Echo Chamber

How blogging failed the war in Georgia

Elite bloggers often portray their analytical and news-gathering skills as equal or (more often) superior to those of professional journalists. Plenty of stories support this point of view: the “Rathergate” scandal that caught Dan Rather pushing an unconfirmed story about President Bush, the multiple cases highlighting fraudulent photography from conflict zones in the Middle East, and so on. But in the case of the ongoing conflict between Russia and Georgia, the blogging world mostly failed to live up to its promises.

Days after the fighting began, even normally excellent sources of analysis and insight, such as The Washington Monthly’s Kevin Drum or the Small Wars Journal’s blog, were still linking to the same narrow set of news sources —sources that offered little more than thin quotes from government officials. While this isn’t necessarily a knock on, say, Reuters or The New York Times (it takes a little time to get a correspondent on scene), it is a tremendous failure on the part of the blogosphere, noteworthy for precisely how it failed to deliver on its original promise: breaking out of the mainstream media’s tendency toward groupthink.

Soon after the war started on August 8th, on-the-ground reports were being filed by Russian and Georgian bloggers, some of which were even in English and, thus, required no translation. Yet most large blogs just continued to link to the same sources linking to the same stories based on official statements about the war. Or (just as bad) they linked to omnivorous pundits with little more to offer than stridently uninformed opinions. Where is the value added of such a thing?

That’s not to say that news aggregation is worthless. James Joyner, of Outside the Beltway, did that early on, and did so admirably, though his analysis—helpfully reminding us that the conflict is a “holdover from the breakup of the Soviet Union”—wasn’t particularly noteworthy.

On the other hand, bloggers who normally provide worthwhile insight into conflict provided curiously generic analysis or links to the same. Opinio Juris, for example, a blog devoted to “international law and international relations,” simply excerpted the same New York Times article everyone else had already discussed, noting that both Georgia and Russia had competing claims to the legitimacy of their actions. You don’t say.

The Small Wars Journal, famous for intense insider discussions of warfare and the many organizational and even social aspects of small scale conflict, also linked to the usual spread of western media sources. But SWJ also did something very surprising and disappointing: it linked to a very narrow set of blogs. These included generalists like Thomas Barnett, who possesses no specialized knowledge of the area and simply noted the ways this conflict confirmed his running theories of international relations, and firebrands like Herschel Smith of The Captain’s Journal, who argued that Russia “is still communist,” while the United States “has never forced anything upon a population except its own will.”

Even Instapundit was linking to well-known Caucasus “experts” like Tigerhawk, which took some time off from discussing John Edwards’s love-baby to tell its readers that, despite the inebriation, it is safe to say that Russia was the aggressor toward a peaceful American ally that didn’t at all start by invading an area under Russian protection. Well, now that that’s cleared up, back to bird-blogging!

While this wasn’t necessarily surprising—after all, these blogs all talk in a big circle, and tend to reference each other—it was disappointing. As Reason’s Michael C. Moynihan trenchantly observed, much of the commentary on the conflict resolved into very clear partisan lines: Russia on the Left, Georgia on the Right. Rather than providing the clarity, nuance, and honesty that they promise to provide, the big blogs instead retreated to their comfortable and predictable ideological corners. By keeping to their usual haunts, these blogs did their readers a tremendous disservice: they were just as incurious and ideological as they regularly accuse the MSM of being.

It’s a shame, because many intelligent voices were ignored. Steve LeVine, for example, covered the 1993 war, later wrote from Tblisi for The Wall Street Journal, and is covering the current conflict for BusinessWeek. His posts were a much-needed oasis of sobriety and calm, yet never showed up in those roundups of blogger coverage. At Global Voices Online (full disclosure: I cover Afghanistan for GVO), Yerevan-based Caucasus and Central Asia editor Onnik Krikorian spent a week filing daily roundups of local blogs discussing the crisis.

There are, of course, many others. The point is not that some blogs covered the conflict well, and fulfilled the promise of a blog network that transcends the spin and amplifies ignored voices: it is that the majority of blogs did not. Watching the most prominent blogs turn into their own worst enemies largely deflates much of their egalitarian mystique—and drives home just how important it is to remain a skeptical reader.

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Joshua Foust is a military consultant. He is a contributor to PBS Need to Know, a contributing editor at Current Intelligence, and blogs about Central Asia and the Caucasus at