Saturday, December 15, 2007

Being An Internet Investigator

(If you've come here to read research about the "British Centre for Science Education", you should skip this post).

I think I've learnt a few things over the time that I've been investigating and documenting the activities of the non-British non-centre for non-science non-education. It may be useful for others if I write a little about some of those lessons. I've seen other investigative blogs on the Internet; the quality varies greatly! It's an interesting and challenging personal experience too, especially if those whose activities you look into start trying to play nasty.

Here, then, in no particular order, are some of the things I've learnt or questions you ought to ask:

1. You will become a public person

Once you go live, you become a public person. Other will comment on your work, and on you. Some will take remarkable liberties in making all kinds of speculations - even if the only contact they've ever had with you is to read a handful of blog posts. This might make you realise that you've done the same about others; it certainly gives you a different perspective from "the other side of the fence" and teaches us to be a bit more reserved in our own wild speculations!

I recommend not even thinking about doing this kind of work anonymously. Investigative work is about integrity - you are questioning the integrity of someone else or their organisation. If you don't want to be held accountable for what you say (which for me means I list on my blog my name and which church I belong to), then probably you shouldn't be saying it. Maybe if you're investigating the Mafia and your targets are likely to hire hit-men, then anonymity might be an option. Otherwise, remember that if you're going to question someone else's credibility, they're likely to at least wonder what yours is too.

Following on from this is...

2. Are you ready to become a public person?

If you are, like me, seeking to expose a bunch of people who have no qualms about playing dirty, then you really need to think about whether you're ready for the comeback. Either you need to grow a thicker skin, or you should probably consider never starting. Are you ready for a hate-mail, having counter-blogs and websites set up with no discernible purpose other than to insult you, and having small-minded people with infinite amounts of time on their hands run all round the Internet to say about you whatever bizarre inventions their brains can concoct? Are you ready to have them seek to peer into your personal relationships, contact your friends and churches, make bogus legal threats and so on? Are you the sort of person who will have trouble sleeping and develop ulcers because of the strain it'll put you under? If the whole premise of your investigation is that the organisation or whatever that you're researching is in fact a nasty piece of work, then it shouldn't be much of a surprise if instead of responding to the message they attack the messenger instead, should it? If you're not ready for that, then you might want to think again before you start out.

I rejoice that I have a sovereign God who, for some unfathomable reason, loves me is able to help me through all such things. I also had the help of already, as a Christian minister (though a very obscure one!), being a public person in the world beyond the Internet. But nobody should underestimate the challenge.

3. Do your homework!

This is obviously the cardinal rule of research, of whatever kind. Your opponents might think nothing about making the most bizarre allegations about you and offering no evidence for it. Your credibility, though, depends on doing the opposite. (The Bible also forbids us to spread allegations about others without evidence - Leviticus 19:16).

It is tempting once you get into this kind of thing to have a "them and us" mentality. You may develop speculative ideas, and then start interpreting the evidence in the light of those ideas. Suddenly, you see your pet theory everywhere! Don't do this. When you write up your research, you must make sure it is evidence-based and evidence-led. When you make speculations, make it clear that you are doing that. If the main burden of your belief in your opponents' lack of credibility is correct and you can show it, then you don't need to indulge in pointless speculations. Your opponents will, if they cannot rebut your case, instead seek to seize upon and make a mountain out of the tiniest little error or misleading statement. Hence, it's a good idea to make as few of those as possible. Be ready to correct your errors; show an openness to look into any mistakes which people can show you. For this reason I advertise my e-mail address and policy on correcting errors together with an invitation to inform me of them after every post.

4. Remember that most of your audience is unseen.

As a blogger, you now have a public profile, and so do your opponents. You will write up your research; your opponents will do what they decide in order to refute you - whether honestly or through dirty tricks. You should remember, though, that the great majority of your audience watches and listens silently, forming its opinion and never telling you about it. They will vote with their feet, and maybe talk about it on some other forum or more likely just keeping it to themselves. The would-be supporters and insiders of the BCSE didn't generally contact me to tell me that they had decided not to join, or been persuaded to leave - but over the course of the year, I watched the BCSE move from being an organisation with big hopes and dreams into a tiny remnant, smaller even than on the day it launched - people voted with their feet.

You should be realistic about convincing the main players amongst your opponents. The powers that humans possess for self-deception are immense. Once someone has committed to something in a public way, it is very hard for them to change course. If their public enterprise is actually founded on deceit and/or wilful self-deception, then you should not be surprised if when you point this out they don't see it. In many ways, you are not writing for them - you are writing for the onlooking world. As a Christian I don't expect Satan to pack up and go home just because I preach sermons. The point for those of us who are Chirstians isn't that we will easily win the world to our message; it is often more that as preach it, it will make the division between right and wrong, and who is standing on which side, much clearer. The sides might not change - but the existence of those sides and the actual principles they stand for will become much more obvious.

Ultimately the most important audience - your maker - is unseen. Whatever integrity or lack of it we show to the world, and however much they fail to detect it, he will. The judgments and opinions of others matter little, because they're not the ones with power to decide our eternal destinies (see the gospel of Luke, chapter 12). That's another reason to not be anonymous - it helps to keep us honest, remembering that ultimately one day there will be no secrets left at all - everything will be revealed. The all-seeing eyes of God are ultimately very comforting; as a Christian I don't have to resort to suing the BCSE for slander (which they gave me very strong grounds to do on several occasions), because I know that there is already a court that will decide on the matter, and which I can wait patiently for.

This point leads on to another:

5. Be careful and patient in responding to critiscm

We are human beings. We have been made in such a way that we are intended to live in society with other human beings. There are very few people who can really and truly shut themselves off from others - I believe that those who manage to do so completely are known as "psychopaths"! Our natural tendency, particularly fueled by our sinful pride, is to want to respond to everything bad sad about us, and defend ourselves to the hilt. It is often necessary to respond to attacks on us because otherwise we co-operate in the spoiling of our own reputations and join in the ruining of our own future usefulness. However, it is never necessary to respond to everything said against us.

I've found that it's rarely a good idea to make a swift response to something malicious said against us or that reflects badly on us. Much better to wait, ponder on it, pray and sleep on it, and seek to come to a more objective viewpoint. Some attacks on you as an investigative blogger will be so obviously groundless and malicious that the best thing to do is simply to ignore them - rise above it. If you start descending to the level of every muck-thrower, you'll soon find that you've become one. The world does indeed have an excessive quota of people who behave like unthinking zombies with vast amounts of time to waste, and if you make it your task to rebut them then you'll have to give up eating and sleeping. Swat one here, up pops another one there. Simpler just to ignore them, and only respond to challenges which are in some way worthy.

6. Be careful about what you reveal

I've found that some opponents of my work were ready to behave in a very deceitful way - contacting me, or maybe a colleague in the church whose e-mail address they'd obtained from the Internet (or even putting up smears on them in order to pressurise me), pretending to be someone that they weren't or disguising their true purpose.

If someone starts fishing for personal information, you have no obligation to reply to them. You have no obligation to reply to anyone who e-mails you privately at all unless you actually asked for such e-mails (e.g. asking people to point out any mistakes in your research).

Some private e-mails I've received have been frankly little more than invitations to have a bar-room brawl. Often such e-mails have no name on them (or just a first name), and the author doesn't even bother to introduce himself before he piles on in. E-mail seems to be a medium which brings out the worst in some people. I eventually learnt that the best response to anonymous e-mails or deliberately and pointlessly insulting ones is the delete key, together with a "block future e-mails" filter in your e-mail program. I was amused to find one supporter of the BCSE bragging in a forum that my latest blog post was provoked by something he'd e-mailed me... when I'd added his e-mail address to my "block" filter some time before!

Basically this rule is about remembering that you're in control. Unless they are in fact the Mafia or live next door, their powers to compel you to play along with whatever game they're up to are pretty limited.

7. Record everything!

The BCSE are a pretty unscrupulous bunch, and the usual response when I caught them out in some unguarded comment about their true motives or if I documented some obvious and gross set of lies was not for them to apologise or publish any retraction, but simply to whitewash the evidence (e.g. see here). The various pieces of damning evidence that I started drawing attention to would simply disappear, without a word of explanation - whilst, of course, all the parts of the BCSE's website, including the front page, proclaiming their honesty and integrity would all continue to say just what they'd said before. Basically, the BCSE just wanted to pull the wool over everybody's eyes, hoping that people would forget if given enough time.

To counter-act this, you need to take a copy of everything you come across. You need to note down everything potentially interesting or useful as soon as you come across it. This is helpful too for when you later come across something that ties in with something you'd seen earlier - if you didn't note down the earlier thing, then you'll have to waste time in searching for it again. The golden rule here is archive, archive, archive! Which leads me on to...

8. Know the law

When I started quoting the BCSE website and making my own copies for my research use, the BCSE responded with a series of bogus legal threats and attempts to ruin my reputation by publishing their allegations, without accompanying evidence, on their website - in all but one case, without making any attempt to contact me beforehand (e.g. see here and here).

If you don't know the law, then you can end up either being intimidated by such bully-boy tactics, or into restraining your activities because you believe your opponents. In my case, I already knew what copyright law allowed, and knew that the BCSE were either badly mislead by someone or simply making it up as they went along in order to further their own ends. (Their own website violated the standard they had said I should be keeping to many times, e.g. see here).

It is worth pointing out that copyright law has specific provisions for researchers. The BCSE sought to keep certain very revealing materials out of peoples' hands by claiming that I had no right to own and/or distribute them. This was wrong. The law has provisions to prevent the kind of bully-boy tactics the BCSE employed from being effective - but they're only of use if you know about them. I am not a lawyer - so make sure you get your own advice if needed.

9. Don't descend to their level

I think I must have said this a few times already. It's worth saying again though. Don't be reactive; there's no need to respond to everything said. They might even try to bring you down into the sewer as a tactic to discredit you - to show the world that you're as bad as they are and so haven't got a case to make. Avoid it at all costs! If you find it hard to avoid responding or implementing any of the above things, you might want to recruit someone wise to run all your blog posts past before they are published.

And finally, the most obvious one:

10. Make sure your cause is a good one!

Otherwise, all the good and bad advice in the world is just a waste of time!

"For we can do nothing against the truth, but for the truth." - 2 Corinthians 13:8.

Obviously, in the above I am describing an ideal. How well I met it, I leave others to judge. I hope though that the advice will be useful to someone in some good cause. Take care!

David Anderson

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