Social Media’s Power to Manipulate

The FCC, in a narrow vote this week, elected to adopt rules to protect the principle known as “net neutrality.” The agency will now regulate broadband as a public utility in order to ensure that ISPs cannot discriminate between one kind of customer and another, namely that they may not speed up traffic for higher paying users or slow it down for lower paying ones.  Many view the vote for “net neutrality” as a win for universal digital rights, others see it as government overreach into the free market; and both sides claim to be on the side of free speech.  I have expressed doubts before about some of the more extreme fears of a world without net neutrality, and Alex Pareene, writing for Gawker, reminds us that the “win” in this case can be credited to what he calls a “cartel” of Internet industry giants like Google, Microsoft, eBay, Facebook, and Amazon. Whether or not net neutrality is essential for maintaining a level playing field for competing interests, one rhetorical talking point overused by all parties is this idea of preserving the Internet as “the greatest tool for free expression and democracy.”  It ought to be, but the more I consider this premise, the more I wonder if it may prove to be one of the worst lies of the digital age — no matter how fast it travels through the proverbial tubes.

In an article posted on Ars Technica, cryptographer and security expert Bruce Schneier explains exactly how easy it can be to manipulate public opinion through social media.  I’ve been on this kick since starting this blog — the idea that more expression can actually make the electorate less well informed, not because people are necessarily dumb or lazy, but because the way in which we take in information now is so heavily bombarded with aggregated impressions.  Unless one really has time to research and calmly consider every story that might pop up on a Facebook feed, for instance, it’s almost impossible not to be influenced by the constant flow of impressions being made with images, headlines, and memes.  The more these impressions jibe with our own biases, the more they solidify those prejudices, making us less receptive to ideas that might challenge our thinking.  And because a walled garden like Facebook tends to expose us to items based on our group of like-minded Friends and on an algorithmic interpretation of our tastes and interests, the experience is far more circumscribed than we might necessarily notice. Schneier offers a relatively simple example of possible political manipulation thus:

“During the 2012 election, Facebook users had the opportunity to post an “I Voted” icon, much like the real stickers many of us get at polling places after voting. There is a documented bandwagon effect with respect to voting; you are more likely to vote if you believe your friends are voting, too. This manipulation had the effect of increasing voter turnout 0.4% nationwide. So far, so good. But now imagine if Facebook manipulated the visibility of the “I Voted” icon based on either party affiliation or some decent proxy of it: ZIP code of residence, blogs linked to, URLs liked, and so on. It didn’t, but if it did, it would have had the effect of increasing voter turnout in one direction. It would be hard to detect, and it wouldn’t even be illegal. Facebook could easily tilt a close election by selectively manipulating what posts its users see. Google might do something similar with its search results.”

The implications of that are rather staggering.  Forget lobbying and other forms of corporate meddling in the political process.  A vested interest could sway an election at the local, state, or federal level without anyone really noticing, and paradoxically by using these same technologies we believe provide us with better insight and a stronger voice in the process. The Internet can hardly be a tool for transparency, if we’re each looking through our own opaque set of lenses; but then combine this habit of human nature with  manipulation of the data, and you get the opposite result of the new enlightenment that was supposed to come with the digital age. Again from Schneier:

“The first listing in a Google search result gets a third of the clicks, and if you’re not on the first page, you might as well not exist. The result is that the Internet you see is increasingly tailored to what your profile indicates your interests are. This leads to a phenomenon that political activist Eli Pariser has called the “filter bubble”: an Internet optimized to your preferences, where you never have to encounter an opinion you don’t agree with.”

I think Pariser’s “filter bubble” accurately describes the human component that is so often excluded from the discussion, but I will also be presumptuous enough to examine this notion of “an opinion you don’t agree with.”  Depending on how we define that phrase, I actually find the social media experience is chockfull of opinions with which I disagree and that I could spend an unreasonable amount of time sifting through all those opinions in search of competing ideas. After all, opinions and ideas are not quite the same thing. Competing ideas are about problem solving. Competing opinions are mostly theater, and media loves theater. Cable TV news produced many years worth of passive theater comprised of competing opinions in the service of few ideas.  Social media turns this into participatory theater that adds the element of narcissism, which serves to exacerbate the divisiveness in our political process.  In short, I suspect the environment is ideal for manipulators to subtly manipulate political outcomes without us  noticing.  The promise that the Internet “democratizes” information certainly sounds progressive, but the ways in which we interact with these tools as they are designed doesn’t necessarily foster progress; and to Schneier’s point, it doesn’t have to be the least bit democratic.

Posted in Digital Culture, Politics | Tagged , , | 3 Comments

Why I Don’t Really Hate Hollywood

P1180231Once again, I maintained my tradition of not making it through the Oscars.  I haven’t cared much about the show itself in years, and I have even less patience for the pre and post-game buzz about everything that’s right or wrong with Hollywood, with the nominees themselves, with the Academy, and most especially with what anyone is wearing. Okay, I’m  a curmudgeon.  But not really.  Because the truth is a love/hate relationship with Hollywood has been part of the American story since before the L-A-N-D came off the famous sign that gives the town its name. Even the word movies was originally a pejorative adopted by the farming community of Southern California to describe those decadent idolaters who made those damn “flickers.”  I really don’t think it’s possible to have an industry built on so much passion, ego, fear, sex, and money without people finding it alternately alluring and repulsive. I also believe it is never quite possible to love cinema without liking Hollywood at least a little.

For one thing, what many people think of as independent cinema isn’t necessarily independent from Hollywood so much as it is codependent on Hollywood.  Big film and little film are more  symbiotic than they are competitive.  For example, the indie producer who needs to pay lower day rates to actors or skilled technicians is able to hire those folks because big movies pay well enough that they can afford to take on low-budget projects between the larger ones.  But the symbiosis is even more intrinsic than that.  For instance, if the production designer of a low-budget, indie feature has also done massively complex, studio projects, he is going to be a huge asset to that smaller film, as will any other experienced member working in another department.  A novice director can live or die by the experience of the people willing to work for him or her.  Additionally, little film benefits from the technological advancements driven by big film. And then, of course, big film looks to little film for new talent and fresh ideas. So, the line between Hollywood and independent cinema isn’t so much bright red as a kind of fuzzy pink.

How “independent” a film is really depends on how much creative control is maintained by the visionary (or visionaries) who want to make the work in the first place.  Naturally, if a filmmaker needs five-hundred thousand dollars from a small group of private investors, she has a better shot of keeping creative control than if she needs a hundred million dollars from a couple of large, corporate financing companies.  On the other hand, an example I often cite is Steven Spielberg, whom few people would describe as “independent” even though he is certainly a director who has full creative control over his films.  So, independent isn’t necessarily about scale or budget; and it certainly isn’t about the style or content of a film.  Plenty of absolute garbage has been produced independently, and plenty of great movies were produced by the old studio system.  But I suspect that because the golden age of indie (from the late 1980s to the early aughts) lost much of its gleam about the same time the Internet began to blossom, and big studios generally transitioned into franchise fare, this helped calcify the “us” and “them” sensibility that assumes a separation between “the creators” and “the industry.”

Make no mistake — Hollywood studios certainly have executives with MBAs who wouldn’t know which end of a camera to blow into.  Such is the nature of large corporations.  Still, the symbiosis between big film and little film exists, and this remains relevant because there is a persistently naive sentiment floating around in cyberspace that digital technology somehow enables truly visionary creators to “bypass the gatekeepers.”  This sounds idyllic, but as you run beyond the cliff edge and hang there Wile-E-Coyote-like, feet treading air a thousand feet above the desert, you have to ask yourself, “Bypass to go where exactly?”

Simply put, digital technology has only lowered the barriers to entry by putting certain tools of production and distribution into everyone’s hands. And this is unquestionably cool.  But entry implies a portal of some kind — we might even call it, well, a gate.  Maybe it’s the literal, iconic gate of Paramount Pictures, or maybe it’s the metaphorical gate of investors willing to back a second film based on the relative success of a first. By the way, finding a distributor for that first film requires passage through another kind of gate, if you will. But it’s really that next project that is the key.  Technology indisputably helps get a first film done, but any experienced filmmaker will tell you that you can only make a movie on favors and Fluffer-Nutters once.  As a general rule, you have to pay people to work on the second film, which means at least some gatekeepers (i.e. investors) are going to get involved, and they’re going to want a distribution plan that involves at least some return on that investment. And there is nothing about digital technology that overturns this basic business model.

With the approach of the Oscars, piracy of the nominated films spiked, and concurrent with reports of this increase came predictable comments that “the industry” must respond by making films available across all platforms simultaneously. This is supposedly the only answer to piracy because “producers need to understand the way consumers want to watch films.”  Perhaps.  But it is interesting that the prevailing faith in the Internet as an expansive, inclusive, incubator of diversity also ignores just how homogenous this demand for universal distribution actually is.  For one thing, there is no “the industry” in this context because there is no one way to market and distribute the broad range of films. Both films and audience trends will continue to shape one another, and we should not assume there is a single strategy that suits all projects.

No matter what, piracy is universally harmful, especially to the small filmmaker most eager to experiment with new platforms. I just met a writer/director who self-financed a small movie and made it modestly profitable by splitting up the rights and negotiating a fairly complex schedule of distribution windows, licensed to various channels from DVD to VOD to streaming. That’s not a new approach to licensing, but what serves both the filmmaker and the audience is the expansion of legal platforms, giving both producer and consumer more than one way to engage in a viable market.  Meanwhile, that same film was also heavily pirated upon its release, and the plus-or-minus x% on a modest film expecting modest returns will surely be the difference between attracting investors to the next project or not.  Meanwhile, how did this filmmaker self-finance his film?  With money he made working on big, Hollywood movies.  See what I mean?

Posted in Film | Tagged , , | 5 Comments

Thinking About Zoë Keating Today

I am very sad to learn today that Zoë Keating’s husband, Jeff, lost his fight with cancer three days ago.  My thoughts are with Zoë and her son.

I have never met Zoë Keating, though in my work advocating for the rights of artists, I have met several people who do know her, and of course, I have become familiar with her words and with her incredible music.   More than once, she has humbly tried to remind people that musicians like her are just regular working folks, dealing with the same assortment of life’s ordinary, and sometimes extraordinary, challenges.  Though I do feel compelled to say that one difference is that the way so many of us are able to endure, overcome, and understand life’s challenges is thanks to musicians like Zoë.

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Posted in Music | Tagged | 1 Comment

Jonathan Band Flogs Fair Use

Recently, on the CCIA’s Project DISCO blog, Jonathan Band wrote a post that could make a person spit out the ol’ ball gag, if you know what I mean. He tells readers that the best-selling, S&M trilogy Fifty Shades of Grey, with film adaptation opening this weekend, exists thanks to the principle of fair use, a component of U.S. copyright law.  While one must submit to the truth that Fifty Shades’s started as a work of fan fiction, derived from the source material for Stephanie Meyers’s Twilight series, one must also bristle at the manner in which Band is trying to insert fair use where it doesn’t belong.  Specifically, there cannot be a question of a fair use if there is no use in the first place; and author E.L. James (Erika Mitchell) did not use any works protected under copyrights belonging to Stephanie Meyers. To the contrary, James specifically revised her original fanfic into what became Fifty Shades in order to avoid any content that might infringe, and this stands to reason because publishers aren’t that stupid.  So why is Jonathan Band fetishizing the principle of fair use here?  And is there a safety word one can utter that will get him to stop?

In fact, now that I’ve gone there, perhaps this is the central point of this rebuttal:  fair use is not a safety word. It is not a term one can just incant in order to stop all potential claims of copyright infringement.  Even a use that is allowed by a rights holder does not become “fair” by virtue of that permission.  Fair use doctrine is a very important, but very specific, aspect of copyright law, and it’s worth noting that the United States has the most liberal application of the principle among nations that maintain strong copyrights.

In simple examples, fair use wants to protect the right of one speaker who may use a work in order to criticize, comment upon, or parody that work.  These are not the only applications of fair use, and there are four criteria applied by judges when hearing a fair use claim as a defense against an infringement claim. But absent an actual dispute over infringement, fair use is often patently obvious or utterly irrelevant. And the case of Fifty Shades of Grey, the fact that there is no conflict between Meyers and James has nothing to do with the doctrine. These authors, and authors everywhere, professional or amateur, are free to remix the beauty and the beast theme to their hearts’ content. The elements which can be copyrighted in the individual expressions are easy enough to avoid plagiarizing, which is why James can begin with a derivative fanfic of Twilight and then revise to create an original work that does not infringe.

But fair use is just one concept that the dungeon masters of the tech industry like to dress up and parade around the blogosphere in order to seduce the public to believe that certain popular works only exist in spite of copyright. Interestingly, Band’s omission of the central fact that E.L. James did not use any protected works by Stephanie Meyers means that he isn’t actually writing a defense of fair use doctrine at all. Like so many blogs and articles of its kind, this seems to be another attempt to broaden one of copyright’s exceptions into some all-purpose answer to all manner of uses where the doctrine may not apply. This can be effective based on the safe assumption that most of us are not attorneys and don’t really know how the law functions.  Hence, as a PR move, Band’s editorial aligns with the tech industry’s interest in selling the idea that all fanfic should ultimately be defined as fair use so that the activity can more easily be monetized without permission of any original authors.

To be clear, this reply to Band’s assertion about fair use is in no way an indictment of fan fiction itself. Many authors welcome the trend and even personally curate sites hosting fan fiction.  It can be a great way to interact with avid readers and fans, particularly of popular series that contain many characters and complex plots and subplots.  But fanfic enthusiasts should not be enslaved to the tech industry’s interests.  Fanfic can and does coexist with copyright law without rewriting the meaning of core doctrine.

There are plenty of great examples of fair use doctrine available, and readers should be at least a bit skeptical when the tech industry picks a particularly weak example like this one to highlight. But I get it. This story wears stiletto heels, has a whip in one hand, and a multimillion-dollar franchise in the other. It’s flashy and alluring.  But editorials like Band’s continue to overuse this false role play in which creativity is blindfolded, bound, and gagged by copyrights.  Quite the contrary.  In fact, copyright is a bit like S&M in this one regard:  if the person being “used” doesn’t grant permission and can’t set limits, it’s called aggravated rape.

ADDENDUM:  I cannot say that I am surprised Twitter lit up a bit because some readers were offended by this final paragraph in which I appear literally to be comparing copyright infringement to rape.  I would never belittle a violent and disturbing crime by equating it with a non-violent one, and I hope readers understand that the S&M theme of this story is what sparked this reference to permission.  I will add that, throughout literature, movies, TV, and journalism, authors have used the word rape metaphorically, including some months ago when Madonna actually said that piracy of her works was “like being raped.” I didn’t even agree with that simile as I thought it was making too direct a comparison.  Take that all for what it’s worth.

Posted in Copyright, Lit/Pub | Tagged , , | 68 Comments

Advertisers Announce Effort to Keep Ads Off Illicit Sites

A longstanding challenge with regard to websites that profit from pirated media, counterfeit products, and/or malware is the frequent placement of major brand advertising on the pages of those sites.  Musician David Lowery’s activist website The Trichordist has published lists of major advertisers whose banner ads have appeared on various pirate sites, seeking to hold advertisers accountable for supporting exploitation of musical artists. This kind of activism has drawn both public and industry attention to the problem. In its most basic form, the principle is that Legit Entity A should not benefit from a site that derives its traffic by exploiting Legit Entity B. That probably sounds reasonable to most people, including most advertisers themselves, but what to do about it is another matter — until now.

This morning, the advertising industry announced a new, voluntary initiative that helps advertisers better understand the nature of sites on which their ads may be placed.  The initiative produced by the Trustworthy Accountability Group (TAG)  is called the Brand Integrity Program Against Piracy and it was developed in collaboration with the three major advertising associations — the Association of National Advertisers, the American Association of Advertising Agencies, and the Interactive Advertising Bureau.

For context, it is generally true that advertisers do not want their ads placed on sites dedicated to illegal or harmful trade. Companies spend billions of dollars and thousands of hours developing, cultivating, and managing their brands; and even as brands evolve and experiment to keep up with a changing consumer market, very few brand managers will actively choose to be associated with a site engaged in illegal or exploitative commerce.  Chrysler and Target really don’t want their ads next to an ad for a questionable “dating service” or a link to a media player that will probably load spyware onto your computer.  But unlike other media, ad buying on the Internet is not all directly placed by the advertiser.  When you see an ad on a major site, it was selected and specifically paid for, like when Nissan buys a week of placement all over  But other ads scattered around the Web are what are called “remnants,” and these are placed somewhat blindly through low-cost, generic buys with various ad services.  It’s a bit confusing, but the blind aspect of these media buys has been one reason the advertising community has responded to the content industry that they only unintentionally advertise on sites hosting infringing content. In fact, the aforementioned Target makes a good example.  As Target now offers a movie streaming service, it would stand to reason that the company does not purposely choose to advertise on a site dedicated to movie piracy.

The whole problem won’t be solved with a single program, but thanks to demand by advertisers themselves, TAG today announced a new technology solution that enables advertisers to view site analysis based on assessed risk to their brands.  From the press release issued by TAG:

“Under the program, TAG will work with a small number of independent third-party validators, including Ernst & Young and Stroz Friedberg, to certify advertising technology companies as Digital Advertising Assurance Providers (DAAPs). To be validated as a DAAP, companies must show they can provide other advertising companies with tools to limit their exposure to undesirable websites or other properties by effectively meeting one or more criteria.”

The initiative is designed to identify what TAG calls Ad Risk Entities (AREs), meaning sites that have a high probability of facilitating illegal activity, including dissemination of unauthorized intellectual property.  Through voluntary application of these tools by the advertising industry, the expectation is that online providers who want to maintain relationships with quality advertisers will make the effort to become Digital Advertising Assurance Providers (DAAPs).  A validated DAAP would have to take steps, or show that it already takes steps, to mitigate advertiser exposure to risk according to five criteria designed to provide safeguards and assurances that their brands are not inadvertently supporting illicit activity.  These criteria include identifying properties disseminating infringing material, enabling advertisers to restrict ad placements, preventing fraudulent transactions, providing tools to monitor ad placements, and eliminating payments to undesirable entities.  It is the first initiative of its kind in which the advertisers who support most websites seek to collaborate with providers to keep legitimate trade from supporting black-market trade.

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Not only is this effort a step forward in terms of putting advertisers in control of their placements, providing them better stewardship of their brands; but it also demands greater accountability of advertisers by rights holders and other victims of exploitative sites.  In short, the “I didn’t know” defense weakens considerably with the deployment of these new tools, and since this effort comes from the advertising community, it’s fair to assume they’re generally not looking to hide behind that excuse. Still, the initiative only works if enough parties participate, so we can certainly expect The Trichordist and similar watchdogs to continue to look out for major brand advertising on infringing sites. But on the whole, I expect advertisers do hope to shun these associations because their ad value is being effectively hijacked by these types of sites.  There’s a reason most torrent and cyberlocker sites are so often supported by very sleazy ads:  because it’s a very sleazy business.

Posted in Advertising, Piracy | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment