Bennett Haselton is back with a thought provoking essay about not just an incident of Internet censorship on an American university campus, but a proposed method of propagating news, so that relevant stories aren't buried as easily by chance or time. Bennett writes: "The real scandal in the story of Arizona State University blocking students' access to the Change.org website, is not just that it happened, but that the block persisted for two months without being mentioned in the media. As a card-carrying member of the 'outrage grapevine,' I surely think we need a way to respond faster." Read on for the rest.
This is a tale of censorship. From about December 7th until February 3rd, Arizona State University was blocking all users of its network from accessing the Change.org website, where users can create petitions and circulate them for other users to sign. (The lame excuse offered by the university was that a student had created a petition and was using the change.org site to "spam" other ASU accounts; of course, even if that had been the real reason, it would have easily been possible for ASU to block mail from the change.org servers, without blocking all students from accessing the website.) On February 3rd, after a furor of sudden media attention, the block was lifted.
But that's not the worst instance of censorship in this story. What's more disconcerting is that for the two months that the block was in place, the university's decision to block the website received no media coverage at all. This despite the fact that it was a political website being blocked, at a university with over 70,000 students — a publicly funded university, where a court would have almost certainly found that the blocking violated the First Amendment, had the case ever gone to trial.
I first heard about the original tumblr blog post describing the blocking situation, when someone posted the link on my Facebook wall. So as I went to my profile to read it, I was already predisposed to be pissed off, since almost every link that someone posts on my wall is either an outright scam, or a one-sided rant about an issue that is actually much more complicated than the author thinks it is. Well, it was a one-sided rant, all right, but it was about an issue where there was really only one side: ASU evidently got annoyed about a petition on change.org protesting tuition hikes, so they blocked the site. As I re-read the post, I kept thinking: How can this be true, if we haven't heard about it anywhere else? Perhaps an overzealous ASU network admin put the block in place, and it was reversed just a few hours later, but the tumblr post never got updated? I emailed the blog post's author, Eric Haywood, and the owners of change.org, asking how long the block had lasted before the site was un-blocked — I just assumed that the block couldn't possibly still be in place, two months later. But they confirmed that it was.
The link got blogged and re-blogged around tumblr a few times in December and January, and then, at about the same time as I was sending my emails, the issue suddenly "tipped" into public awareness as it was linked from a widely-read reddit post. Then the blocking received its first official "media" coverage in an article in the ASU student newspaper, the State Press. (Eric Haywood called the article "just ASU spreading it's own propaganda about this issue (they own, run and control the State Press)". I don't know about propaganda, but it did seem a little amateurish — the article says "The author of the original blog post is unknown", even though the guy's name, Eric Haywood, was listed in the post, along with his email address.) Then finally the story spilled over into the "real" media with an article in the Huffington Post, in which the author pointed out that the blocking likely violated the First Amendment. (A few hours after that article appeared, the university unblocked the site so that ASU students could access Change.org on their network again.)
None of the articles commented, however, on how the issue had remained buried for so long; the State Press article said only that the tumblr blog "began circulating the Internet Thursday." A reader could be forgiven for reading the articles and scratching their head and thinking: What is it that just happened? If the site has been blocked for two months, why is this only being written about now?
The answer, I think, is that most people don't realize how arbitrary the process is that determines what issues get news coverage and which ones don't. Before I got involved in a few issues that did receive media coverage (in my late teens, through Peacefire and in co-operative projects with others), I had just assumed that "the news" consisted of all stories that somebody in the media business considered to be "news-worthy." Some journalists just want to sell papers (or attract page-views), while other (better) journalists strive to tell the most important stories — but either way, surely their decision to cover something, or not, should depend on attributes of the story, right? Not on whatever else happened to be going on, or other random circumstances? But then, when I started to be involved in efforts to actually get media coverage for this or that issue, some issues ended up receiving far more coverage than even I thought they really deserved, and others received far less.
Sometimes reporters would frankly admit that they thought something was a good story, but they couldn't cover it because their plate was full that day, and even if they had time later, by that time the issue would be too "cold." Some years ago, I wrote in Slashdot about an experiment in which I sued some spammers in Small Claims court, and filed the court briefs with some of the pages stuck together with a sliver of paper. When the judges rejected the motions (as I expected, since Small Claims judges have been near-uniformly hostile to spam suits), I went to the courthouse to look at the files and found the pages still attached, indicating that the judges had rejected the motions without reading them. What I didn't mention in the original article, was that I had planned at first to give the exclusive story to a Seattle Times reporter, who came down to the courthouse to see the files and interviewed me afterwards. The paper must have thought there was a real story there, since they later sent a photographer to come down and take pictures of the files as well. But then something else landed on the reporter's desk and pushed the story back a few days, and days became weeks, and then the beat switched to a different reporter. When I eventually called to ask if they were still interested, they replied, essentially, that without a current "hook", they couldn't write the story, because now it would look like they weren't doing their jobs for the long intervening period when they didn't write about it, so it was better now to drop it entirely.
Traditional media seems hamstrung by two limitations here: (1) an inefficiency at finding the most important stories that most "deserve" to be written about; and (2) a convention that you can't cover something that's more than a few days old, because then the story looks "dated." The Internet doesn't seem to suffer from limitation #2, as demonstrated by the fact that the blocking of change.org at ASU on December 7th was still able to ignite a controversy on February 3rd. But it does still suffer from limitation #1, as illustrated by the Internet's near-total silence on the issue from December 7th through February 2nd.
Many other people have a pet issue that they think is being "suppressed" by the "liberal media" or the "corporate-owned media" (depending on which side they're on), but the evidence suggests that no conspiracy is necessary to keep an important story from being written about. Sometimes arbitrariness and chance is enough.
My naive earlier assumption — that stories received media coverage because of some combination of attributes of those stories — seems to be a specific instance of a cognitive fallacy, where if you observe that some group of things achieved some end result Z, and all of those things started out possessing some attribute X, then you think that attribute X caused the achievement of result Z. In this case, because we observe that most stories which receive news coverage are important and interesting (with obvious exceptions), we assume that most interesting and important news stories will receive news coverage. Thus, it's frustrating and counterintuitive when we find out about an issue that cries out to be written about, but was ignored by the media. The truth is more likely to be that for every important and interesting story that gets coverage, there are likely to be many other equally important and interesting stories that never make it into the news.
(By the way, I've been unable to find a precise name for the cognitive fallacy wherein if you observe that all things which achieve goal Z have attribute X, then you come to think that attribute X is a good predictor of achieving goal Z. It's not the same as the "post hoc fallacy" or the mistaken belief that "correlation equals causation," because both of those are about the illusion of causation. I'm talking about the correlation being an illusion in the first place — where people come to believe that attribute X is a good predictor of achieving result Z, ignoring the fact that there may be enormous numbers of cases where attribute X is true, but which never go on to achieve result Z. If you know the exact name of that fallacy, shoot me an email and submit a comment below.)
In an earlier article, I proposed a system that would eliminate the arbitrariness in determining which pieces of content are selected to be "the best" and broadcast to a larger audience. I suggested using the algorithm to determine which songs could be pushed out to listeners of a streaming music system, but it could be modified to select which news stories would be considered "important" enough to push out to readers of a news site. (The gist of the idea is that you have each piece of content rated by a random sample of users chosen from the system, and if their average rating is high enough, it gets pushed out to everyone else. If the random sample size is large enough, their average rating will be non-arbitrary, and will be determined by the attributes of the content itself.)
Maybe that algorithm is flawed or maybe someone could find a better one, but the more important thing to realize is that we don't live in that world now, where the attention given to an event is determined by attributes of that event. In the world we actually live in, it's safe to assume that many events take place every day that would have been covered by the news, if it hadn't been for a reporter's missed phone call or some other random happenstance. I have no doubt that the blocking of Change.org on ASU's network could have been a front-page story on CNN, under the right circumstances. I just think that in an ideal world, it should have ended up as a front-page story on CNN regardless of the "circumstances" — but real life, no favorable circumstances means no CNN story.
That might seem like a lot to read into a single case of media silence about a political website being censored at a state university. But while Change.org is no longer blocked at ASU, the inefficient and arbitrary means by which news "events" are discovered and distributed to a wide audience will be with us for a long time.