If You Need A 2008 Prediction… How About: The Fact Checker Is Dead… Long Live The Fact Checker

from the bah-who-needs-it? dept

I’ve been writing Techdirt since the summer of 1997 (yeah, we let the 10 year anniversary slip by without notice), and every year I’ve resisted calls to do “predictions” for the following year. They always seem like lame filler content that rarely adds much value. And, with predictions articles and posts showing up left and right, you’d reasonably expect some ridiculously lame ones. However, it is a bit surprising to see how ridiculous The Economist’s 2008 predictions are this year, as ripped apart by Marc Andreessen. Andreessen does a fine job pointing out how whoever wrote up the piece (damn those byline-less Economist stories!) clearly has no clue what he’s talking about.

It gets facts wrong and draws some dubious conclusions out of those incorrect facts. It starts out with a pet peeve favorite: the ever popular claim that the internet is about to run into trouble handling traffic growth. Amusingly, the article claims to support this prediction with “some certainty” even though the most recently debunked telco-backed report didn’t even think we’d see any troubles until at least 2010. The prediction makes the huge error of stating that 90% of all internet traffic is spam email — which is probably based on some (questionable) reports claiming that 90% of all email is spam — but email hardly represents a significant segment of internet traffic. You would think that it would mention things like BitTorrent or file sharing as the usual culprits — but somehow the Economist reporter thinks it’s spam that will destroy the internet. And, as Andreessen notes, the only actual proof the article presents is that sales of networking traffic are way up — which indicates that any problem is being solved, not that it’s getting worse. One thing that’s become clear in all these reports about the internet breaking: it’s almost always made by someone who doesn’t understand technology. Whenever the technologists have their say, they’ll note that there’s not much to worry about and technology should be able to contain any problems.

What may be more interesting, however, is this tiny point noting how fact checking has gone out of style in the press — but it doesn’t much matter when you have folks like Marc Andreessen willing to fact check for you, with the only price (okay, perhaps it’s not cheap) being the mocking you get and the hit to your reputation as a top of the line publication. Perhaps it would have been cheaper to actually check the facts — especially on things as easy as the amount of internet traffic that’s spam, as well as whether or not Google has already bid on the 700 MHz auction (as the article claims) despite the fact that said auction hasn’t happened yet. And, of course, this doesn’t even get into the fact that a predictions article can be done with plenty of time to spare, meaning it should have had plenty of time for fact checking. Meanwhile, Andreessen only takes on the first two of The Economist’s predictions, but the third one is equally ridiculous, claiming (again, incorrectly) that thanks to the bankruptcy of SCO, Linux is now “popular in small businesses and the home.” It may be gaining in popularity, but it has little to do with the SCO case, and any popularity from Ubuntu came about long before SCO’s bankruptcy — and it would still be a stretch to call it “popular” outside of a small core audience. It’s as if whoever wrote the piece is living in an alternate reality.

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Comments on “If You Need A 2008 Prediction… How About: The Fact Checker Is Dead… Long Live The Fact Checker”

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JD Hamilton says:

I am especially concerned with the lack of fact checking in the main stream media. It almost seems intentional. Perhaps it has something to do with the fact of corporate ownership of the news outlets. In this election cycle, I find this trend of citizen ignorance and misconception very disturbing. It could have severe implications for what remains of our (so-called) democratic process.

Vincent Clement says:

I subscribe to the Economist and thoroughly enjoy it’s political and economic analysis of most issues. But, when it comes to the technology side of things, the Economist is lacking in its understanding and analysis.

For a publication that promotes the free market as the solution to most, if not many, problems, it’s disappointing to see the Economist predict the internet ‘slowing’ down. Shouldn’t those free market forces it believes in respond to increasing demand? If not, then perhaps it should explain why not?

Shaun says:

Re: Ubuntu is Popular?!?

Reality check yourself, lots of people – especially businesses – want an OS without games. Linux also now has quite mature 3d support now and commercial games are slowley (verry slowley admitadly) staring to appear for linux as well as windows.

Then of course there is Wine and it’s offshoots. No I’m not proposing it as a catch all solution like some, there are many games and programs that barely run or don’t run at all under Wine but the tables are tipping with better and better support so that now more work than don’t work. Some even work better under Wine than Windows – though again not many.

Darrell Young (user link) says:

Assocated Mess Articles...

Sadly, our local media often cowtow to the almighty Associated Press and its routine articles. Hold up 10 fingers. Okay, those fingers represent the 10 largest population centers of the US. Now, notice the palms of both hands? Thats what we call the grass. Now, those of us in the grass are used to this sort of thing, but the articles written by the AP very often are written and directed to those in the fingers or population centers. Fortunately, those of us out here in the grass know and see a very different story. Its here that many will find falshoods written where maybe locally to the writer they were true, but now, being read by a farmer in the midwest, are false.

The original thread of this post decries the lack of fact-checking, but I submit that the problem is further complicated when something a little more slippery is proposed. Sort of like a media sausage; the skin of the truth, stuffed with a verbose and blatant lie. I’m not a consipracy theorist, but I would propose that there are some in national media who would enjoy some economic gain to “move or adjust” the opinions of the locals, only at the national level.

What disappoints me the most are the local media who are very often underequipped to do battle against the facts of the national media. They simply submit, and allow the ludicrous AP articeles to pass on into the local horn without any rebuke whatsoever.

A recent example what an AP article about a disenchanted home buyer who is now an exclusive renter. Scorned and proud of it, yet the article reads as though this renter now has some upper hand in the housing situation. The article even suggested that the sexy and elite were all doing this. Yeah, doing this within the beltway of Washington DC where home ownership is VERY difficult. Still, the article points out the virtues of renting over buying, even for long periods of time. This sends the wrong message, that home ownership is somehow a bad idea right now. Two very important points: we all need someplace to call home. AND, we all need to invest our monies. Home ownership has always been about this. Its only the “stereo effect” (the two coasts and their greed) that encouraged home buyers to become home investors (buy, then flip).

I guess the facts in this mishap are that the coasts also hold some of the highest foreclosure rates adjusted by number of homes owned (Moodys Economic).

Hang in there people…

Lucas (user link) says:

Read TFA

I will admit, they did cite the whole “90% of internet traffic” pretty loosely and incorrectly. However, they then go on for a hdozen paragraphs talking about SOMETHING ELSE ENTIRELY. Their point was that spam IN COJUNCTION with the onslaught of user created content, internet enabled personal electronics, etc, will cause the massive slowdown. This may also prove to be naive or plain wrong, but please, do not rip on an extremely creditable publication when Techdirt cannot report responsibly itself.

Vincent Clement says:

Re: Read TFA

I subscribe to The Economist, but I have to agree with Mike on this one. Not only is the prediction made 100 percent naive, it is not logical given the Economist’s pro-market position.

For the most part, the Economist believes that the market will react to demand. If they truly believe in this, why wouldn’t the market react to a ‘slowdown’ on the internet by adding more capacity? Or charging different rates for different speeds? Or some other solution?

On one hand, the Economist says the free market is a wonderful environment for the exchange of goods and services, but on the other hand, it says that free market is going to sit on it’s hands and not do anything about the pending slowdown of the internet.

chris (profile) says:

fact checking doesn't sell ads

in television, you can tell what the target market for programming is by the commercials. spikeTV is all beer and video game commercials, clearly the target market is college age males. the cartoon network is all toy and cereal commercials, clearly meant for kids.

if you watch CNN or fox news, the commercials are all for new cars, stocks, prescription drugs, and luxury vacations. clearly the target market is aging baby boomers. the local news is very similar, local car dealerships, local resaurants, and the local grocery chain.

the media is targeted at people who spend money: upper middle class white people. that means that the news has to suit them. it needs to make them feel relieved about being white, feel good about living in suburbs, and feel like they are better than everyone else.

in order to sell ads to that juicy white middle aged market, local news has to focus on fires and murders in poor neighborhoods filled with non-whites, the national news has to focus on high profile scandals and celebrity gossip, and it all has to distract you from crises on a global scale. crises are depressing and not good for ad revenue since no one wants to buy fancy cars and expensive vacations when they are depressed.

Chuck McKay (user link) says:

Re: fact checking doesn't sell ads

in order to sell ads to that juicy white middle aged market, local news has to focus on fires and murders in poor neighborhoods filled with non-whites, the national news has to focus on high profile scandals and celebrity gossip, and it all has to distract you from crises on a global scale. crises are depressing and not good for ad revenue since no one wants to buy fancy cars and expensive vacations when they are depressed.

And that there are fires and murders in poor neighborhoods is irrelevant? C’Mon, Chris the media reports news, it doesn’t create it.

Mike (profile) says:

Re: Fact Checking


There’s a pretty big difference between a JOURNALISTIC publication that employs journalists who do reporting (which is supposed to include fact checking) and a site that has never claimed to do any journalism whatsoever. We are not journalists, and have never claimed to be journalists. We are an opinion and analysis site, and we have open comments for the very purpose of allowing people to do fact checking for us.

However, if a publication holds itself up as a journalistic endeavor that does fact checking, it seems fair game to point out that they have failed.

Dave Burstein (profile) says:

Fixing Economist mistakes


I’ve been covering DSL since 1999 and have been looking closely at the “internet slowdown” stuff. It’s an absolute and total crock, and my sources include a dozen CEOs or CTOs at the companies delivering much of the world’s Internet traffic. Nearly every technical person I know (at CableLabs, Verizon, Level3, Cisco, etc.) disagrees. The people pushing the idea (besides lobbyists) are overwhelmingly without technical background.

The question is what to do about this stuff, which is powerful lobbying in some government circles, including U.K. OFCOM. A “letter to the editor” accomplishes little, even if printed. Instead, I’m suggested actually sending an email to the Editor of the Economist,John Micklethwait, which can be done in 60 seconds on his webpage, http://www.economist.com/mediadirectory/listing.cfm?journalistID=41

Be polite, indicate what relevant experience you have, and point out to him just what the most important technical mistakes in the piece. and suggest that someone with more technical knowledge review that reporter’s work regularly. Ask for a brief reply on how the magazine is following up, and whether they will print a better informed articla on the topic.

I don’t know Micklethwait personally, but every journalist I know wants to get their facts right.

Send a copy to me, if you like (daveb at dslprime com,) and I may forward it to some other contacts journalists care about (Poynter).

Thoughtful says:

Healthy Use keeps the Tubes Working Fine!

I checked the Tubes; they look fine today as they did a year ago. The tube-makers continue adding enough new tubes!

Thanks to Mr Adam Smith whose invisible makes it all work so well! Since the rate of growth is no longer exponential, I am confident that the tubes will continue to grow and handle the load.
Technology is very good value and the price of the bit/second keeps dropping.

I looked at the internet traffic report. This shows that (30-day): packet loss and packet delay is quite acceptable.
http://www.internetpulse.net/ (also shows the delay.)

I like the Economist and often read it because backs up its conclusions with numbers and graphs. But it got the predictions wrong this time. Oops!

Better to read the Accellerating Change articles
for predictions – great, provocative ideas from John Smart, Ray Kurzweil, Stephen Wolfram and more.
http://www.accelerating.org/slides.html Slide Presentations by ASF president John Smart.
Stephen Wolfram http://www.wolframscience.com/

Lawrence D'Oliveiro says:

Linux popularity

Yes, Linux is now popular. You may not have noticed, but a couple of months ago Asus introduced the Eee PC, a tiny, low-cost laptop that comes with Xandros Linux preinstalled. It’s too modestly-specced to do an acceptable job of running Dimdows Vista; it could do XP, but that would add appreciably to the cost of the machine.

The machine is primarily targeted, not at geeks, but at folks who just want an appliance they can switch on and immediately start doing useful work with. No worries about viruses, spyware or any other crap, or having to find and download additional utilities to turn it into a useful machine: it comes with a bunch of apps (productivity, educational, games etc) preinstalled and ready to go.

The result is, Asus is shipping one of these every 6 seconds. This should add up, conservatively, to 3 million sales over the next 12 months. Other vendors have noticed the opportunity, and are scrambling to bring their own units to market.

The era of desktop Linux has begun.

Beowulf405 says:


The Economist also states that SCO lost the copyright case to IBM and implies that drove SCO into Chapter 11. This isn’t true. The courts ruled that Novell owned the copyrights to UNIX not SCO. They also said that SCO had to pay Novell under their Unix sales agreement for the licenses sold to Microsoft and Sun to use the UNIX code in Linux which was the cause of the Chapter 11 filing.

The courts have not ruled that there is no UNIX code in Linux. The only ruling on this subject concerned the fact that SCO was not able to point to actual code that was copied in most of it’s claims.

See Groklaw for more information on the case.

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