Susan Crawford: To talk to us about the pow­er of net­works, we’re very for­tu­nate to have Yochai Benkler with us, who is a co-director of the Berkman Center, author of one of the best books about the Internet age, The Wealth of Networks, and a sought-after speak­er and opin­er on all things dig­i­tal. So please join me in wel­com­ing Yochai Benkler.


Yochai Benkler: Thanks, Susan. We’re extreme­ly lucky to have you. I think Jenny prob­a­bly want­ed about three slides. I fig­ured in my case that meant…not much more than three per minute. I want to tell you four sto­ries from my research and our research here in the last two years that exhib­it dif­fer­ent aspects of both the prob­lem and at least class­es of solu­tions that we see in the net.

So the first one is this one. The ques­tion of nation­al secu­ri­ty, and gov­ern­ment pro­pa­gan­da and mis­in­for­ma­tion. This hap­pens to— By the way, no earth­shak­ing rev­e­la­tions, but offer tex­ture, insight and con­text” is The New York Times ver­sus A Protocol of Barbarity” by Der Spiegel, and Huge WikiLeaks releas­es shows US ignored Iraq tor­ture.’ ” It’s just a ques­tion of fram­ing, really.

But let’s set that aside. The ques­tion of this, one of the major leaks and news sto­ries and how it was treat­ed by the admin­is­tra­tion. So Admiral Mike Mullen: WikiLeaks and Assange might already have on their hands the blood of some young sol­dier or that of an Afghan fam­i­ly.” Secretary Gates: The bat­tle­field con­se­quences are poten­tial­ly severe and dan­ger­ous for our troops,” etc. Intelligence sources and meth­ods,” etc.

When actu­al­ly required by the Senate to write down what the prob­lems were, the basic answer is, the review to date has not revealed any sen­si­tive intel­li­gence sources and meth­ods com­pro­mised.” We’ll see what comes out in Bradley Manning’s tri­al as they try to actu­al­ly make the dam­age case.

Secretary Clinton: Let’s be clear: This dis­clo­sure is not just an attack on America’s for­eign pol­i­cy, it’s an attack on the inter­na­tion­al community.

Vice President Biden: I would argue that it’s clos­er to being a high tech ter­ror­ist than the Pentagon Papers.”

And so on and so forth.

Well, at least we have the Fourth Estate. Two thirds of sto­ries in the first two weeks in nation­al secu­ri­ty from the Lexis data­base have some ver­sion of the sto­ry of WikiLeaks showed rel­a­tive­ly lit­tle dis­cre­tion in its online post­ing or more than 250,000 cables.” Only one sixth had rough­ly the shape of, WikiLeaks released 272 diplo­mat­ic cables from a trove of over 250,000. The remain­der to be drib­bled out for greater effect.”

Vastly dif­fer­ent affect. The dif­fer­ent affect allowed this to hap­pen, which is to say Senator Lieberman, with qui­et accep­tance from the gov­ern­ment, basi­cal­ly says to com­pa­nies, Stop serv­ing WikiLeaks.” And Amazon chucks them off, EveryDNS chucks them off. These are solu­tions, where the solu­tion is not infor­ma­tion­al, it’s sim­ply resis­tance. Making the infor­ma­tion per­sis­tent despite efforts to shut it down. That can’t work for every­thing; pay­ment sys­tems. It is still the case almost two years lat­er, no known effect and no mon­ey sent to WikiLeaks. Here the ques­tion is what forms of resis­tance to action are fea­si­ble in a con­text of a supine, tra­di­tion­al medi­um in the con­text of nation­al secu­ri­ty from state­ments from the state.

When I say supine sys­tem” we look at roles of media as well. So Bill Keller ends his sto­ry in the The New York Times Magazine as, If Assange were an under­stat­ed pro­fes­so­r­i­al type rather than a char­ac­ter from a miss­ing Stieg Larsson nov­el, and if WikiLeaks were not suf­fused with such glib antipa­thy toward the US, would the reac­tion to the leaks be quite so ferocious?”

Good ques­tion. Who’s respon­si­ble? Half an arti­cle before, Keller says, I came to think of Julian Assange as a char­ac­ter from a Stieg Larsson movie. 

So where do we look at the media? On the same day that [?] comes out, we have this front-page sto­ry of WikiLeaks Founder on the Run, Trailed by Notoriety.” If you look at fre­quen­cy of terms from our Media Cloud data­base of Iraq” and embassy” and rape” and molesta­tion,” you see a per­sis­tent inter­fer­ence pat­tern by look­ing for the sex and the vio­lence rather than the vio­lence and the tor­ture. Story One.

Story Two. A cou­ple of years ago the FCC asked us to help them with a nation­al broad­band plan, and the Ford Foundation fund­ed us to do this major report. One of the core prob­lems in under­stand­ing what’s going else­where and import­ing it here was the fact that for a decade, over half the econo­met­ric stud­ies about the effects of the most impor­tant pol­i­cy option that the US decid­ed not to take were fund­ed by indus­try and came 100% on the side of who­ev­er fund­ed them. This took the real­ly inter­est­ing pol­i­cy ques­tion and made it so that seri­ous peo­ple in the US could­n’t say it’s fea­si­ble, because all the evi­dence is against it.

This is work with Laura Miyakawa when she was still here. If you begin to map the papers and the fund­ing, what you see is a com­bi­na­tion of con­sul­tan­cies like Criterion Economics or the Analysis Group, togeth­er with accred­i­ta­tion of Brookings Institute or American Enterprise Institute, with authors who are both in the con­sult­ing world and in the think tanks as well as the uni­ver­si­ties. And you get the fund­ing and the accred­i­ta­tion com­ing out with a per­sis­tent set of answers that are always on the side of who­ev­er fund­ed them.

The answer to this, if we can devel­op some­thing on the net, has to be some form of peer review. Whether it’s a web site that gets grad­u­ate stu­dents to look at this data. Whether that’s the mod­el or some­thing along those lines.

Story Three. The sixth most-searched term which was fol­lowed by a click on the right wing blo­gos­phere in 2010 was a search for the cost of Obama’s trip to India. The major claim that the trip cost $200 mil­lion a day, it start­ed out… So this is a great can­di­date for the Web spreads fear. And indeed Tom Friedman writes to us Too Good to Check.” The sto­ry’s too good to check. Anderson Cooper did the coun­try a favor. He expert­ly decon­struct­ed on his CNN show a bogus rumor that President Obama’s trip… Where does the rumor come from? In case you missed it a sto­ry cir­cu­lat­ed around the Web, etc.”

Indeed, two blog posts on November 2 linked to one of India’s most respect­ed news sites claim­ing this sto­ry. These two top sites plus three small sites. Three hours lat­er, how­ev­er, it was Rush Limbaugh. And that night it was Mike Huckabee on elec­tion night report, who amped things up.

So then who decon­struct­ed it? Well, it was­n’t tra­di­tion­al media. This is the next day. A major piece on the new Obama roy­al­ty on Fox News. Hours after these had already come out on the Web. So FactCheck goes and does a very care­ful analysis—factcheck.org. MediaMatters does. Snopes​.com does. So, academically-based, nonprofit-supported orga­ni­za­tions, as well as a com­mer­cial web site all debunked it such that by the mid­dle of the day on November 4, sev­en or eight hours before Cooper’s response, we already have a Wall Street Journal blog post that includes the debunk­ing and direct­ly cites both Snopes and FactCheck with links. One who did the research, as Tom Friedman says, too good to check” that the sto­ry is that the Web is non­sense and tra­di­tion­al media and report­ing is good.

So in fact Anderson Cooper sev­en hours lat­er has this sto­ry. As you see, he’s com­par­ing it to the Clinton trip in the late 90s, which is a great way of doing it, just like factcheck​.org did a day a half ear­li­er, just with­out citation.

The Web on the oth­er hand, hours before Cooper… In our set, at least half the blogs, includ­ing the top right wing, were already link­ing to the debunk­ing. It was only Glenn Beck who kept repeat­ing the lie. So whether lying is eas­i­er or hard­er is a dif­fer­ent question.

Story Four, and it’s a com­plete­ly dif­fer­ent sto­ry and a com­plete­ly dif­fer­ent under­stand­ing. And that’s the sto­ry of the SOPA/PIPA orga­ni­za­tion. And it goes not so much the fact-checking as to basic fram­ing of a core pol­i­cy ques­tion through a mobi­lized net­work of polit­i­cal and infor­ma­tion­al work.

So you start when the bill gets intro­duced in this sto­ry on The Hill in September of 2010. A bipar­ti­san bill unveiled Monday would make it eas­i­er for the Justice Department to shut down web sites that traf­fic pirat­ed music, movies, and coun­ter­feit goods. Members of the Senate Judiciary Committee includ­ing Chairman Patrick Leahy and Orrin Hatch, etc…introduced, etc.… Quote:

Each year, online pira­cy and the sale of coun­ter­feit goods costs American busi­ness­es bil­lions of dol­lars, and result in hun­dreds of thou­sands of lost jobs,” Leahy said in a state­ment. Protecting intel­lec­tu­al prop­er­ty is not unique­ly a Democratic or Republican priority—it is a bipar­ti­san priority.”
Bipartisan bill would ramp up anti-piracy enforce­ment online, Gautham Nagesh, The Hill, 09/20/2010 [since edit­ed]

Fourteen months lat­er, Wikipedia is shut down and its front page says Imagine a World Without Free Knowledge.” How did this piece of leg­is­la­tion move from being some­thing that is nei­ther a Democratic nor Republican sto­ry to imag­ine a world with­out free knowl­edge?” That’s a story.

One ver­sion of the sto­ry is a sim­ple debunk­ing sto­ry, and you can tell that. So for exam­ple, the $58 bil­lion that’s claimed that the indus­try is los­ing $58 bil­lion from pira­cy. That was debunked. It was stat­ed in The Hill in that par­tic­u­lar sto­ry. It’s lat­er repeat­ed in var­i­ous places, includ­ing The New York Times. It gets debunked online. So you’ve got this par­tic­u­lar sto­ry in Cato link­ing to The New York Times sto­ry and say­ing, here are the prob­lems.” Here’s the actu­al orig­i­nal arti­cle by the con­sul­tan­cy firm, as we saw in broad­band as well, mak­ing these bogus num­bers. Here are the links to all of the fig­ures, etc. that make it wrong. Here’s a link to the GAO report that a year and a half ago already debunked this. 

But Cato is not very well-known. However, there’s an atten­tion back­bone. Techdirt, which is very high­ly con­nect­ed in this net­work, links to Cato, and the sto­ry goes from there as does a debunk­ing of the same sto­ry on Reddit. So we see very high­ly con­nect­ed nodes pro­duc­ing the debunking.

But that’s the less inter­est­ing ver­sion of the sto­ry. The more inter­est­ing ver­sion of the sto­ry is the devel­op­ment of net­work orga­ni­za­tion. So this is a snap­shot out of about 13,000 sto­ries over the last year and a half, relat­ed to SOPA and PIPA. This is a snap­shot of how they’re con­nect­ed and cite each oth­er as of September/October 2010, when COICA comes out. What you see here is that it’s very much a tech media, a pro­fes­sion­al tech media sto­ry. Techdir, CNET, and EFF, as well as obvi­ous­ly a con­nec­tion to the actu­al source.

By the time PIPA comes out, by the time the Protect IP Act comes out in May of 2011, it shifts to being some­thing cen­tral in DC, with Senator Ron Wyden play­ing a real role in try­ing to push this as a prob­lem. I can’t hold on much longer. 

Some inter­est­ing things when you zoom in. So Wyden seems to be con­nect­ing very heav­i­ly to the New York VC com­mu­ni­ty: Union Square Ventures, Fred Wilson over there. As well as to the left. You’ve Democratic Underground. You’ve Demand Progress here. You also see Public Knowledge emerg­ing up there as a major site. And the begin­nings up there of dont​cen​sorthenet​.com, which is real­ly the approach that starts tak­ing over by the time you get to the intro­duc­tion of SOPA.

Something that was­n’t there before at all, amer​i​can​cen​sor​ship​.org, which is direct action, right. A site that calls peo­ple to write their sen­a­tors emerges out of noth­ing. The whole notion that we can’t have vis­i­bil­i­ty on the net emerges out of nothing.

And if we zoom in on this sort of cen­ter area, what we see is direct action on the Web to try to get peo­ple to write their sen­a­tors against these best-moneyed lob­bies sup­port­ed by both par­ties. So you see open​congress​.org, a project fund­ed by the Sunlight Foundation, and Participatory Politics Foundation. You see Fight for the Future, who are the peo­ple behind amer​i​can​cen​sor​ship​.org, and you see the emer­gence of a Wikipedia. 

As that intro­duc­tion and that par­tic­u­lar first set of mail­ings goes out and we move on to the next day, you notice that the dif­fer­ent sites have dif­fer­ent roles. So amer​i​can​cen​sor​ship​.org is just an action site. This reflects how many dis­creet pages or sto­ries each site has links to. We see all of the send­ing over here to one action site. This is to pri­ma­ry mate­ri­als, primarily.

What’s that site? Call Congress Right Away. Call my Representative.” A direct action site. This is what every­body is link­ing to. Let’s act. 

When you look at Wikipedia, you see a com­bi­na­tion of both information—a lot of the links are to just what on Earth is SOPA?” Here Wikipedia’s got its neu­tral hat. But you also see orga­niz­ing over here for polit­i­cal action. So this is Jimmy Wales’ user talk page where he sets up and says, Let’s do some­thing togeth­er. Let’s open up a poll,” and 1,800 peo­ple start debat­ing about what Wikipedia should do. 

Techdirt on the oth­er hand has lots and lots. Nine hun­dred thirty-seven dif­fer­ent fac­tu­al sto­ries. This major sto­ry from November that tells all the details…turns out truth is stranger than fiction. 

On January 20th, after the SOPA and PIPA failed, Google gets a DMCA take­down notice that says there’s copy­right infringe­ment in these hun­dreds of sites. And num­ber 253 on this list is this Techdirt sto­ry which was the most cited-to dur­ing this peri­od, which is a pure­ly fac­tu­al sto­ry. For a month you would­n’t get it from Google search results, until Mike Masnick hap­pened to notice by chance that this was the case and told Google, Stop block­ing me.” But for a month it was blocked.

By December, action sub­sided a lit­tle bit. Techdirt again became sto­ry peo­ple were look­ing for things. Reddit began to be more sig­nif­i­cant, and you had up more time for orga­niz­ing on Wikipedia. 

By January, action comes back to the cen­ter. We see Wikipedia. We see American Censorship com­ing up again. We see all sorts of par­tic­u­lar groups. The New York Tech Meetup, you see ProPublica set­ting up a site to show who’s on which side and what mon­ey they had. You see the right wing blo­gos­phere over here also con­nect­ing to this set of materials.

And by February look, it’s com­plete­ly changed. All of the action sites, par­tic­u­lar­ly American Censorship, are gone. We’ve won. And the action has shift­ed to Europe as the Europeans try to import the same mod­el into ACTA.

You’ve got street protests in Poland and you’ve got Polish leg­is­la­tors don­ning Anonymous masks to stop this inter­na­tion­al treaty—it’s worse than SOPA

What’s the sto­ry? To me the sto­ry is not main­stream media, which per­sist here but are rel­a­tive­ly small. And it’s not nec­es­sar­i­ly blogs, which are also per­va­sive and every­where. What’s inter­est­ing here is the par­tic­u­lar surg­ing role of tech­nol­o­gy media in feed­ing the story—online ded­i­cat­ed tech media. Of stand­ing, long-term orga­ni­za­tions ded­i­cat­ed to the area, which are much more effec­tive and impor­tant in this field. 

And a sur­pris­ing­ly large and impor­tant num­ber of action item-specific sites where peo­ple ramp up, have direct action with a web­site. These are all sites that are specif­i­cal­ly ded­i­cat­ed to this par­tic­u­lar battle.

And most inter­est­ing? It’s this crazy quilt. It’s the fact that you have all of these dif­fer­ent play­ers, all of these dif­fer­ent kinds of players—blogs and main­stream media organizations—all work­ing togeth­er to com­plete­ly shift the frame. This isn’t about fact-checking, it’s about frame-shifting through a com­bi­na­tion of infor­ma­tion, research, both neu­tral and activist as well as direct action.

So this was an amaz­ing team that pulled it togeth­er, and thank you to them here at Berkman. The four sto­ries to me cap­ture the prob­lem of the state and its infor­ma­tion, par­tic­u­lar­ly in the con­text of nation­al secu­ri­ty. The prob­lem of mon­ey in research about what the facts are. The prob­lem of a dis­crete mis­in­for­ma­tion cam­paign that Fox News rep­re­sents, and it’s not just a neu­tral thing it’s a par­tic­u­lar instance. And the impor­tance of non­prof­it, stand­ing pro­fes­sion­al fact-checking. And the pos­si­bil­i­ties for net­worked orga­ni­za­tion. And the abil­i­ty to actu­al­ly come togeth­er as a net­worked pub­lic sphere to shift the frame over a peri­od of over a year, in the teeth of mon­ey and accept­ed wis­dom, in the oppo­site direc­tion. Thank you.

Further Reference

Truthiness in Digital Media event site