Penn Calendar Penn A-Z School of Arts and Sciences University of Pennsylvania

The Networked Public Sphere: Two Case Studies, SOPA-PIPA and Net Neutrality (Yochai Benkler)

Thursday, November 19, 2015 - 4:30pm

PROFESSOR BENKLER AND HIS COLLEAGUES AT HARVARD’S Berkman Center for Internet and Society have used innovative research tools – including Media Cloud – to map and analyze news stories as they evolve online.  Benkler presents two case studies, one on the SOPA-PIPA debate over copyright law and one on the net neutrality debate, to explore the dynamics of the networked public sphere.  His team’s results support an optimistic view of the potential for networked democratic participation, he argues, and offers a view of a vibrant, diverse, and decentralized networked public sphere that exhibits broad participation, leverages topical expertise, and focuses public sentiment to shape national public policy. The fourth estate function can be fulfilled by a network of small-scale commercial tech media, standing non-media NGOs, and individuals, whose work is then amplified by traditional media. Mobilization was effective, and involved substantial experimentation and rapid development. We observe the rise to public awareness of an agenda originating in the networked public sphere and its framing in the teeth of substantial sums of money spent to shape the mass media narrative in favor of the legislation. Moreover, we witness what we call an attention backbone, in which more trafficked sites amplify less-visible individual voices on specific subjects. Some aspects of the events suggest that they may be particularly susceptible to these kinds of democratic features, and may not be generalizable. Nonetheless, the data suggest that, at least in this case, the networked public sphere enabled a dynamic public discourse that involved both individual and organizational participants and offered substantive discussion of complex issues contributing to affirmative political action.

“BY THE END OF THE 17 MONTHS UNDER STUDY, a diverse network of actors, for-profit and nonprofit, media and non-media, individuals and collectives, left, right, and politically agnostic, had come together. They fundamentally shifted the frame of the debate, experimented with diverse approaches and strategies of communication and action, and ultimately blocked legislation that had started life as a bipartisan, lobby-backed, legislative juggernaut. While it is certainly possible that behind-the-scenes maneuvering was more important and not susceptible to capture by our methods, what is clear is that by ProPublica’s tally, before January 18, 2012, SOPA-PIPA had 80 publicly declared supporters and 31 opponents, but by the next day, the bills had 65 supporters and 101 opponents. The January 18 online protest campaign and its anchor, the Wikipedia blackout, were the core interventions that blocked the acts. But our study suggests that this day’s events cannot be understood in terms of lobbying or backroom deals; rather, this outcome represents the fruits of the online discourse and campaign by many voices and organizations, most of which are not traditional sources of power in shaping public policy in the United States.”
– From “Social Mobilization and the Networked Public Sphere: Mapping the SOPA-PIPA Debate

YOCHAI BENKLER is the Berkman Professor of Entrepreneurial Legal Studies at Harvard Law School, and faculty co-director of the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University. Since the 1990s he has played a role in characterizing the role of information commons and decentralized collaboration to innovation, information production, and freedom in the networked economy and society. His books include The Wealth of Networks: How Social Production Transforms Markets and Freedom (2006). In 2012 he received a lifetime achievement award from Oxford University “in recognition of his extraordinary contribution to the study and public understanding of the Internet and information goods.”