Sunday, February 22, 2004

Dissing the Disinfopedia

Will draws attention to the newly created Disinfopedia. It’s like a Wikipedia for information on interest groups, think tanks, and other potential sources of disinformation. But as Will notes, the site is explicitly ideological in nature; the idea is to show just how beholden such organizations are to the wealthy and powerful. The Wiki format, which allows readers to freely edit the text, does not seem ideally suited to the ideological goal. Says Will: “Wikipedia works because of its ethos of neutrality on contentious issues. If somebody writes something biased, somebody comes along and balances it out. It will be interesting to see if an overtly ideological wiki can survive.”

I was surprised that Will didn’t point out the double entendre of Disinfopedia’s name. It’s supposed to be an encyclopedia on sources of disinformation – but the more natural interpretation is that the site itself is a source of disinformation.

In the “think tank” entry, in which Will inserted a minor edit just for fun, I found the following passage:
Of course, some think tanks are more legitimate than that. Private funding does not necessarily make a researcher a shill, and some think-tanks produce worthwhile public policy research. In general, however, research from think tanks is ideologically driven in accordance with the interests of its funders.
Now, think tanks’ positions do have an uncanny tendency to reflect the interests of their funders. But the implicit conclusion that causality runs in the funding-to-viewpoints direction does not follow. If the think tank is operated by committed supporters of some ideology, and they go out in search of funding, they are most likely to attract the support of those whose interests will be advanced by the ideology in question. Other sources of funding will withhold their funding and go elsewhere. As a result, we will observe a correspondence between funding and viewpoints, but with causality in just the opposite direction: from viewpoints to funding.

I’m not claiming that the choices of think tanks (and other non-profits) are never influenced by the desires of their financial supporters. If making a marginal change in a think tank’s position on a single issue could ease the job of attracting funds, even ideological managers might be tempted to do so, on grounds that gains in other areas from greater funding will outweigh the losses on a single issue. We could even imagine a slippery slope process that runs from a marginal decision like this one to wholesale changes in the think tank’s ideology, by way of personnel changes induced by the seemingly small position shifts. Moreover, the equilibrium number and size of think tanks presumably will have something to do with the general availability of funds for different positions. Nonetheless, the nefarious “guns for hire” implication of the Disinfopedia blurb does not seem justified. The interaction between funds and viewpoints is assuredly a two-way street.

Hey, maybe I should go insert all the above in the Disinfopedia entry and see what happens.

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