Don’t Judge a Poll by its Headline

A tweet I read recently warned against the label “fake news,” calling it “lazy language.” “Be specific,” it read.

“Fake news” can refer to a number of methods used to disseminate false or misleading information in order to take advantage of readers – propaganda, yellow journalism, click bait, disinformation, and hoaxes, to name a few.

Merriam-Webster defines each of those methods as follows:

  • Propaganda: ideas, facts, or allegations spread deliberately to further one’s cause or to damage an opposing cause
  • Yellow Journalism: featuring sensational or scandalous items or ordinary news sensationally distorted
  • Disinformation: false information deliberately and often covertly spread (as by the planting of rumors) in order to influence public opinion or obscure the truth
  • Hoax: something accepted or established by fraud or fabrication
  • Clickbait: something (such as a headline) designed to make readers want to click on a hyperlink especially when the link leads to content of dubious value or interest

So I won’t use the phrase “fake news” to describe a blog published by the ReCreate Coalition, whose headline touts that the “Overwhelming Majority of Americans Oppose Restrictive Copyright Policies.” Instead, I’ll call it propaganda. Disinformation. Clickbait-definitely, clickbait.

When I opened the blog post, I expected to find a bunch of data about how Americans think that anything online should be free for the taking, how “true” artists shouldn’t care about money, or how the Beyoncé’s and Taylor Swifts of the world won’t miss a meal due to piracy. But that’s not what I found. The opening line stuck me right away: “A new Public Policy Polling survey finds that voters across the country want the internet to remain a free and open space for exchanging ideas and original content.” Wait a minute… original content? As in “original works of authorship”? The internet should indeed remain a forum for disseminating ideas and original content—that’s something we can agree on.

The second paragraph then opens with: “Because of their profound reliance on the internet, voters are adamant about preserving their ability to view and share content.” That must mean original content, since just a few sentences prior, it was made clear that Americans believe the internet should be used to exchange “ideas and original content.”

The blog then shifts gears and highlights some of the survey’s “key findings.” Strangely, not a single one of these key findings even references copyright law or policy. At best, some of these findings only tangentially relate to copyright. At worst, they have absolutely nothing to do with opposing copyright. Some of the findings they discuss include:

  • 69% of voters think that their members of Congress should support policies that protect free speech on the internet
  • 85% say that being able to view and share content online, including videos, pictures, movies, music, and TV, is either extremely, very, or somewhat important to them
  • 74% of Americans who say they share content on the internet either a few times per week, a few times per day, a few times per hour, or who share constantly throughout the day, support fair use of internet content
  • Among those who say viewing and sharing content online is either extremely important, very important, or somewhat important, 74% support fair use and 79% support policies that protect free speech on the internet

The word “copyright” does not appear at all in the body of the posting. It appears only in the blog’s title (again, clickbait). Providing zero support for the assertion that the overwhelming majority of Americans oppose restrictive copyright policies, the blog instead focuses on how Americans support free expression (shocker) and fair use (which is a part of copyright policy, not some separate counter legislation). Ironically, in attempting to conflate support of free speech and fair use with opposition to copyright law, the article takes for granted the mutually symbiotic relationship between copyright and free speech, embodied in fair use. Copyright protects and incentivizes the very expression that the First Amendment was drafted to protect. This includes everything from news broadcasts and newspaper articles, to political speech, to box-office hits. Where the First Amendment allows expression, copyright makes it worth the time and money invested. Think of your favorite album. Without free speech it might not exist, but the same is true of copyright. Of course, a genuine love for music is the reason most musicians and recording artists pursue careers in music, but an inability to turn that love of music into a viable source of income—due to the effects of piracy and unfair compensation—ends any prospect of a career in music for many artists. And this isn’t just rhetoric. These issues were enough to make even Prince “just hold off on recording.” And in explaining that The Who will probably never create another album, the band’s Roger Daltrey said, “I’m certainly not going to pay money to give my music away free. I can’t afford to do that. I’ve got other things I could waste the money on.

“It should not be forgotten” the Supreme Court opined in Harper & Row v. Nation Enterprises, “that the Framers intended copyright itself to be an engine of free expression.” Make no mistake, when organizations like ReCreate and EFF frame copyright as the antithesis to free expression, they do so purposefully and intentionally. Free speech is as American as apple pie. It is core to our understanding of what it means to be a free nation. Telling Americans that something threatens free speech is like yelling “fire” in a crowded theater—whether or not it’s true, it is guaranteed to elicit a reaction. There’s a concept known as the “framing effect”—a form of cognitive bias,  whereby the language used to present a set of choices influences the way people perceive those choices. These organizations choose to frame copyright as standing in opposition to core values in order to mold a public perception which, like their own, is skeptical of copyright. You won’t see these groups discuss copyright in terms of its benefits or the way it incentivizes speech, despite the fact that the founding fathers—who undoubtedly valued free speech and expression—saw fit to include both copyright and free speech in the U.S. Constitution. And frankly, to frame piracy or property theft as an act of free expression makes a mockery of the First Amendment and sets a dangerous precedent.

The blog post also mentions how the public likes to “view and share” content online, but again, these are in no way inherently in opposition to copyright. In fact, thanks to copyright law, there are a number of legitimate ways to consume digital content, including thriving markets for streaming content. And if what’s meant by “sharing” aligns with the opening remark that those polled wish to “exchange ideas and original content,” then I think what ReCreate actually meant was that Americans really really love copyright policy (and all of the great things, like streaming, that it affords).

photo credit: serazetdinov/iStock/thinkstock

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