Whining About the 'Web Mob'

The business of government has changed dramatically in the Internet era. Congress passed the E-Government Act of 2002 to require federal agencies to put their decisions online and be able to receive public comments online. It didn’t take long for democracy as a whole to come knocking on Washington doors — electronically.

Just as lobbying members of Congress moved quickly from paper envelopes and stamps to e-mail campaigns, the work of federal regulatory agencies, which operate often with more power and less public scrutiny, is now affected by waves of mass e-mail campaigns. Groups pushing any number of political causes are loading up their e-mail guns, on causes from cars to cantaloupes.

Academics like Stuart Shulman of the University of Pittsburgh have estimated that almost all electronic complaining to Washington comes in form letters — some of them, about 20%, with original comments appended. They say mass e-mail campaigns could possibly harm interest groups in their attempts to influence government, since many bureaucrats tend to ignore repetitive complaints.

That has not been the case at the Federal Communications Commission, where mass e-mail complaints against sleazy television have led to big fines and wailing and gnashing of teeth in Hollywood. The titillation industry can’t stand it when people speak up against their smarmy ways. Hollywood, its hired Washington guns and fellow-traveling TV critics around the country are now claiming these protesters must not be real people, because doesn’t everybody like a heaping helping of televised sex, violence and profanity after dinner every night?

CBS has filed a motion with the FCC that its fines over the network’s teen-orgy scene on "Without A Trace" should be thrown out because "complaints about the show did not come from real people," as the Hollywood Reporter explained it. Many of the thousands of complaints came through the website of the Parents Television Council. These people aren’t "real?" Are they phantoms? Aliens from outer space?

What CBS means is that "mass e-mail campaigns" should not be allowed to influence a federal agency, especially since they complain that only two e-mails mentioned they actually watched the episode of "Without A Trace." In an editorial, Broadcasting & Cable magazine — which regularly prints "news" stories indistinguishable from its editorials — fulminated that the FCC should force complainants to swear in an affidavit, cross their hearts and hope to die, that they have viewed the show they find offensive when it originally aired on a TV station. "That would allow the FCC to decide cases on rules, not in reaction to Web-mob pressure. We also believe it would expose the indecency crusade for the sham it truly is," they wrote.

It should be noted that people who complained about an outrageous on-air incident like the teen orgy on "Without A Trace" had the ability to watch the whole offensive scene at the PTC Web site, and thus be fully informed about the program’s content without watching the program in its original airing. How should that disqualify the complaint? The magazine editorialists also hate that practice, grousing that it’s "exploitative" for PTC to still have the teen-orgy clip available. They say the indecency debate is a "sham," yet they agitate against making public the evidence of indecency. They can’t argue the CBS orgy scene was a mirage that never happened, so instead they attack the integrity of anyone with the gall to raise the issue.

Now try to implement the CBS lawyers’ principle throughout Washington. Could a polluter plausibly suggest to the Environmental Protection Agency that their environmental rules shouldn’t be influenced by Sierra Club member complaints, because the Sierra Club hasn’t flown thousands of its members to Alaska to see an oil spill first-hand?

Or consider this for a minute, when people complain about carbon-paper citizenship. Our major media regularly conduct polls of the public that send Washington politicians and policy makers scurrying in all directions. How "real" are these generated opinions? When people send a form letter to their government, doesn’t that display more passion than saying "yes" or "no" to questions over the phone for a few minutes? Does anyone in Washington care that most polls don’t even bother to ask if the person polled is a registered voter, or knows a thing about policy? How "real," then, are these building blocks of public opinion?

People who lament a "Web mob" e-mailing Washington are really saying that free speech should be a one-way street. Hollywood should get to enrich itself through the repetitive stress of shock, sleaze, sex and gore, and whoever complains about it can’t be a "real" human being. Hollywood can have its lawyers throw a tantrum and hold its collective breath until it turns blue, but the protest against them is very real, and it’s not going away.