Would You Fall for the Anti-SOPA Campaign Today?

“The more desperate one is to get attention, rather than to accurately communicate what one believes a problem is, the more one ventures into the realm of sensationalist propaganda.”

That observation was not written about anyone promoting the Stop the Steal narrative that led to the insurrection on January 6, 2020. No, that’s Chris Ruen, in his book Freeloading (2012), describing Fight for the Future co-founder Holmes Wilson trying to come up with a line to rally support among Redditors for American Censorship Day in November 2011 to protest the anti-piracy bills SOPA/PIPA. According to Wilson’s own description, as quoted by Ruen, he eventually grabbed readers’ attention with this lulu: “The MPAA will soon have the power to block American’s [sic] access to any website unless we fight back, hard!”

There was zero truth in that statement. And although FFTF is terribly concerned about the power of social media today, for instance, Facebook’s role in fostering the events of January 6th

…the organization is not likely to acknowledge that ten years ago, they and their friends in the “digital rights” world exploited the same manipulative tools and the same human flaws in what was arguably the first misinformation campaign to succeed at scale.

Hyperbole like Wilson’s headline naturally went viral and accreted even more outlandish claims as the Stop SOPA crusade gained momentum through the end of 2011 and culminated on January 18, 2012 with Blackout Day. The idea, hatched by Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales, perhaps imagining himself John Galt, was to get prominent websites to go dark on a single day and show us what a post-SOPA internet would allegedly look like. Wales also went on TV as the erudite and magnanimous representative of “the internet” and wove a crazy quilt of lies about SOPA/PIPA causing harm to free speech online.[1]

Behind the scenes, death and rape threats (a common feature in any digital-age campaign) were directed at female congressional staffers and other women in pro-copyright organizations, along with the predictable spate of DNS attacks against the websites of any organization that dared voice support for—or even just try to explain—the legislation. Relatedly, it is not a minor footnote that the Stop SOPA folks reached out to 4Chan, which Wilson described as “awesome,” to help push the censorship message.

Today, many readers know 4Chan as a site where misogyny, racism, and legit fascism intersect with bored adolescent boys and hackers espousing a broad spectrum of moral relativism. The output of this crucible has often been a prankster/hacktivist hybrid in which the motive for action may be nothing more than a laugh (aka for the lulz). 4Chan begat 8Chan, and 8Chan begat QAnon. And my point is not that the anti-SOPA organizers spawned Q but rather that it is significant that both January 18th and January 6th were, in part, fueled by tapping into this nebulous digital underworld.   

Above ground, Google, Mozilla, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, and other organizations with internet-industry resources, coordinated and directed a deluge of messages that jammed phone lines and clogged email servers on Capitol Hill, leading Congress to abandon the SOPA/PIPA legislation in a bipartisan group shrug, with staffers and Members mystified as to what exactly had just happened. In the days that followed, some Members even reported that upon returning to their districts, they discovered that constituents had not only not protested SOPA, but that they had never even heard of it.

January 18th is also something of a tenth anniversary for this blog, which first launched in August 2012 but really began with an editorial in The Hill in which I called support for in the anti-SOPA campaign Pavlovian and dysfunctional. At the time, I wrote that “I believe we are seeing the most extreme, most egotistical voices — from the Tea Party to Anonymous — aiming not for change, but to dismantle the system itself.”

Notice that says nothing about media piracy. Piracy was secondary. It was the mechanisms of the anti-SOPA campaign that scared the hell out of me. Worse than the specific lies about the legislation was the bigger lie being promoted by the “digital rights” groups, telling the world that Stop SOPA represented a new model for grassroots activism in which the people are finally empowered by real information and social platforms. In truth, these groups simply showed us how easy it is to rally thoughtless action with little more than some provocative bullshit on a web page.

Wilson posted that nonsense about the MPAA and site-blocking in November, and by January, a virtual mob that knew nothing about what it was protesting stopped Congress in its tracks. Fast-forward to the era of Trump, and a different breed of unscrupulous provocateur, including one calling himself Q, post even more outrageous lies online, and by January, a physical and violent mob tries to stop Congress in its tracks. If we believe there is an ethical chasm between Q and Wilson, it’s because we are overlooking the fact that this is the same disease causing different symptoms.

There is little difference between the fearmongering declarations, “Fight like hell, or you won’t have a country anymore,” and “Fight like hell, or you won’t have an internet anymore.” Convince people that someone is trying to rob them of their liberty—End piracy. Not liberty. was Google’s message in 2012—and you just might start a riot. And during this interval between the first anniversary of January 6th and the tenth anniversary of January 18th, I truly doubt that anyone intending to memorialize their role in the latter would ever acknowledge their insidious contribution to the former.

In a healthy democracy, the means are always more important than the ends, and the inversion of this principle—that it’s okay, even admirable, to lie like hell as long as you win—is the underlying pathology driving both decorum and integrity to the margins of our political discourse. The vector bearing the pathogen, of course, is social media, a force which was not so widely understood in 2012 as an addictive, dopamine-inducing activity that neutralizes reason while feeding emotion. That was the human frailty exploited by the professional anti-SOPA crowd ten years ago. And considering all the destruction that misinformation has done to the world since, I cannot imagine why anyone would want to celebrate that travesty of a milestone.

[1] For instance, the legal remedies in SOPA/PIPA have been applied in different ways both prior to and since the defeat of the bills without any effect on the speech right.

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