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Little Brother Is Watching

(CBS/AP)
We can pretty much all agree that the Internet, including blogs, played a pretty large role in exposing the Mark Foley scandal. Score one for the good guys in this case. But even in the midst of this story comes another reminder that the Web could be changing our politics in ways that aren't necessarily for the better. We've previously explored the downside of a world in which politicians are stalked by video cameras to catch every single word they utter and involuntary tick they suffer from. Now, Google's Eric Schmidt says the Internet giant may enable everyone to instantly fact-check our candidates and leaders. Via Reuters:
Imagine being able to check instantly whether or not statements made by politicians were correct. That is the sort of service Google Inc. boss Eric Schmidt believes the Internet will offer within five years.

Politicians have yet to appreciate the impact of the online world, which will also affect the outcome of elections, Schmidt said in an interview with the Financial Times published on Wednesday.

He predicted that "truth predictor" software would, within five years, "hold politicians to account." People would be able to use programs to check seemingly factual statements against historical data to see to see if they were correct.

"One of my messages to them (politicians) is to think about having every one of your voters online all the time, then inputting 'is this true or false.' We (at Google) are not in charge of truth but we might be able to give a probability," he told the newspaper.

Hey, it sounds great doesn't it? We'll really have those slick politicians where we want them now. But much like the YouTube phenomenon might likely produce a generation of even more-refined political robots, this "truth predictor" may end up only hurting the system.

Sure, it may be extremely useful in catching a politician telling a flat-out lie but in reality, there aren't that many of those in the public square. Yes, potato does not have an "e" on the end, but that's something even the traditional press is pretty well-equipped to handle. Most of the time, we fight over ideology, nuance and gray matters in the search for truth, or at least some kind of consensus of what a truth may be. Think about all the great examples from our past. How would the "truth predictor" parse out President Nixon's "I am not a crook?" Heck, if Google could have told us the truth about that statement when it was uttered, it would have saved us all a lot of trouble. The "truth" is, it would have been impossible. Would Google be the ultimate arbiter of whether oral sex constitutes "sexual relations" or give us a determination about the quality of intelligence on WMDs?

Forget those real dramatic moments, what happens when a member of Congress running for re-election boasts about his vote for HR-something-or-other which has helped clean up the environment or improved health care or helped the lives of millions? Entire think-tank industries thrive on arguing whether or not those types of statements are true, are we to believe that a search engine can provide us with an immediate answer? The fact of the matter is that politicians make careers out of avoiding absolute statements – they play around the edges which are usually open to interpretation. That's not an admirable trait of our public servants, but it's reality. What a "truth predictor" might gin up in response to most public statements would probably end up as just more ammunition thrown into the political fray.

The Internet is changing politics just like it's changing the news business, retail purchasing and just about everything else. Not all these changes are good, not all are harmful. It's encouraging to think we are gaining more control over our political process through participation but just as the tyranny of the minority is still tyranny, a Little Brother might not be any better than Big Brother.

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