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Bad Style

1015 words

While in Berlin two weeks ago, I visited my friend Yassin. I've known him since I started university and spending time with him has always been both fun and interesting. The latter is partly due to the fact that he has done a degree in politics and arabistics. This gives him a very different look on the world than that of a mathematician – and also a much more detailed one when it comes to current affairs. Even more so as he has been an aspiring journalist for quite a while and is working for a German news site now.

A few weeks ago he wrote an article on online terror resources and recruitment. This wasn't supposed to be big news but it had taken him quite a while to find and research original sources giving instructions on how to found your own terror cell and so on. While these were publicly accessible, they weren't easy to come by as the relevant links were only posted to fora and the sites didn't stay up for long enough to make it onto Google.

After keeping an eye on those sites, he could collect a few issues and write an article saying that there exist regularly published online magazines that serve the purpose of gaining support for al-Qaeda, spreading their myths and even recruiting or instructing people. Apparently there was even an e-mail address where you could send your plans for future attacks. To illustrate this, there were two screenshots of the publications in question, but no links.

Not posting links is frequently considered bad style in the online world. It is pretty common for news sites, though, who often just regurgitate other people's news without giving the due credit or prefer linking to their own content only. This was an original piece, though, and publishing the links had been considered but was decided against, as the benefit of having the links in place would have been very little – as most of the audience can't read Arab anyway. In addition, publishing those links might have done harm: German geeks and office workers visiting those addresses and sending e-mails won't leave people under the impression that they're unwatched. So they'll be likely to move on, hide a little better and have to be tracked down again by whoever gathers intelligence on these kind of activities. Furthermore, if this were to cause any disturbance to some terrorists, Yassin felt a bit uncomfortable about having his name attached to it.

But that's only how the story begins. So far, things have been pretty reasonable and responsible. While people may disagree about not publishing those links, it seems like a reasonable choice.

The next step was online magazine (not news site) Telepolis entering the scene. That magazine appeared a few years ago and sometimes has interesting articles. They used to have columns by Stanislaw Lem, for example. Sadly their general quality deteriorated over time and it has become a melting pot for conspiracy theorists and similar life forms. Their audience is quite geeky, I suppose, as the magazine's owners are known for their computer magazines which are on the same web site.

Five days after the original article, Telepolis carried an article titled Al Qaeda's 'Online Magazines'. This was actually my first encounter of the topic. When I saw the headline and summary I decided not to read it because it looked like all they were doing was to slag off their colleagues under the guise of writing about Al Qaeda.

When talking to Yassin I remembered that headline and he told me what happened. Later I actually read all the involved articles to get a better idea: Basically, said article claims that the findings of Yassin's article are irrelevant because the author found copies of the same magazines on a scholarly website and thus implied that Yassin must have had the same 'second hand' source. But instead of simply sending an e-mail and checking this, he preferred to write an article, which varies between pointless and wrong in its quality.

Yassin complained to the editors of that magazine who put up a half-assed disclaimer since. But he had to 'convince‘ them first by showing them his original links. Apparently the other author has used that knowledge (plus a few whois queries) to earn further money since.

In fact, said author has done more. He seems to have a slight hatred of the new magazine Yassin writes for and had alreadly put up an 'investigative clarification' of the original article on his personal site. Apparently he can't even read Arabic – so he doesn't really know what he is doing. In addition the link he uses appeared half a day earlier on a website that – judging from the comments there – is read by people from 'his community'. So from what I have seen his whole contribution to all those articles may have been a hatred of his colleagues to begin with, using information that other people have collected on a topic that he knows very little about and a few whois queries perhaps.

All this is – at least – bad style: First infer that someone else made a mistake – just because you can't see what he did. Then, don't simply ask him but rather write about it. Conveniently this seems to make it the other one's turn to 'prove his innocence'. When he is stupid enough to do that, take the information you got that way and weren't able to acquire by yourself and run.

This phenomenon of bad style seems to be widespread in the world of online writing (I dare not call it 'journalism' – if only for the troubles it'd imply for the writers). People can write whatever they want without being accountable. They can claim wrong things and it will be extremely hard to get them to apologise or correct what they have done. And even if they do, they may cover up their former stupidity in the process.

Online media are where conspiracies flourish and you can trust no one.

May 16, 2004, 23:14


Comment by gummi: User icon

And even if they do, they may cover up their former stupidity in the process.

Which is why, in some sense, the HTML diff feature on NetNewsWire is amazing to behold — although I don’t know any news-sites which publish full RSS feeds. The summaries of the Yahoo sites, for example, undergo a lot of editing. I don’t think this is error correction, it just gives an idea of the possibilities.

The lack of links thing is also interesting from another viewpoint. The recent Berg execution video was released online, but, the link to the main site which published the video was absent from many news sites and has only come to light recently, as far as I can tell.

Could you suggest a decent online translation service, I’d like to read the articles and I was wondering if you have any recommendations.

May 17, 2004, 11:31

Comment by ssp: User icon

  1. The HTML Diff feature is great. With storage capabilities these days and a bit of cleverness, I guess it might even be feasible to let web browsers have persistent caches - letting you view the history of everything you looked at, including revisions of the pages. That would be very handy if you are researching stuff as most sites don’t mark changes or keep older versions available.

  2. In the decapitation case, I must say that not posting the link may be the responsible thing to do. If people really want to see it, they’ll most likely find it. Seeing these kinds of things shouldn’t be too easy. Since having fast internet access, I have a tendency to just click things ‘because I can’. I might have done so in the case of that video - but I am not sure I’d really want to see it or be able to stomach it.

If news sites posted that link - at least in some countries it would be easier / more legal for kids to see a decapitation than to see a breast, say. That’s so wrong I don’t even know where to start.

  1. No idea about translation services. They mostly seem to be rather bad (e.g. Google/Babelfish, which things al-Qaeda has something to do with aluminium). Watson offers a service called ‘FreeTranslation’ which seems to be better.

May 17, 2004, 14:31

Comment by gummi: User icon

An afterthought -kinda offtopic- regarding revisions and HTML diffs: I’ve come across an MT plugin, MT-Revision. It requires some extra Perl modules, looks pretty good IMO and I’ve seen it in action over at Ringnalda’s weblog.

May 20, 2004, 11:05

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