(Please see also my Jan. 4 2007 update on the Sunday Times rehash of this story.)
The other week I wrote about how PETA is spreading a lie about scientific research as part of a campaign designed to push people's buttons on gay rights issues in order to get them to support PETA's anti-science agenda. I want to follow that up now, and tell you how easy it turned out to be to debunk PETA's lie, and the more difficult competition between that lie and my debunking as each has spread over the blogosphere since then.
When I posted the piece I expected a flurry of PETA supporters telling me that I was wrong and the researchers really are anti-gay, as PETA has charged -- to my surprise, that didn't happen. Instead, the responses fell into a handful of categories:
1. Duh, PETA lies. PETA lost credibility long ago.
2. PETA may have lied, but I do object to animal research that isn't going to directly cure a disease.
3. PETA may have lied, but I do object to research when the potential evil applications haven't been duly considered.
The debates that arose on how to weigh animals' lives against the consequences of research -- fundamental insights, cures for disease, or potentially nasty threats -- were terrific. Commenters were intellectually honest and thoughtful. It makes you realize what kind of an excellent force for good PETA could be if they took seriously the "Ethical" part of their acronym and pushed us to more often examine the ethical questions in research. (There was a fourth "meta" class of commenters who said "PETA lied, but they got us talking about (2) and (3)," to which I would reply, nothing honest emerged from PETA's lies -- these discussions came from my attempt at an honest debunking of them.)
The point I want to make here is that it turned out to be easy to expose PETA's lies. It did not take tremendous back-and-forth link wars. It just took a note saying "think a little harder about this before you believe it." And from there we were off to an honest discussion.
Was it easy because PETA's lies are so transparent, or because I was talking to an audience already receptive to critical thought or a pro-science message? Would the debunking penetrate the rest of the blogosphere, or stop at the walls of the political left? Once a lie has spread into the hive mind of the web, can you unspread it?
Here's roughly what happened.
The story was posted here at TNH, where it generated 50 comments, and cross-posted to dailykos where it got about 70 comments. It was kindly noted by PZ Myers at Pharyngula where it generated another 33 comments. Once it hit Pharyngula, it began spreading to other sites, often as just a link with minimal comment. It also was picked up by Seed magazine's Daily Zeitgeist and leszekcnn posted it to a gay issues forum on nytimes.com. It crossed language barriers, getting picked up by Austrian blog Hier und Jetzt (translated, roughly) and Portuguese blog O Dragão da Garagem (translated, roughly, and clearly not doing justice to the author's thoughtful writing. An improved excerpt: "I am torn between interpreting PETA's propaganda as stemming from bad faith and complete lack of character, or straightforward illiteracy.")
All of this was great, and I want to emphasize how much I appreciate the help in debunking this lie that came from PZ Myers and all others who linked to the story. But the question remained -- was the truth reaching the same audience who had been hoodwinked by PETA to begin with? Or was the story only reaching people who already favored science over PETA and perhaps a few fence-sitters?
I've made a little hobby of tracking the spread of the story -- PETA's version, and the truth -- using Google Blogsearch for "gay sheep" or PETA Roselli, and occasionally chiming in when a blog has open comments. The key results are (1) if you want to unspread a lie, you really have to pay attention to MySpace and LiveJournal, and (2) if you go to someone's blog (rather than expecting them to come to yours), that person often listens.
A handful of bloggers who had posted the PETA story issued retractions:
AngiePen at LiveJournal: "yes, they're examining the biological factors which cause some rams to be sexually oriented toward male sheep rather than female, but the accusation that they want to learn to "cure" gayness is something PETA just sort of dreamed up, in hopes of luring people to support their campaign against animal experiments in general. I was sucked in by their lies and distortions, and I'm pissed"
Slumber at LiveJournal: "I link because I am guilty--I received the email and read the letter and, though the method of protest and the organization involved was PETA, I let myself believe everything I read and I allowed myself to be a tool for harassment."
DrSirius from Cape Town, South Africa: "A few postings back I posted a link to a PETA article on "Gay" Sheep experiments. I am no-longer so sure about this...Have a look at [TNH] and make up your own mind."
MsJenni at blogspot: "In my previous post about the gay sheep experiments, I failed to do all the necessary research and am now retracting my support... My apologies to all of you who followed my recommendation and signed the petition. :-( "
Brian at blogspot: "In my rush to get caught up on everything I didn't research this issue properly before posting... FWIW I have emailed PETA for a response, and have also sent both links [PETA's release and the TNH debunking] to Snopes & TruthorFiction to look into."
That last pair of blogs was especially interesting to me, because MsJenni and Brian seem to have talked to each other about the topic and coordinated their posts, and Brian took the extra step of submitting my post to the urban legend debunking clearinghouses Snopes and TruthorFiction, a really great idea that hadn't even occurred to me. Other sites (for example, John Q and Biohackery, which does a great job) also began either linking at greater length to the TNH post or debunking PETA of their own accord. The word was spreading.
So is PETA debunked yet? Not really. In the last week, there are 18 Blogsearch hits for "gay sheep" -- of these, 9 reiterate PETA's version, 3 debunk it, 1 is a right-wing site that's all over the place, and 1 is neutral (the others are 1 irrelevant hit and 3 that are scams trying to get hits from google). Without going through the two weeks before that, including when the TNH post went up, I can tell you the proportions were roughly the same.
Those are the science blogs, way over there on the right. It depends, of course, on the science -- stem cell and evolution news items seem to follow a more privileged path, partly because they engage the wider blogosphere, including political and social blogs. How big is the blogosphere?
This map shows which sites link to which others, without the requirement for a reciprocal link. LiveJournal sites are in blue. My own impression is that both LiveJournal and MySpace make up a tremendous chunk of blog-like activity, and there are porous walls between them and "outside" blogs. (Unfortunately, these maps don't show information about readership size.)
The PETA release seemed to travel quickly within the LiveJournal and MySpace social networks, but also among gay life sites and to a much much lesser extent among animal lovers' sites. Meanwhile, the debunking moved more easily among science and politics sites. What becomes clear is that a few popular sites that bridge these worlds -- like Pharyngula, which connects science and politics -- serve a really key role in controlling the flow across those porous boundaries that separate the social sites from the science sites from politics from whatever.
All of this is important to keep in mind, because debunking PETA provides a model for unspreading any lie -- and we will have plenty of political lies to deal with in the next two months. The lessons I take from it are these:
1. Stick to the facts. Debunk the factual lie, and acknowledge room for debate about the rest. I was careful to define the lie as "PETA says the researchers are anti-gay, and that is a lie." I tried not to push my own views on animal research or larger issues, but instead just acknowledged them as debatable: "There is a real debate to be had here about when to use animals in research, and we need to have it honestly -- not based on PETA's lies." The goal needs to be to correct the facts and then let people intelligently incorporate them into their own worldview, not to change people's worldviews on your own.
2. Go to the readers. Writing about it on dailykos, TNH, or other political blogs is not enough. You can get 98% of the readers of those sites to say they agree with you and not have changed a single mind. Blogsearch and technorati are key tools for searching out where the lie is spreading, and then politely mentioning in comments that there is a problem with their facts and providing a link to a piece that debunks it. You need to google up the interested readers and bring them to the piece, rather than expecting your great audience to go out and contact them by random collision.
3. Take MySpace and LiveJournal seriously. I tend to ignore these sites, seeing them as mainly for teens. But information travels through them quickly, and they are huge. I still have resisted registering an account with either of them (and one of them doesn't seem to work right with my browser, anyway) and that is I'm sure a mistake. If you want to be able to do any kind of large-scale debunking, you absolutely need to engage these worlds.
In the end, this story is not about debunking PETA's lie -- that's just where I focused because anti-science propaganda is something I care strongly about. This same model applies for a swift-boat-vets-type attack, or anything else coming out of the right wing. There will be some outrageous claims made.
I suggest this paradigm -- first, writing a careful debunking that addresses the factual problems without debating a policy position; second, blogsearching references to the lie and linking back to your post; and third, paying special attention to the huge social networking sites where information spreads rapidly -- is one that should be applied to any smears we see leading up to this election, or any time. Sites like TNH, dailykos, and others are great for debating among ourselves and trying out policy arguments and refining our thinking, but if you want to change minds you have to go seek out people who think differently -- and argue the facts, not the worldview.