Public Knowledge wants to solve the misinformation problem? That’s adorable.

On Tuesday, Meredith Filak Rose of Public Knowledge posted a blog suggesting that a solution to rampant misinformation is to “bring libraries online.” Not surprisingly, she identifies copyright law as the barrier currently preventing access to quality information that could otherwise help solve the problem …

“High-quality, vetted, peer-reviewed secondary sources are, unfortunately, increasingly hard to come by, online or off. Scientific and medical research is frequently locked behind paywalls and in expensive journals; legal documents are stuck in the pay-per-page hell that is the PACER filing system; and digital-only information can be erased, placing it out of public reach for good (absent some industrious archivists).”

Really?  We’re just a few peer-reviewed papers away from addressing the social cancer of misinformation?  Back to that in a minute.  Because first, there’s a spit-take that needs cleaning up after reading that Public Knowledge??? Is weighing in on misinformation???  This is an organization that has recklessly spread nonsense of Augean proportions about copyright law.  See posts here, here, here, here, here, here, and here; or just read my last post citing PK’s Shiva Stella just plain making stuff up about the CASE Act.

The funny thing is that Rose does a pretty decent job of summing up how misinformation can be effectively deployed online, but her description could easily be the Public Knowledge Primer for Writing About Copyright Law:

Misinformation exploits this basic fact of human nature — that no one can be an expert in everything — by meeting people where they naturally are, and filling in the gaps in their knowledge with assertions that seem “plausible enough.” Sometimes, these assertions are misleading, false, or flatly self-serving.  In aggregate, these gap-fillers add up to construct a totally alternate reality whose politics, science, law, and history bear only a passing resemblance to our own.

Right. Kinda like when Stella alluded to the “secret entertainment industry” behind the development of the CASE legislation? Or when the organization claimed in August of 2018 that the “entertainment industry” was trying to sneak a copyright term extension into the NAFTA renegotiations? Those are indeed plausible tweets for anyone who is not expert in copyright law to believe—especially because it feeds what Alice Marwick calls as a “deep story” that behind every copyright policy initiative is a Hollywood bagman.  

Having said all that, Meredith Rose’s article does not say anything categorically false. It is a sincere editorial whose main flaw is that it is sincerely naïve.  “…in the absence of accessible, high-quality, primary source information, it’s next to impossible to convince people that what they’ve been told isn’t true,” she writes.  

Yeah. That psychological human frailty is not going to be cured by putting even more information online, regardless of how “good” it may be, or how copyright figures in the equation.  On the contrary, more information is exactly why we’re wandering in a landscape of free-range ignorance in the first place.  It’s why anti-vaxxers have grown in numbers and brought back the measles; it’s why climate-change deniers get to hold public office and reject scientific data; it’s why even the President of the United States can make public statements that are demonstrably false and tens of millions of citizens don’t give a damn.  There is more than sufficient freely-available, factual information online right now, all produced by professionals and experts on every subject under the sun, and yet this bounty has not mitigated the steady encroachment of flat-earth lunacy into the mainstream conversation.

Speaking as someone schooled in what we might call traditional liberal academia, I believe Rose reiterates a classically liberal, academic fallacy, which assumes that if just enough horses are led to just enough water, then reason based on empirical evidence will prevail over ignorance.  That’s not even true among the smartest horses who choose to drink. Humans tend to make decisions based on emotion more than information, and it is axiomatic that truthis in the eye of the beholder.

But if galloping bullshit is the disease, the catalyst causing it to spread is not copyright law keeping content off the internet, but the nature of the internet platforms themselves.  By democratizing information with a billion soapboxes it was inevitable that this would foster bespoke realities occupied by warrens of subcultures that inoculate themselves against counter-narratives (i.e. facts) with an assortment of talismanic phrases used to dismiss the peer-reviewed scientist, journalist, doctor, et al, as part of a conspiracy who “don’t want us to know the truth.” 

And let us not forget the extent to which the promotion of bullshit is big business.  Sure Cambridge Analytica made headlines.  But what about the friendly-looking spin-off from Open Media called New/Mode with its happy icons and upbeat mission statements about community and transparency? The cognitive dissonance needed to square those values with the deployment of “one-click calling” and “tweetstorms” is at the heart of the problem Rose and her friends at Public Knowledge are not just overlooking, but helping to foster.  

Social-media activism is designed to trigger the most Pavlovian of emotional responses and overwhelm reasoned debate with numbers.  Messages are simple and truth is rare, regardless of source or agenda. Reason cannot defeat such tactics.  We could upload all the well-founded science ever written, and it would barely be noticed in sea of hashtag nonsense many people would prefer to believe.  Public Knowledge knows this quite well, having availed itself of these tools and/or celebrated the efficacy of spreading misinformation—at least about copyright law. 

If Meredith Rose and her colleagues believe there are unreasonable copyright barriers to certain material, they should make that case on those merits alone and let others respond accordingly. Framing the topic as a broad solution to the effects of toxic and misleading content is too ambitious an overstatement for anybody to make, and far beyond the credibility of Public Knowledge to assert any authority.

Photo by cynoclub

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