Monthly Archives: March 2011

Is Lying to the Public OK?

In a recent post, Lane Wallace discusses the pros and cons of a proposed amendment to Canada’s Broadcasting Act of 1986 which would allow broadcasters more leeway to broadcast false or misleading news. As you might imagine, that has generated some controversy, with free speech advocates saying the current law is too restrictive while others were concerned that the modifications would lead to a more toxic (and perhaps less accurate) American-style news environment.

Basically, the issue boiled down to whether or not people felt that TV and radio broadcasters had the same right to free speech as individuals. Because of their access to the public airwaves and the incredible power associated with holding a broadcast license, the CRTC (the equivalent to America’s FCC) determined that licence holders must be held to different standards and withdrew the proposed amendment,

Ms. Wallace wonders why we don’t have something similar in the U.S.:

Is it unacceptable censorship to require someone to be basically honest in what they broadcast as “news” — and which we are more likely to accept as truth, because it comes from a serious and authoritative-sounding news anchor?

Adding:

We prohibit people from lying in court, because the consequences of those lies are serious. That’s a form of censorship of free speech, but one we accept quite willingly. And while the consequences of what we hear on television and radio are not as instantly severe as in a court case, one could argue that the damage widely-disseminated false information does to the goal of a well-informed public and a working, thriving democracy is significant, as well.

One could counter that it is up to the individual to pick and choose their own news sources (something I have also discussed in the past) but she points out that:

In theory, we could all fact-check everything we hear on the TV or radio, of course. But few people have the time to do that, even if they had the contacts or resources.

Regulating U.S. broadcasters in such a manner would no doubt raise cries against  the “nanny state” from many circles but I suspect that these same folks are the ones that have raised obfuscation to a high art. In the long run, failing to hold news agencies responsible for their content does more harm to our society than good.

Notes from the Margin: The Tipping Point

I finally had a chance to read Malcolm Gladwell’s book The Tipping Point the other day and I thought I’d pull together a few quick comments.

Things that caught my fancy:

  1. Social epidemics – On his website, Gladwell defines a meme as an infectious idea that spreads through a population like a virus or a disease. He prefers the term social epidemic, however, because he wants to understand more about the details of the ideas or behaviors that are being transmitted as well as the methods of transmission. (Richard Dawkins originated the term “meme” in his book The Selfish Gene.)
  2. The Broken Windows Theory – Even though the debate on the efficacy of this theory still rages, Gladwell gives a good overview of the basic idea that small positive changes in the urban environment can have a large effect on social behavior.
  3. The Rule of 150 – I had heard of Dunbar’s Number (or “monkeysphere”) before I read the book but I really liked Gladwell’s presentation of the concept. He builds up to it by first introducing the idea of channel capacity — the fact that the brain only has a certain amount of space that it can devote to storing or processing various types of information. He than relates channel capacity to a few familiar studies (like George Miller’s “The Magical Number Seven“) and notes how these cognitive limitations can have real-world applications (such as limiting phone numbers to seven digits in length). Finally, he discusses social channel capacity or the natural limit of close relationships among humans, which appears to be approximately 150 people. In any group larger than 150 people, it becomes difficult to keep track of all the relationships.
  4. Maven traps – These are methods of identifying and communicating with people who (perhaps obsessively) accumulate knowledge about very specific things. Gladwell devotes an entire section of the book to these information specialists but only mentions a few examples of Maven traps near the end. I liked his examples because they reveal a lot about human quirks and interests while demonstrating the opportunities available to companies that are willing to listen to these personalities.
  5. Law of Plentitude – This gets a brief mention in the afterward and it refers to a chapter in Kevin Kelly’s book The New Rules for the New Economy. The concept here is that the value of an individual node in a network starts at zero when there is only one node and increases exponentially with the addition of each node. (I haven’t read this particular book yet but I’ve really enjoyed some of KK’s other work, so I’ll have to add it to the list.)
  6. Network nuisance costs – In response to law of plentitude, Gladwell discusses some of the inherent issues associated with the growth of large networks. He points out that the human capacity do deal with phone calls and e-mails does not scale well and that, eventually, people develop an “immunity” to these forms of communication. In other words, as the number of messages increase, people become more selective (through the use of filters) so they don’t become overwhelmed. (He also notes that part of that increased selectivity involves a greater dependence on personal connections and trusted advisers.)