A study by MediaMatters confirmed the gut feeling we all had: there is indeed a mainstream media blackout going on over the SOPA law that would censor the Internet in the United States. It’s not just a gut feeling, it’s happening.
The good folks at MediaMatters just list the facts without going into causes: if a news station is owned by a SOPA-supporting company, it does not mention SOPA as a matter of fact. Techdirt points to how badly the SOPA discourse fits media logic. I think it’s easier than that. It’s about the age-old power of information advantage, and it is in their strategic business interest to keep this off the newsradar.
To put this in context, we need to look at the concept of functional literacy and then compare to a recent situation in Italy.
What’s “Functional Literacy”?
There is this concept of functional literacy that goes a little bit above literacy, which is “the ability to read” in all simplicity. Functional literacy, however, is a meter of whether you are able to read well enough to take in the information you need in your daily life and take part in society.
The people who are literate but not functionally literate can read and parse this:
I am hungry.
The other football team won.
However, they cannot read and parse this (regardless of eventual solving capability):
Assuming that wood pieces weigh 2.0 kg, and that all rodents can sustain an average throwing force of 2.0 kN for 1.0 seconds per piece until their energy reserves of 0.50 MJ are depleted, how much wood would a woodchuck chuck if a woodchuck would chuck wood?
Also, perhaps a better meter, functionally illiterate people would be incapable of reading and understanding this very article, and in particular, of correlating it to their daily life. They can’t read job ads, banking statements, past-due notices, or any political discourse.
Why is this relevant?
It is relevant because the rates of functional illiteracy are higher than you would expect in the industrialized parts of the world. Much higher, in fact. Approaching 50%.
In Italy, I was told that the functional illiteracy rate there was 43%. While this was a word-of-mouth number, I quickly located a CBS report saying that the rate in Detroit is 47%, picking a random major city when searching for the United States. Granted, Detroit is a past-due-date industrial city, but if I had told you that half of Detroiters can’t read this article, would you have believed me?
This means that roughly half the US population don’t just get all their news from TV, but that they are also incapable of seeking other news sources such as newspapers or the net. This puts television news broadcasts in a particularly privileged position, becoming the well of truth.
Let’s view this in the light of what just happened in Italy.
Berlusconi’s Last Stand
There was a referendum in Italy recently about revoking a certain legal immunity for Silvio Berlusconi, the former Italian Prime Minister, an immunity that he had uptothere enjoyed. To understand Italy’s context, in order for a referendum to pass, it requires a majority of “yes” votes — but it also requires over 50% of voter turnout.
That means there are two ways to defeat a referendum in Italy: keep the “no” votes up, or keep voter turnout down. So assuming you’re running a country with 43% functional illiteracy and don’t want a referendum to pass, and you also just happen to own six out of the seven television networks as Berlusconi does, what is the result?
On these six television networks, the referendum was simply not mentioned. Not once. Deemed not newsworthy.
At the end of the day, this enraged the Italian people enough to bump voter turnout over 50% anyway, and the referendum passed. Very shortly thereafter, having had his immunity revoked, Berlusconi stepped down.
Are we starting to see parallels to the SOPA blackout yet?
If you control what other people know, if you control the village newswell, then you control the entire village. The Catholic Church was in this privileged position before the printing press (which is also why they demanded harsher and harsher penalties — up to and including the death penalty — for unauthorized copying of knowledge in their time).
The one thing that can threaten TV news networks is the Internet and the ability for people to communicate directly, bypassing the judgment of the now-famous 1% to determine what knowledge befits the masses. We learn from history that all such power is always used to maintain and strengthen itself first. So, SOPA basically kills that ability of the everyday person to bypass the 1%.
Therefore, it is in the economic and political interest of today’s newswells to kill a strategic threat to their privileged position, and to act just like Berlusconi did in Italy: to actively not bring the topic up onto people’s radar.
In other words, Corporate United States is just as corrupt as Berlusconi’s Italy was, and is acting just like the Catholic Church did when they tried to kill the printing press.