Have you ever wondered why no one argues for a higher speed limit on the roads? Or why Australia’s government is trying desperately to censor the entire Internet? And what is the link between these two items? Is there government manipulation behind this? Well, read on to find out!

Watoc arguments

Since ancient times, politicians, condo boards, PTA meetings and others have found that it is remarkably easy to argue against a visible evil. If you want to score points in an assembly of people, one of the easiest way to do so is to pick something that everyone agrees is wrong / evil / annoying, and argue against it. But this only works if the evil is inherently indefensible – if someone can argue in favor of it, the technique fails. Issues such as crime, child porn, highway accidents are perennial favorites. After all, who is going to step up and defend crime, or suggest that we need more highway accidents? I call this manipulation technique “WATOC”: Won’t Anyone Think Of the Children? because it is often invoked as a protection of the widows and children.

It’s important to note that war, religion, and similar topics are NOT good choices for WATOC attacks – too many people would argue that a war is necessary, for example, to make a war protest ‘easy points’. But since we can all agree that child pornography is a Bad Thing, as a counter example, someone arguing against it has an inherently easy audience.

The thing that makes WATOC attacks difficult to defend is that they are often presented as simple solutions to Bad Things, and it is difficult to argue against these solutions without being painted as being in favor of the Bad Thing itself. In most issues, there are two opposing sides, and the issue eventually gets resolved at some balancing point between the two sides. In WATOC arguments, though, there is no other side: who will willingly defend criminals or speeders or DUI drivers? Even if the solutions that the WATOC proponents are suggesting are dangerous, ineffective, or actually create more harm than good?

Let’s take an example: highway deaths and the speed limits.

Since dying in a highway crash is generally a Bad Thing, arguing that we should have less of that sort of thing seems like a simple WATOC argument. The critical factor of a WATOC argument is that it is morally difficult for anyone to argue the other side. For example, in the case of highway speed limits, if lowering the speed limits results in fewer crashes, then lowering it even further would make sense. And then, why not lower it further still? After all, standing cars do not crash!!

The reason that WATOC arguments are manipulative is, at its core, that most people who choose to espouse a WATOC issue are at least as concerned about the perception of fighting the Bad Thing as they are about truly resolving it. As a result, they are quick to paint opponents of their viewpoints as being soft on the Bad Thing itself, as opposed to the solution that the WATOC is presenting. So, if you’re opposing lower speed limits, then it’s relatively easy to argue that you are, in fact, insensitive to the deaths of hundred of thousands on the roads. This is what led, essentially, to the repeal of Montana’s no speed limit in 1998 (Montana had a “reasonable and prudent” no-speed-limit limit until then).

speed limit manipulations

"So are we doing this or what??"

The other reason that WATOC arguments tend to be manipulative, of course, is that they are often too simplistic (or downright wrong). For example, it turns out that lowering speed limits doesn’t necessarily lower fatalities – sometimes it does and sometimes it does not. There is a fair bit of evidence that  actually raising the speed limit can lower fatalities. Turns out, the correlation between speed limits and fatalities is complex, and lowering speed is not usually a good proxy for improving safety. Nevertheless, it’s hard to argue against a Bad Thing, especially since the benefits of higher speed limits is diffuse and relatively unemotional. “Less Deaths!!!” frequently trumps “Slightly better gas mileage and better efficiency of overall traffic!”

By the way, many proponents of WATOC arguments don’t even bother to articulate a solution to the Bad Thing – they simply argue that we should fight the Bad Thing. Sometimes they get away with it. Occasionally they do not. Watch this video to see a WATOC politician get demolished on national television when it becomes obvious, painfully obvious, that he didn’t think through actually going beyond arguing that deficits are bad:

WATOC and Australian Internet

So what does this have to do with Australia?

Australia’s government is currently in the middle of a WATOC argument of truly epic scale. It is a classic lesson that all students of manipulations should read and follow.

Since the early 2000s, the government of Australia has been trying to create a comprehensive system to regulate web sites. The impetus for this came originally from trying to prevent child pornography. The labor party, originally against Internet censorship and filtering, gradually became increasingly pushed by entities such as the Family First Party or the Australian Family Association to embrace these kind of policies. Eventually, the party, now in power, became a believer in Internet filtering. The argument from Stephen Conroy, the Minister in charge of telecommunications, was that filtering of the Internet was necessary, of course, to protect children. It was a very typical WATOC argument to create Internet filtering – Mr. Conroy all but argued that those who were opposed to his scheme were, in effect, for child molesters: “If people equate freedom of speech with watching child pornography, then the Rudd-Labor Government is going to disagree”, he said in 2007.

So far, so good. Mr. Conroy articulated a WATOC argument using a Bad Thing (a Very Bad Thing, actually), and his solution was to filter the entire Internet, or, more tactically, to force ISPs to filter the internet for Australian homes. After all, who can take the opposing view? Who will argue that Australians should be allowed to watch child pornography??

Internet Manipulation

"No one. That's who."

Since this is a blog about manipulation, you know that it gets more complex, though! Since censoring the Internet is really, really hard, Mr. Conroy and his party eventually settled on a blacklist system. The Australian Communications and Media Authority would maintain a list of banned sites that the Australian ISPs would then essentially hide from their users.

How is this manipulative? Well, apart from being a really stupid idea, the blacklist concept essentially led this (let’s argue well-meaning) government down a rabbit hole of manipulations.

– First, the actual list itself became the target of Freedom of Information acts. When the Electronic Frontier of Australia asked to see the famous Black List using Freedom of Information requests, it was mostly denied. Then, in 2003, the government actually passed a new bill that exempted not only the blacklist from the freedom of information act, but many documents about the blacklist itself. The argument for doing this, of course, was a WATOC one – that releasing the blacklist would allow people to see the banned sites and hence access the pornography. The practical effect was that the entire blacklist system became secretive and opaque to ordinary Australians.

Obviously, no one knew of this helpful web site in Australia.

– As this created some resentment in the voters (always a bad idea when you’re a political party), Mr. Conroy declared in 2007 that the list could be opted out of – just sign a form and you’re off the filter. That quieted some of the growing backlash. Then, when the government plan was actually published in 2008, there was, of course, no mention of an opt-out. If you were Australian, your Internet would be filtered, like it or not.

– Then, in 2009, the actual Blacklist was leaked on Wikileaks, and researchers discovered that many of the 2900+ sites were not pornographic at all. Some were online poker sites. Others were standard adult pornography sites, and many were just puzzling – a tour operator, sites on euthanesia, sections of Wikipedia, a dentist (?!) and more. Of course, the Australian government’s answer was another WATCO: several government members suggested that the leak was going to cause depraved youths to seek out each and every web site on the list, and then threathened anyone leaking the list with 10 years in jail.

To be fair, a _scary_ dentist.

– For good measure, ACMA then added Wikileaks itself to the blacklist, which is highly ironic.

– Then, just recently, a standard request for Information about the Australian government efforts to get ISPs to store individual web users browsing histories was largely (90%+) censored. Why? Because that information could “lead to premature and unnecessary debate and could potentially prejudice and impede government decision making.”

– In May 2010, Mr. Conroy, who is increasingly beginning to sound like a certain ex-minister of communications, said that 85% of ISPs in Australia supported his filtering scheme, including iiNet, one of the larger ISPs. A few days later, iiNet itself told the press that it did not, nor had it ever, supported a filtering scheme.

– And, in the continuing spirit of WATOC, the Australian ministry of telecommunications recently added a policy under which ISPs will be “encouraged” to offer a more extensive filtering of adult content, again in the spirit of protecting the defenseless children. Who will determine what is adult content is conveniently not spelled out, but if dentists make the Really Bad list, it will be interesting to see who makes the Somewhat Bad one.

Let’s summarize here, shall we? A government starts with a simple WATOC argument that it thinks will get it some easy votes (“we’re against child pornography!”). Then, as it discovers that actually doing something about that Big Evil is really, really hard, it has to start manipulating its population and the press into supporting a secret blacklist, whose implementation is secret, and has to progressively extend that secrecy into other areas. En route,  it also has to lie, manipulate the press, and try to keep some support by continuously drubbing the original WATOC argument. Like many WATOC arguments, though, the cure is worse than the ailment – the original “we will prevent child pornography” has now essentially morphed into an attempt to have access to each Australian’s citizen complete web browsing history. And even if such a scheme was politically feasible or ethically defensible, the amount of manipulation that it will require to implement will be truly epic.

This is government manipulation at its finest. It is different from corporate manipulation, because the goal is different. Corporate manipulation is usually focused on getting the consumer to do something, even if that something is pretty small. Governmental manipulation, on the other hand, is usually focused on getting citizens to NOT do something while it goes about its business. And, in the arsenal of governmental manipulation, no tool is more useful nor more used than the WATOC argument.