5.4 Tactics of persuasion

‘Spin’ has become a familiar term in recent years, in the context of employing publicists to ‘spin’ stories in order to present a political party, the government, an organisation or an individual in the best light. There has even been a successful comedy television series starring Michael J. Fox called Spin City based on this. The following is a list of some of the tactics used in the process of trying to spin stories that you should look out for in the copyright wars.

  • Appealing to emotion and prejudice: Remember the first rule of critical analysis; if someone tells us a story we want to hear, we are more likely to believe it. There are a huge number of ways of using this tactic. One example is appealing to nationalism, as in the following quote from Jack Valenti, the President of the Motion Picture Association of America, in his testimony to a congressional sub-committee on the ‘Home recording of copyrighted works’ (i.e. the use of video cassette recorders) in 1982.

    • The US film and television production industry is a huge and valuable American asset. In 1981, it returned to this country almost $1 billion in surplus balance of trade. And I might add, Mr Chairman, it is the single one American-made product that the Japanese, skilled beyond all comparison in their conquest of world trade, are unable to duplicate or to displace or to compete with or to clone. And I might add that this important asset today is in jeopardy. Why? … Now, I have here the profits of Japanese companies, if you want to talk about greed. Here, Hitachi, Matsushita, Sanyo, Sony, TDK, Toshiba, Victor, all of whom make these VCRs. Do you know what their net profits were last year? $2.8 billion net profit.

  • Extrapolating opposition argument to the absurd and then refuting the absurd: For example:

    • ‘Napster is a tool to steal music. You think Napster is a good thing? You think something that destroys the livelihood of artists is a good thing? How can you be in favour of stealing food off an artist's table?’

    • ‘The internet is a haven for the four horsemen of the infocolypse – drug dealers, money launderers, terrorists and child pornographers. How can you be opposed to shutting it down? You are opposed to tackling the evils these people visit upon society. How can you be a friend to such horrendous criminals?’

  • Using sarcasm, innuendo, denigration and other forms of humour to belittle opponents: The Bush/Blair song is a good example of this. And there is some name calling in Chapter 9 when Lessig talks about ‘dinosaur firms’ and ‘old Soviets’; he admits that ‘Soviets’ is an unfair term. It is easier to get a low opinion of the opposing advocate if you are funny – the humour diverts attention from the potentially poor basis of your argument. There are lots of variations on this tactic. One of the most common is where the advocate groups all opponents under one general heading. Once there, they can be labelled, on a spectrum from ‘loonies’ to ‘nice people who just don't understand’. You then conclude that their arguments are not worth taking into consideration.

  • Using jargon to confuse: With intellectual property being such a complex subject, the copyright wars are ripe for this tactic.

  • Making appeals to ‘experts’: Later in the unit I refer to Bruce Schneier and Ross Anderson as security experts, but if you were not familiar with the security profession or these individuals, you would have to take my word for that.

  • Using rhetorical questions: if you get your audience to subconsciously supply the answer invited by the question, they become more receptive to the views that follow as a consequence of the answer; to appreciate this, test the effect of taking the opposite answer to the one implied. A variation on the rhetorical question is the use of words and phrases which suggest that the audience should accept without question, e.g. ‘Obviously …’ or ‘Of course …’ or ‘It is clear that we all agree …’ or ‘There is no need to explain to this audience why …’

  • The dominant metaphor: US intellectual property scholar Jessica Litman says if you're not happy with the way the rewards get divided, change the rhetoric. She suggests that copyright used to be seen as a bargain between the author and the public, and the focus was on maintaining the balance between the two. The idea of a bargain was then replaced by the notion of copyright as an incentive to create, the assumption being that as (financial) incentives increased, creative authorship would increase. The previous balance or bargain did not matter any more except to the degree that it affected incentives for authors. Then in recent years copyright became less about incentives for authors and more about copyright as a property that copyright owners are entitled to control; balance and incentives get subsumed except to the degree that they affect copyright owners' right to control what is rightfully theirs, leaving aside, Litman says, the question of what exactly ought to be rightfully theirs. She reveals her distaste for these developments at the end of Chapter 5 of her book Digital Copyright: ’… this evolution in metaphors conceals an immense sleight of hand.’

  • Presenting evidence or apparent evidence to make it appear to point to a particular conclusion: This includes using carefully selected evidence while omitting contrary evidence.

  • Taking what someone says out of context: For example, a Times newspaper theatre critic might denigrate a show by saying, ‘This play set out to be a sophisticated, clever comedy and failed miserably.’ A poster outside the theatre might quote the critic and her newspaper by saying ‘“… a sophisticated, clever comedy …” – the Times’.

  • Avoiding giving evidence while suggesting that evidence is being given: e.g. creating the impression that evidence will be presented later to back up what has been claimed. This is a favourite tactic with politicians – they put out a vague policy statement, saying the details will come later, then when asked about the details at a later date they claim all the details were clearly included in the original policy statement and there is nothing further to add.

  • Non-sequitur – ‘it does not follow’: essentially drawing an illogical conclusion from sound data. Since the data are credible the conclusion which follows closely is also accepted. The subtle exponent of the art will embed the illogical conclusion between two logical ones. A variation on this is the extended chain of non-sequiturs, where a string of consequences is proposed from acceptable premises; the sequence will usually be one that might arise out of the premises but not a necessary one. An example is David Blunkett's; stance on the introduction of a national identity card. Mr Blunkett claims that although it will be compulsory for everyone to have a card, the card cannot be considered compulsory, since it will not be compulsory to carry it around all the time. Mr Blunkett also says that although it will have all the features of a national identity card, it cannot be called a national identity card because it is really an ‘entitlement card’. Get the rhetoric right if you want to win over your audience … ‘identity card’ = bad, ‘entitlement card’ = good.

  • Repetition: Repetition of a claim, periodically and frequently, over a long period of time can often lead to general acceptance of the claim as fact, even though it may have been been discredited on numerous occasions. This is a tactic used extensively by so-called ‘historical revisionists’ – people who want to rewrite history. An example is those who deny the existence of the holocaust.

One final note, which is particularly important with respect to the Net: check your sources. Relying on websites, institutions and individuals with a track record of credibility is a sound (though not infallible) start. Do not neglect your own knowledge and experience – just because a normally credible source says that something is red doesn't mean that the source is right, especially when you've seen the thing and know it is blue. Here are some questions to ask when considering using information from a website:

  • Does the person or organisation running the website have a track record of credibility?

  • What are their credentials?

  • Is the site well regarded by credible, reliable people and institutions?

  • Do the people running the site have an agenda, e.g. who is the site aimed at?

  • Where did the information on the site come from and is the source reliable?

  • Is the site well documented and the sources of information given?

  • Is it a government (.gov or .gov.uk), commercial (.com or co.uk), educational (.edu or .ac.uk) or non-profit organisation (.org or org.uk) site?

  • Are the claims on the site verifiable?

  • Are any of the above unfair tactics in evidence?

  • Can you verify the information on the site with other reliable sources?

  • Are the links on the site up to date and to other reliable sources?

  • Is the page kept up to date?

A layman's constitutional view is that what he likes is constitutional and that which he doesn't like is unconstitutional.

(Justice Hugo Black)

5.3 In defence of statistics

5.5 Fair use or dealing