In Congress or on Digg, Politics Is Politics

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There's been a tremendous uproar in the social media world since AlterNet published a story accusing a group of influential social media users of actively engaging in political "censorship" on Digg.com, the popular social news network.

Digg launched in 2004 based on a simple premise: users would submit stories to the site, and they would be voted up ("dugg") or down ("buried") by the people. The most popular stories would make Digg's front page, which boasts 25 million pageviews per month, on par with a large mainstream media site. 

But Digg's online democracy isn't utopian, it's messy. Ole Ole Olsen, the author of the Alternet post, accused a group of influential diggers of collectively engaging in political warfare. He accused a right-leaning group of carrying out "a widespread campaign of censorship" largely through cheating, i.e. "having multiple accounts, upvote padding, and deliberately trying to ban progressives." AlterNet further claimed the group --  dubbed "Digg Patriots" --  work to repress articles "even slightly critical of the GOP/Tea Party/FoxNews/corporations."

Digg's founder Kevin Rose announced via Twitter that the company would be investigating these claims.

 While it might seem that gaming the Digg system goes against the democratic ethos of the site, this kind of interest group lobbying and activism is pretty much exactly how politics works. It might be online and algorithmically aided but it's still politics. 

Despite the outrage from some users in the community, the conservative political bloc uncovered by AlterNet actually exemplifies just how "social" social media is: building on a nominally uncontrolled voting system, political structures emerged.

Like in real life, individuals lobby, lie, attack, and slander to get what they want, even if it's just high placement of their favored news stories on the front page of a highly-trafficked website. 

In Washington, we hear of lobbying, back-scratching, and backroom deals. As in Washington also on Digg.

Like our own political system, Digg's model does shape the amount of chicanery surrounding the site's voting. The service is extremely susceptible to external coordination where users collectively push their content to the front page. Users frequently communicate with each other via Twitter, Facebook, and chat clients to build networks to vote their stories up with the hopes of tapping into Digg's huge well of pageviews. Established users tend to have a leg up on newer entrants to the Digg universe: in 2006, the top 100 users on Digg controlled 56 percent of the content on the front page. The trend has persisted ever since.

 The powerful get more powerful.

But the users Alternet exposed are not acting in a vacuum. They almost certainly have counterparts on the left, and it's through their interactions that Digg ends up with roughly the same political news mix that you'd find elsewhere.

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Jared Keller is a former associate editor for The Atlantic and The Atlantic Wire and has also written for Lapham's Quarterly's Deja Vu blog, National Journal's The Hotline, Boston's Weekly Dig, and Preservation magazine. 

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