Credibility, anonymity, and Andrew Breitbart

Dan Gillmor's Guardian column, "Andrew Breitbart and the unwilling suspension of disbelief," explains his theory of online credibility and talks about how to be appropriately skeptical of different sources. Gillmor is dubious about anonymous comments, though he's careful to defend the value of anonymous speech.

Breitbart will never rate as low as some people on my BS scale, because he stands behind his own words. I respect him for that much, unlike the anonymous commenters who hide in the virtual bushes to snipe at others. Anonymous sources in journalists' stories are generally contemptible for the same reason, especially when their role is to attack. Our disdain should extend in those cases to the journalists who grant this favour; they are doing their own reputations no good at all.

This is not an attack on anonymity, incidentally. We need to preserve people's ability to speak without being personally identified in many cases. Without anonymity, for example, many whistleblowers will not expose the crimes of governments and large enterprises - just one reason to preserve it. I will discuss this more fully here soon. But my bias in discourse is that we should stand behind our own words, and that we should encourage others to do the same.

Credibility is a hard-won asset, and all too easy to forfeit. Breitbart's credibility has improved in the wake of the Weiner affair. Will it move into positive territory? I will not hold my breath, but I will hope so.

Andrew Breitbart and the unwilling suspension of disbelief


  1. With respect to journalism, anonymous sources without further corroboration are contemptible, as is all poorly researched journalism. However, I think that it is worth crediting anonymous sources when they lead to something real.

  2. Interesting how the right wing commentators there claim the left is fearful of Breitbart.

    I guess for them “fear” and “repulsed by his actions” are one in the same.

    1. “I guess for them “fear” and “repulsed by his actions” are one in the same.”

      Exercise: apply the same reasoning to the term ‘homophobia’.

  3. I liked “Brightbert” better. Made me think of Dilbert. (Dilbert is much less evil and scary than Brightbart).

  4. I like the idea of his scale for personal use in determining how much credibility one gives to information, but… (personal nit-pick)

    The scale and terminology are horrid. Its either a “credibility” scale or a “bullshit” scale. In my mind, those are opposites (higher credibility moves to the right; “higher bullshit” moves to the left on the given scale).

    If you want to make a useful and intuitive scale, you need to put some thought into the units. When your scale is arbitrary, why choose -30 to +30 points? Percentage with defined zones would display the information much more intuitively.
    0-25% credibility = bullshit
    25-50% credibility = probably ignore, if it seems promising, look into it further
    50-75% credibility = potentially true, take with a grain of salt
    75-99% credibility (nothing gets 100% credibility, every source can be wrong) = trusted sources, likely to take at face value, but could still be inaccurate

    Taking a label like “youtube” and pointing it at {-20, -5, 10, 25} says… IDFK, i just go with my gut. which is probably true, but plotting it without naming the sub-categorizations implied just displays confusion.

    Like i said, its a personal nit-pick, but graphs should add clarity, not detract from it. Maybe I enjoy xkcd too much…

  5. Alas, Breitbart’s pledge to honor the privacy of the Weiner family lasted approximately 24 hours. He allowed the picture to be released today by radio goofballs Opie & Anthony. You stay classy Andrew!

  6. Gillmor doesn’t like anonymous sources very much. First he damns them for not standing behind their words and assigns them negative credibility. He later qualifies this with a grudging nod to whistleblowers needing anonymity for fear of their livelihoods or their very lives. That’s real generous.

    But anonymity is unrelated to credibility. Anonymous sources have zero credibility, just as famous ones have, until either delivers proof of their assertions. Negative credibility has to be earned, by lying or repeatedly failing to deliver.

    A certain star reporter who pipelined a government official’s agenda and the editor who allowed it to be published, to name an extreme example, put their prominent newspaper in negative credibility territory (happily, not among people who mattered). Ditto for sitting on a big story about telephone companies illegally spying on customers at the government’s behest, so as not to jeopardize that administrations re-election.

    As Gillmor points out, Breitbart has a record of trading in doctored rightwing sleaze and minor stories inflated to major ones by hysterical amplification. Therefore, Breitbart is in negative territory for anyone not already predisposed to believe him and must remain so for a long time to come.

    But why Gillmor would finish with a (possibly forlorn) hope that Breitbart’s credibility improves is beyond me.

  7. Gilmore wrote,

    “Credibility is a hard-won asset, and all too easy to forfeit. Breitbart’s credibility has improved in the wake of the Weiner affair. Will it move into positive territory?”

    Brightbrat’s credibility doesn’t matter. What does matter is the immediate plausibility of any particular story that he pukes up. If the corporate media can run with it, they will. It doesn’t matter much if later, an audience that’s one tenth or less the size of the initial one here’s a retraction or correction. The damage is done.

  8. Breitbart does NOT stand by his own words. He has totally changed his story re Shirley Sherrod. He only stands by his most recent lie and denies he’s a liar. That makes him brazen, but not respectable.

    It’s debatable whether the journalists who still quote him as some kind of expert pundit are more contemptible.

    1. I took Gilmor’s comment that Breitbart “stands behind his own words” to mean that he is at least willing to use his real name and face when he makes those statements. I’ve seen enough unregulated internet forums to know that there are people who say things just as disgusting but wouldn’t be willing to admit to it in public.

      1. Right, I get that Breitbart is willing to put his name to his brazen, repeated lies. I just don’t think his self-aggrandizement makes him a bit better than their anonymous cowardice.

        But my point isn’t really to make a moral judgement of scum like Breitbart. There will always be scum like Breitbart. My point is that decent people should stop helping him.

      2. “Standing behind your words” doesn’t mean much if no one holds you to them. If journalists were expected to resign the first time their spin proved false and damn near libelous, you’d have a point.

        As it is, there’s certain anonymous forums (notably most of the off-/b/ 4chan boards) whom I’d trust more than any fox news talking head, simply because they’re not seriously trying to incite me toward a direction. Also, because I prefer blatant hate speech meant jokingly to carefully phrased hate speech meant seriously.

        1. I don’t consider Breitbart a credible source or a journalist in any way, shape or form. Hell, in my opinion he barely qualifies as a human being. But I disagree that his willingness to put a name and face to his words is entirely without consequence for him.

          When Breitbart makes a demonstrably false or hateful statement it becomes associated with his real-life persona. As a result people like you and I are able to form a lasting opinion as to his credibility (very, very poor). People can send him hate mail or organize protests against his organizations. He might attract angry stalkers. His record of inflammatory statements make the odds of ever winning elected office (if he chose to run for one) virtually nil. None of these things can be said about people who practice anonymous hate speech on 4chan or YouTube.

          1. You left out, “and he makes a shitload of money.” I’m not arguing that his lies have no consequences, hell, that’s how he makes his living.

            I’m arguing that he is so far beyond the pale that moral comparison to people who may or may not be more contemptible, is not productive. The useful question is how we should judge the people who stick microphones in his face, when they should be turning their backs.

          2. I’m not saying Breitbart is moral in any way. I’m saying his lack of anonymity provides a useful means of judging his credibility.

  9. Sitting on someone’s Twitter account and paying anonymous sources for sensational and lurid material for political gain, is no more journalism than say, editing a video depicting someone who is helping to register voters, as helping minor-aged prostitution rings with their tax status is documentary film making.

    Why Breitbart, or O’Keefe, or their media-amplifiers receive any credibility, on any subject, is beyond me.

    Repeat after me… Andrew Breitbart is not a journalist.

  10. When Breitbart makes a demonstrably false or hateful statement it becomes associated with his real-life persona. As a result people like you and I are able to form a lasting opinion as to his credibility

    So you’re saying that he’s got the makings of a Presidential candidate?

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