to stir up paranoia and fear in that community.

Mackey also issued a statement that reads:

* Note: The 1:19 p.m. update was revised to clarify that we know of no evidence to support the rumor that Mr. Derakhshan is cooperating with Iran’s authorities. We reported that the rumor exists mainly to emphasize that as Iran’s authorities seek to use online tools to fight back against opposition bloggers, fear and suspicion are rife.

First of all, let me say that it is absolutely absurd – as well as stupid and dangerous – for anyone to make such libelous accusations, based on nothing but hearsay.

I don’t believe, however, that it was Robert Mackey’s intent to make any accusations at all, rather, the blame should be placed on the blogger he quoted, particular given his eagerness to correct his post in the wake of Solana Larsen’s comment.

What I do wonder is: Why are we blaming Mackey – a journalist with no real connection to or experience with Iran – and not the blogger he quoted.

This piece for Global Dashboard places all of the blame on Mackey as well, without even mentioning the blogger who wrote the post.

In response, Ethan Zuckerman points out on Twitter that, “While there is no evidence to support the rumor that Mr. Mackey of the NYTimes manufactures stories, it IS being discussed on Twitter.”

To be fair, Ethan makes another point which I agree with: That Mackey needed to be more cautious about amplifying that particular blogger’s voice without balancing it. Which brings me to why I’m so angry in the first place…Mackey is a blogger, not a journalist, in this current role. He is bridge-blogging, just as we do at Global Voices, between amateur bloggers and a major source of online news. So yes, he has a responsibility to make sure that the voices he is amplifying are not extreme – but we, as readers, also have a responsibility to go back to the source and judge the statement by the blogger who wrote it – and not necessarily blame the messenger.

10 replies on “On Holding Bloggers Accountable”


I started blogging because I wanted to write freely without being held to the same scrutiny as I am in my university studies. That is not to say that I intentionally write misinformation; rather, I get to spend more time thinking and less time converting my footnotes into Turabian format.

I agree that Mackey should have been more cautious, but I think that different blogs should be held to different standards. We shouldn’t forget that the Iran-Contra Affair began as a conspiracy theory–dubious information sources play an important component of any properly functioning democracy.

Mackey was trying to relay information he considered useful, but he didn’t think about the consequences of this information. Similar questions have been raised about the allegations that Paul Kagame was responsible for the plane crash that sparked the Rwandan Genocide. Should these claims be investigated, or should the only leader to bring stability to that country be given forgiven for what he allegedy did 15 years ago?

…Or Gavrilo Princip…

I get your point. I’ve modified my opinion on this after speaking with a few other impassioned friends and colleagues to say that Mackey should have at least given credence to a balanced selection of points. That said, Mackey is still a blogger in my mind, no matter who pays him, and so is Habibinia. He should not be held to the standards of a journalist.

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