Media Matters

Calumny in the Blogosphere

The power to reach a wide audience while remaining in the shadows brings out the worst in some people.

By 10.19.07

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Calumny is defined by the American Heritage Dictionary as a "false statement maliciously made to injure another's reputation." Calumny has been part of life since the dawn of time. But opportunities for calumny have proliferated with the advent of the Internet, especially since the rise of the phenomenon known as "blogging."

An especially compelling element of blogging is the ability to project one's ideas, observations and opinions with near-complete anonymity. It is common blogger practice to adopt an online persona -- usually some cute name or title with relevance to the main focus of the blog. Likewise, readers who comment on blog postings or participate in discussions can set their views before the world without revealing themselves. Service providers that host blogs routinely permit such anonymity, and the law has upheld the practice (in only a handful of court cases have providers been forced to unmask their blogging clients).

But the power to reach a wide audience while remaining in the shadows has proven a source of great temptation. All too many online commentators have been dazzled by this technology that magnifies personal identity and stokes the ego while providing a shield from the consequences of their words. Whole new avenues of calumny have been the result.

The essential problem with anonymous blogging is that masked comments can easily turn malicious, intentionally or otherwise. Growing concern about online threats and character assassination among teenagers using social networking services like MySpace and Facebook has spawned the terms, "cyber-bullying" and cyber-stalking." There have been cases of violence -- even suicide -- attributed to blog campaigns launched against targeted individuals. The walking wounded are showing up in hospitals, psychiatrists' offices, and high school dropout statistics.

Calumny does not exist apart from the other realities of life. It is nurtured by social conditions and the particular circumstances in which individuals find themselves, circumstances that can provide the rationalizations and self-deception that blind us to the seriousness of our words and actions. For instance, we live in a society that puts a high premium on winning. It's easy to convince ourselves that anything goes, as long as we achieve the results we want and don't get caught doing what we know in our hearts we shouldn't do.

Unfortunately, years of highly publicized moral lapses by athletes -- both on and off the field -- have accustomed us to boorish behavior, lack of sportsmanship, and even criminality in the sports world. A culture of cheating -- where winning is all and how we win makes no difference -- has become a kind of perverse norm.

Calumny is cheating. It does not play by the rules. It is unsportsmanlike in the extreme, even viciously so. It uses half truths, innuendo, misrepresentation, disregard for context, and downright lies, all in the hope that some negative bit of mud, no matter how distorted or absurd, will stick to the person or organization under attack. And it is abetted by the unethical use of technology, including visual technology.

Such devices and tactics have been used to discredit public figures and private persons alike, to disparage companies, institutions, government agencies, political movements, and of course, churches and religious groups. And the impact is multiplied by other bloggers who link to the original posting or pick up a story and disseminate it farther, even around the world.

There are bloggers who present their calumny under the guise of "allegations," applying evasive constructs like "some people are saying" or "it has been alleged." Such writers are often well educated (sometimes with a law background), skilled at parsing words in order to avoid culpability for legal defamation. In this they rely for protection on the high standard of proof required to bring a libel action.

Others recognize the calumny, but see it as a compromise that must be made for the sake of a noble cause. They hope that by destroying an opponent's reputation they will de-legitimize the position which that opponent represents. This is the "greater good" rationalization, the thinking of terrorists willing to kill innocent people (even sometimes themselves) in pursuit of lofty goals. In such manner, "cyber-terrorists" are often willing to tolerate a certain amount of "collateral damage" for the sake of what they perceive as good. They will employ pernicious lies concerning sexual matters that can wreck marriages, allegations of legal impropriety that can destroy careers, statements demeaning the moral probity of civic leaders that can weaken society as a whole.

Bloggers of either mindset ignore a basic precept of morality: Evil means may never be employed to achieve a good end (perhaps their skewed thinking can be compared to that of people who believe it's moral to kill abortion doctors in order to end the horror of abortion).

This type of blogging presents us with a situation of serious moral and ethical concern because it violates the dignity of persons and undermines truth. And in the end, truth is the only basis on which a good society can be built.

Those involved in blogging would do well keep in mind the words of the Prophet Isaiah 33:15, which says of the good person: "He who acts with integrity, who speaks sincerely ...shuts suggestion of murder out of his ears, and closes his eyes against crime, this man will dwell in the heights."

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About the Author

Rev. Michael P. Orsi is a chaplain and research fellow in law and religion at the Ave Maria School of Law in Naples, Florida.