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Friday, 27 January 2012

The arrogance of the echochamber

There's a certain arrogance in the echochamber and, fresh off the back of a well-deserved win against SOPA/PIPA, it could get worse.

At least part of the history of the SOPA/PIPA win were seeds sewn over 15 years ago in a different echochamber (newsgroups).

Discussions which helped normalise thinking that copyright infringement isn't always bad and protecting rights holders isn't always good (and in some cases is outright dangerous) took place over many years.

It's only in the last couple of years, as the message from the echochamber solidified into a clear and unambiguous message that seeped into the mainstream were politicians prepared to risk allegations of supporting criminal activity by arguing against internet censorship.

Yet today I see an arrogance. Twitter censorship? We'll just use another service... The people have power. Governments have to listen to us now! We'll just work around the censors.. etc, etc.

Whatever consensus emerges amongst the online community, it rarely reflects a contemporary majority view, and therefore politicians can ignore the "vocal minority" with impunity.

In fact with regards to censorship there's an important relationship between minority and majority I'll discuss later.

As for political influence, this might change slightly after the SOPA debacle. Politicians might be driven by their own fear of a backlash on this scale, but until the online thought leaders can regularly influence a majority of voters this is unlikely to be the case.


I'm singling-out Twitter, Google+, special-interest forums and blogs as places I find useful political debate.  These are the minnows when it comes to participation metrics.

Yes there's political discourse on Facebook and YouTube, but my own anecdotal observations show those people most active on these channels are far less likely to engage in deep discussions about politics.

Twitter's market share is around 1.36% of social networking visits - measured in terms of "visits" per hour, although this could be a metric unkind on stream-oriented services like Twitter. Facebook is 63.26% and YouTube 21.16%.

Since only 60% of the population use social networking we can estimate that less than 1% regularly use Twitter and so a "majority opinion" on Twitter is a sample of less than 0.5% of the population.

And I use the phrase majority opinion lightly, since even amongst the enlightened(!) Twitter users, many don't care about or participate in political debate.

Yet using Twitter to come to a reasoned opinion and testing that opinion in exchanges with other rational beings brings with it an arrogance that you're right.

Getting out on the street

The arrogance was stark two years ago, when I went out knocking on doors in support of a candidate in the general election.

I was a vocal opponent of the Digital Economy Bill (now Act) at the time.  The disconnect between the consensus on Twitter and the views on the doorstep couldn't have been starker.  Very few people knew or cared about copyright.

The few that did overwhelmingly sided with moves to "protect the poor artists/musicians/writers".

I don't doubt there's also a majority (and I don't use this term lightly) today amongst electors in support of regulation to wipe the internet of pornography, cyber crime, bullying.

Whilst public opinion on copyright is shifting, I was asked by a very religious person "I agree with you on copyright, but how is it governments are prepared to do something about people listening to Lady Gaga but say they can't do anything about all this terrible pornography?"

Essentially, whatever fears people have about misuse of the internet translates into a view that the government should do something.

Bridging the complexity chasm: punters don't buy complex arguments

It's easy to criticise politicians and mainstream media for over-simplifying arguments and spinning falsehoods into absolute fact.  They do it because public opinion is driven by simple, clear arguments.

No, it doesn't follow that average people are stupid or the masses are asses. It's simply a factor of time and motivation.

Who actually cares about web censorship? Who cares about copyright?

Only those who both care and have the time to research and think about the issues will come to a reasoned opinion. The rest, in the absence of a counter view, will simply adopt the line taken by the newspaper they read or TV they watch.

In a democracy the challenge is to present a complex counter-view in clear and unambiguous terms to a mass audience.

This vested interests and their lobbyists usually win.  Money buys messaging.  Money plants simple arguments in the minds of the masses.  The echochamber will find it hard to compete until it starts ejecting clear and unambiguous messages that are consumed by large sections of the public.


Two years ago very few outsiders in the debate about copyright I questioned actually supported my viewpoint.  After a 5-minute interview on Sky News a couple of weeks ago I was congratulated by virtual strangers.

Friends and family who didn't give a stuff about copyright or sided with the "think of the poor artists" rationale to web blocking now supported me.

But it doesn't necessarily follow that the mass population has suddenly started being influenced by Twitter.  Read any glib and simplified analysis about "who caused the SOPA/PIPA u-turn" and it overlooks a 20-year battle to control copyrighted content on the world wide web.

The Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) is a US law coming into effect nearly 14 years ago. The law itself implemented obligations under treaties signed 2 years previously.

Yes, ACTA is not the first time treaties have been used to drive new controversial laws, but it is the first time the global organisation responsible for the protection of intellectual property (IP) - WIPO, the World Intellectual Property Organisation, has been sidelined to sneak a treaty on IP via the back door.

I digress.  The point here the DMCA was controversial at the time.  The seeds of discontent expressed in outrage at SOPA were sewn 15 years ago in an echochamber called a newsgroup.

I don't have time to dig out newsgroup posts on the subject but they exist. A recent graduate I was subscribed to a few threads blasting the flagrant attempts to control a new technology and the chilling effects it would have.

Takedown abuse predicted 15 years ago has actually manifested itself as simple content stealing on YouTube, that is falsely claiming rights to the soundtrack of other people's video so as to grab the revenue until you're discovered, with little impunity

The lesson: you may be right, but it might take 15 years for politicians to believe you.



  1. Only those who both care and have the time to research and think about the issues will come to a reasoned opinion, and among those only those whose research covers all viewpoints available on a topic. There's little value in spending hours and hours reading article after article that all trace back to the same source, even though it may feel like doing "research." But echo chamber research, no matter how time consuming, amounts to very little research overall.

    1. Perhaps echochamber was the wrong word. I wanted to portray the disconnect between the conclusions of discussion with many interested participants and the public conciousness.

      But then again perhaps your right and there is a true echochamber and the arrogance is partly down to overlooking the narrowness of opinion and that is why said opinion never achieves mainstream adoption...

  2. ... and that's why people pay lobbyists - if you can just get the government to pass the laws you want by bribing them, that's easier, cheaper and faster than changing the minds of millions of people who aren't listening.


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