Buzz of the Week

How the Open Government Dialogue got slimed

Let’s cut to the chase: The Open Government Dialogue — the Obama administration’s much-ballyhooed initiative to engage with the public in an online forum — got slimed.

The brainstorming forum, managed by the National Academy of Public Administration, was designed to allow the public to provide input on how to make government operations and information more transparent.

Participants were invited to submit ideas and rate other people’s ideas with a thumbs up or thumbs down. The system would tally the votes and assign a score to each suggestion. This mechanism would make it possible for the public at large to identify the most important issues and police the site for off-point or abusive content.

That was the theory anyway, and it worked for nearly a week, but then WorldNet Daily’s editors got wind of it.

The folks at WorldNet Daily, an online political publication, have been trying to drum up national interest in a topic that the mainstream media generally ignores: Was the president born in the Unites States, and does he have the birth certificate to prove it?

The Open Government Dialogue provided WorldNet Daily’s editors with a perfect forum, one that was highly visible and only lightly moderated.

Go get 'em, they told their readers. And it worked.

“Hours after [WorldNet Daily] alerted the public to a White House Web site on ‘open government dialogue,’ most participants are calling on Barack Obama to release his elusive ‘long-form’ birth certificate to establish his constitutional eligibility to serve as president,” the editors wrote in a May 31 article.

Of course, the Open Government Dialogue was intended to explore the process by which government ensures transparency. But that is not how WorldNet Daily posed it: “Obama asks which public records you want to see,” the first headline read.

No matter. The article was picked up by various blogs with similar interests, including Morality 101, Free Republic and The Ron Paul War Room. The topic also hit Twitter, with numerous tweeters encouraging readers to keep the birth certificate issue alive at the Open Government Dialogue.

“Looks like Obama's Open Government Dialogue site is being commandeered by folks like myself who are using Obama's own website to help make people, who for one reason or another, are unaware of Obama's missing birth certificate issue aware,” wrote blogger Chicago Ray, adding “Here's your chance to tell the White House directly whether you think the birth certificate issue is important.”

However, the NAPA team also provided dialogue participants with the ability to flag entries that were off point or that duplicated other entries. In the final days of brainstorming, site managers began reviewing and, in many cases, removing the long stream of repetitive posts. The outcry was immediate.

“Let’s fight back by inundating the White House’s phony 'open government dialogue' Web site with questions about Hussein’s birth certificate!” wrote someone called Eowyn at Giovanni’s World, using Obama's middle name and providing readers with the link to the Web site.

The birthers, as they have been dubbed in the blogosphere, proceeded to flood the site with more posts. “I'm sitting here looking at all the people who've had their posts deleted because they are raising a legitimate issue: Where's The Birth Certificate,” wrote Scott Lanter. “And at the top of the page it reads, ‘Open Government Dialogue.’ It's not dialogue when people are silenced. What exactly is this site's definition of 'dialogue?'”

All interactive sites are vulnerable to gaming, writes Micah Sifry at the TechPresident blog. “But what the ‘birthers’ are doing is the equivalent of spamming up a public bulletin board and reducing its utility for everyone else.”

NAPA and the Obama administration have moved into the next phase of the Open Government Dialogue, focusing the conversation on a handful of specific issues. But looking ahead to the prospect of similar endeavors — and the administration has made clear that engagement will be part of its standard operating procedure — it seems fair to question the viability of such forums.

Is it possible to conduct a national online dialogue that is civil and productive? Or will any online public discourse inevitably be smothered by slime?

TechPresident’s Sifry is hopeful. “Presumably, the more often government invites public participation and the lower the visibility of the results, the less often these nuisances will occur,” he wrote.

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Editor's note: We will not post any comments regarding Obama's birth certificate. Nor will we post comments that are abusive. But we encourage your comments on how the process used to manage the Open Government Dialogue or other aspects of how the government should interact with the public online.

Please note that comments posted after 9 p.m. on Friday will be reviewed for posting on Monday.

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