Fisking Gregory Ferenstein

by Lee Doren on June 4, 2010

Recenlty I had the displeasure of reading Gregory Ferenstein’s column, “Why the web benefits liberals more than conservatives.” Ferenstein’s central thesis is that liberal ideological characteristics facilitate Internet success, while the opposite is true for conservatism. Frankly, his entire piece is based on assumptions without evidence.

Ferenstein states:

“From the micro-donation platform first popularized by Howard Dean in 2003 to the million-strong Barack Obama Facebook page to the huge audience of the Huffington Post, liberals have been the dominant political force on the internet since the digital revolution began.”

Ferenstein avoids the most important reason for this phenomenon: Age. Younger people dominate the Internet, and younger people are more liberal by statistically significant margins. Furthermore, college students largely supported Obama in the most recent presidential election. So, Ferenstein might as well replace the phrase, “Liberals have been the dominant political force on the Internet since the digital revolution began,” with, “Young people have been the dominant demographic on the Internet since the digital revolution began.” They have the same meaning.

Ferenstein continues:

“Now, research out of Harvard University’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society suggests that the reason behind this imbalance may be the liberal belief system itself.

Liberals, the research finds, are oriented toward community activism, employing technology to encourage debate and feature user-generated content. Conservatives, on the other hand, are more comfortable with a commanding leadership and use restrictive policies to combat disorderly speech in online forums.”

Even the Harvard University study concedes that several conservative blogs allow user-generated content, and several liberal blogs do not. If we are to assume that restrictive commenting policies are uniquely conservative, then we wouldn’t expect liberal blogs to be run the same way. Moreover, conservative blogs like Redstate.com and FreeRepublic.com allow an enormous amount of user-generated content, which according to Ferenstein, goes against conservative ideology. Someone should notify Erick Erickson that he’s a CBINO (Conservative Blogger in Name Only).

Ferenstein then disqualifies his argument from being taken seriously when he fixates on HotAir.com. He states the following:

“The Huffington Post’s closest conservative competitor, Hotair.com, has only a fraction of its audience size and is tightly controlled by an inner circle of three authors.

A leading right-wing blog, Hot Air was founded by Michelle Malkin, an author who is known for her support of wartime loyalty oaths and racial profiling as a defense against terrorism. In criticizing Obama’s 2009 address to the United Nations, she said, “he solidified his place in the international view as the great appeaser and the groveler in chief.”

Indeed, Malkin’s hard-line national security views are matched by Hotair’s unusually restrictive comment policy. The site permits comments only by registered users; currently, registration is closed to any new users. The site states, “We may allow as much or as little opportunity for registration as we choose, in our absolute discretion, and we may close particular comment threads or discontinue our general policy of allowing comments at any time.”

First of all, Michelle Malkin rarely blogged for HotAir.com. Ed Morrissey and the blogger known as AllahPundit do. Malkin was simply affectionately known as the “Boss Emeritus” until HotAir.com was acquired recently by Salem Communications. I’m also not sure how Ferenstein makes the logical jump from her national security positions to HotAir’s comment policy. Other large conservative blogs with similar foreign policy positions, like Ace of Spades HQ, allow anyone to comment at any time without registration. Conversely, the Daily Kos regularly bans people from its website.

Furthermore, comparisons with The Huffington Post are misleading. It has a larger audience than HotAir because it pays for Associated Press content, has numerous full-time employees to run the site, and, to the best of my knowledge, doesn’t pay its bloggers a penny.

Ferenstein’s analysis of The Huffington Post gets even more bizarre:

“By contrast, the left-leaning Huffington Post, the most visited blog on the Internet, has thousands of bloggers and invites active users to become featured authors and comment facilitators.

Founder Arianna Huffington herself supported working diplomatically with the international community to deal with Saddam Hussein and recently endorsed Jeremy Rifkin’s book “The Empathic Civilization,” which she says “allows humanity to see itself as an extended family living in a shared and interconnected world.”

Thus, from just a snapshot of the top political bloggers, one catches a glimpse of an emerging pattern: leadership and control from the right, and equality and community on the left.”

It was only within the last few weeks that The Huffington Post invited active users to become featured comment facilitators. Previously, Huffington Post moderated comments heavily. So, whatever success The Huffington Post has achieved, it cannot be attributed to its new comment facilitators. Also, I’m a regular reader of The Huffington Post and I’ve never seen an active user become a featured author. The authors are almost all selected by Arianna and her team.

“While any definitive statements about a technology still in its infancy are premature, the inclusiveness of the liberal approach does seem to have its advantages. Obama’s Internet strategy is credited with giving grass-roots supporters space to find unique ways to reach their more apathetic peers and motivate them through user-generated content.

This openness to outsiders gave rise to surprising internet sensations such as the iconic “Hope” poster and enormous gatherings coordinated by social-networking activists.”

Again, this should not be surprising since younger demographics dominate the Internet. While people over the age of 60, who lean conservative, use the Internet in greater numbers than in previous years, the fact remains that young people are more liberal and use the Internet more. (Of course, people do get more conservative as they get older, but how that will play out in the future remains to be seen.)

Towards the end, Ferenstein contradicts himself by addressing the Scott Brown victory:

“Indeed, conservative Scott Brown’s stunning victory in a Massachusetts Senate race took its strategy from Obama’s playbook. Instead of micromanaging the campaign message, Brown permitted an unknown universe of latent conservative activists to contribute as they saw fit.

“An engaged following is more likely to retweet, to comment on blogs, to respond to unfounded criticism,” Boston political consultant John LaRosa told Wired. Of Brown’s campaign, he said, “it became a movement, and it just fed on itself.””

Right, so the conservative Tea Party movement via decentralized networks managed to get Scott Brown elected. Doesn’t this dispute everything Ferenstein previously said about conservatives needing a hierarchal structure? Scott Brown even has similar foreign policy stances to Michelle Malkin. I thought according to Ferenstein that a “hard-line” foreign policy position would lead to a top-down approach to campaigning?

Lastly Ferenstein comes close to addressing the fact that youth dominate the Internet, but he fails to draw the correct conclusion that, that is the reason for the phenomenon of liberals also dominating the Internet.

“But even if more conservatives adopt Brown’s online strategy, right-wing constituents overall may be less comfortable with grass-roots activism. Russell J. Dalton, a political science professor at the University of California, Irvine, says that among politically active youth, liberals are substantially more likely to donate money, attend a rally and participate in online discussions.”

Of course! If the youth are more likely to engage in online discussions, those are likely to include political online discussions.

“Republicans tend to see a “limited participatory role” for citizens, Dalton writes in his book “The Good Citizen: How a Younger Generation Is Reshaping American Politics…Conservatives may one day embrace the participatory web en masse. However, the very structure of the internet as a decentralized grouping of communities may never appeal to the large portion of right-wingers who prefer military-style hierarchies and commanding leaders.”

So either the Tea Party doesn’t show up on Ferenstein’s radar, or the Tea Party is not a conservative movement.
Overall, Ferenstein ignores the obvious fact that younger—and by extension more liberal—people dominate the Internet, which explains liberal blogs’ popularity. But it has nothing to do with liberal ideology itself.

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