Today’s Crowdsourcing Choice: Help ProPublica Track Political Ads, or Help the Internet Trash Trayvon Martin

March 27th, 2012

Call today a study in crowdsourcing contrasts. First, the good: public-interest news outlet ProPublica is asking citizens to help track political advertising by candidates and outside groups like SuperPACs (they need assistance because the FCC has balked at making local TV stations publish online the records of the political ads they’re running). ProPublica’s solution is to assemble an army of ad-trackers to physically go to the stations, request the documents (which must be made public, but only on paper), scan them and email them in to a central repository. A heavy lift, but they’ve already overseen a successful effort in Chicago and are hoping to build a network of spies in Wisconsin before that state’s primary election on April 3rd.

We’ve looked recently at ProPublica’s reverse-engineering of an Obama campaign fundraising email, and I bet their reporters — and the citizens who volunteer to help — will have just as much fun finding trends in this advertising data. With so many newspapers having gutted their investigative journalism programs, projects like ProPublica are about all that’s left to fill in the gap. Citizen journalists can help, whether they’re scanning documents or analyzing piles of them posted online.

Next, a story that embodies both the bad and the ugly of distributed online communications: Dave Weigel reports on a graphic that’s spread widely on blogs and Facebook, which purports to show a thuggish-looking photo of Trayvon Martin next to a respectable-looking George Zimmerman. The stated goal: to counter mainstream media coverage of Martin’s shooting by Zimmerman, in which an innocent-looking image of Martin is often displayed next to a Zimmerman mugshot. The problem: the gangsta-wannabe kid in the picture ISN’T Trayvon Martin (they all look alike, you see…).

Ah, ugliness piled on ugliness! This image is a great way to muddy the moral waters and in the process soothe the concerns of people who’d rather this incident not linger in the public mind, since if Martin is not a perfect angel, then his killing is somehow not as much of a problem, regardless of the circumstances. The fake Martin/Zimmerman graphic is also primed for virality, because it reinforces a narrative a certain slice of the public would LIKE to believe and are happy to spread. They have help: Weigel collects a slew of Drudge Report stories that are perfectly designed to cast doubt on the “liberal” narrative of Martin as victim and Zimmerman as aggressor. Ah, Drudge: your one-stop source for racial fearmongering since, apparently, Barack Obama got elected. If only he were alone.

cpd

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