Guest post by Theresa Borden HLS ’14

On February 19, Professor Lawrence Lessig presented a lecture titled” Aaron’s Laws: Law and Justice in a Digital Age” in honor of his appointment as Roy L. Furman Professor of Law and Leadership at Harvard Law School.

Those in attendance would agree that Professor Lessig’s presentation was thought provoking on many levels.  To my mind, his discussion of Aaron Swartz’s Guerilla Open Access Manifesto was particularly resonant.  The notion of a movement aimed at liberating information so that netizens could more freely engage with it flitted through my brain, triggering a thought I’d had while at a panel discussion hosted by the Dean the previous Friday: “Gun violence after the Newtown tragedy: What can legal, public health and other efforts do?”  Specifically, I remembered one question posed by a student identified as a joint-degree candidate at HBS and HKS.  She observed that the discussion over gun regulation oftentimes devolves into a partisan debate, divided along a line with Government on one side and Industry on the other (the latter wearing the hat of the NRA). But this dichotomy seems false and particularly overly reductionist with regard to Industry, which is much broader in scope than gun manufacturers and distributors.  In light of this, isn’t there something more that Industry can do?

The panelists gestured at Health Care, an industry well placed to address problems like gun owners who lack gun safety information and the mentally ill who lack access to continuing care.  The answer sat nicely with the discussion of public health initiatives; however, I propose that a more compelling response may be found within the purview of “other efforts,” particularly, efforts that can be made by Big Tech.

The online migration of social interaction through user-generated content sites (UGS) is almost complete (e.g. my mom has a Facebook).  Social norms are created and reinforced through the default settings of websites like Facebook and YouTube (for a more thorough discussion of this phenomenon, look at the recent conference sponsored by Harvard Law School’s new Program on Behavioral Economics and Public Policy, called “Social Media and Behavioral Economics”).  We “share,” we “like” and we “unfriend.”  In addition to socializing online, we also learn online.  We “Wikipedia” and we “Google.” Then, we share our “research,” and other people “comment,” “like” or “repost.”  At its best, the Internet is the School of Athens.  At its worst, the Internet is a cesspool of misinformation that rewards conclusory statements punctuated by an implicit eyebrow raise.  But whatever is the Internet, it is the place where the debate over sensible gun reform is happening – right now.  People are tweeting and posting (and retweeting and reposting) a hodgepodge of “truths,” collected from various “sources.” It is to those sources that I would like to turn your attention.

In the online fora, many “sources” cited in support of or against reforming gun laws are suspect.  They are tertiary at best and provide little to no critical analysis of issues raised.  Almost all of them are one-sided.  Posts of YouTube videos abound.  Very few references are made to academic scholarship, because although the Internet is an infinite archive, many resources are still off-limits to those unable to pay access fees (or those not affiliated with a university).  If the measurement of a resource’s worth is its price-tag, then one should not be shocked by the subpar quality of online discourse – excluded from it are many of the “best” sources out there!  Your typical netizen has to sift through weeds of freebie sources – some of which are fine, but many of which lack the benefit of having been written by individuals who are interested in informing rather than inflaming.  So, what can Big Tech do?

The answer, I think, is partially found in the spirit of Aaron Swartz’s Guerilla Open Access Manifesto.  Although Big Tech can’t unlock the coffers of knowledge (Big Publishing and Big Ed have to do that, see, e.g. the “Cost of Knowledge” campaign, which came into full force last year), Big Tech can help cultivate an environment that values critical thinking and scholarship.  Trying to “clean up” the internet could seem futile for many reasons, but I will focus on two: the first is a normative observation and the second an architectural observation. First, people (e.g. journalists) have long combatted the mislabeling of “opinion” as “fact,” and yet such practice is still epidemic in media – indeed, history is rife with the propagation of misinformation (gossip and rumor mills are credited with having started many a revolution).  Second, even if misinformation doesn’t inevitably prevail in the “marketplace of ideas,” the infrastructure of online fora, like the default word limits of twitter, facilitate the rapid spreading of conclusory assertions.  As I find a discussion of what is “human nature” far beyond the scope of this post (as should it be), I will turn to the second potential shortcoming of looking to Big Tech to help elevate online conversation, that is: its architecture.  Perhaps restructuring social UGS to provide a community policing system similar to Wikipedia’s (one that would permit flagging suspect assertions as biased or in need of a citation) would be a step in the right direction.  Currently, such sites provide for the removal of content that violates the sites terms or policies, so-called voluntary censoring, however, they target the substance, rather than the form of online discourse.

The debate surrounding differing opinions on gun laws is an important one and should be robust.  However, it should also be informed.  Citizens who purchase and possess firearms consider that there is a “right to keep and bear arms,” when it is in fact their right to “self-defense” that is protected by the Second Amendment.  This right is symmetrical and there are those for whom this same right is infringed by the possession of assault weapons by certain people and by the proliferation of firearms in certain high-density urban centers.  Indeed, the Constitutional fount for the right to possess a firearm is the same one that compels sensible gun law reform.  But such reform will only happen if citizens have access to reliable information that they process critically.

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2 Comments

  1. Andrew Mamo says:

    Hi Theresa, thanks for contributing to the blog! I’m interested in pushing a bit more on the private/public distinction with respect to speech issues surrounding information and discussions about guns. To the extent that gun control advocates and gun enthusiasts inhabit different social worlds online, do the community policing mechanisms that you mention go far enough? I can imagine that in a bulletin board frequented by extremists, extreme views might be amplified, rather than be moderated. (I’m drawing on Sunstein’s argument from his book, Republic.com.)
    It’s possible for mainstream sites like YouTube to just take down videos that are problematic (as happened with the “Innocence of Muslims” video last fall), but this raises at least two problems: 1) determining what is misinformation (or, at least, misleading); and 2) the problem of the private sector exercising censorship. The first point is important, hard, and I don’t have much new to say, so I’ll skip it. On censorship, of course this wouldn’t be the same as the state censoring things; people can always go elsewhere. Would that reinforce the polarization of opinions in different media? Do we benefit from keeping fringe views within mainstream sites, where they remain under the watchful eyes of the public, or at least the snark of anonymous commenters?
    I think your bigger point is an important one – that misinformation and extremism proliferates across the Internet, and that standard evaluations of truthfulness are often lacking – but I’m skeptical whether technical solutions are sufficient. I wonder if the social processes through which claims are understood to be true have been changing – see the absence of a trusted, Cronkite-like figure, the decline in trust in the media, etc. Faced with that kind of social change in the relationship between the fringe and the mainstream, is the tech side more epiphenomenal?

  2. Theresa Borden says:

    Thanks for your comment, Andrew! I will try to address three of your points in turn.
    First, as to gun control advocates and gun enthusiasts occupying different online fora: This fact doesn’t really inform my argument regarding the restructuring of default settings for certain UGC sites like Facebook and YouTube. I would categorize such sites as a sort of “Commons” where individuals on different points of the political spectrum can come together to share their views by either expressing their own unsubstantiated opinions or citing to outside sources (e.g. hyperlinks to other online fora). Creating default settings that allow users to flag UGC site posts in a more refined manner (e.g., “biased” or “unsubstantiated”) could be a way to address misinformation presented in insulated online communities without appearing to infiltrate them or trying to force them to change their position on a given issue – that would be the worst.
    This observation also responds to your second point regarding the difficulties inherent to private, content-based policing. Vague substantive standards for taking down a content on a UGC site could be exploited by users in a manner that would thwart any mission to have critical and informed discussions about gun laws. That is why I am advocating for a procedural approach to UGC site policing – one that would flag content that demonstrates flawed reasoning rather than “bad” content. The procedure/substance distinction may be only formalistic in certain situations, but it could be instrumental in setting a higher standard for online discussions.
    Finally, the increased polarization of sociopolitical discourse in America (thanks, in part, to a dearth – or death – of “legitimate journalism”) is not dispositive of an argument in favor of shaping social norms by adjusting online architecture. To my mind, the facts of increased online traffic and the migration of social interaction to online fora favors finding technical solutions to cure perceived shortcomings in current social processes.

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