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Institutions’ Right to Block: ICAO vs. Taiwan

photograph of green board game piece isolated from huddled, red board game pieces

In the last few days, the Twitter account of the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), the civil aviation safety body of the United Nations, has been systematically blocking users—including analysts and academics—who raised questions about ICAO’s practice of excluding Taiwan from international cooperation, especially while the current novel coronavirus crisis is developing. Indeed, this behavior is not new to ICAO: in March 2019, its Twitter account also systematically blocked users who criticized its environmental policies.

ICAO’s Twitter behavior has been condemned by many, including the United States House of Representatives Committee on Foreign Affairs. In response to these condemnations and in response to inquiries from media, ICAO’s chief of communications Anthony Philbin has justified the systematic blocking of questioners and critics on the ground that doing so is necessary for “defend[ing] the integrity of the information and discussions our followers should reasonably expect from our feeds.” As a philosopher interested in the intersection of language and power, this ongoing dispute raises an interesting question: when is it morally permissible for governmental or public institutions to block users on social media?

We can start answering the question by examining the work that blocking does. To block a user is to refuse to be an audience for that user’s speech. In this respect, blocking is akin to other moves that might be made on social media, such as muting a user or simply saying “don’t @ me”. However, blocking is also more powerful than these other moves in that it not only refuses the user of an audience for their speech, it also excludes the user from a conversation. While muting someone makes their speech unavailable to you, blocking someone makes your speech unavailable to them—including, for example, their inclusion of your speech in other conversations.

Although it is tempting to condemn ICAO for not valuing free speech, that line of criticism is fundamentally misguided. In general, no one is owed an audience for their speech. In fact, as philosopher Rae Langton has argued, the refusal to accommodate a speaker—“blocking”, in her technical sense—can be a powerful tool in responding to harmful speech. And many individual Twitter users, especially those from marginalized backgrounds, know this to be true from their daily experience. Given the harassment problems that continue to plague the platform, blocking is a perfectly reasonable, and undoubtedly permissible, move that private citizens can make to protect their time, their attention, and their mental health. In SlateMary Elizabeth Williams has responded to free speech considerations, and concluded that it is permissible (for a private citizen) to block any user for any reason.

However, even if we accept that blocking is compatible with free speech and permissible for social media accounts of private citizens, we need not thereby also accept that blocking is just as permissible for social media accounts of governmental or public institutions. Indeed, this is a point on which Donald J. Trump’s lawyers and I agree. In defending Trump’s (legal) right to exclude people from conversations that involve his speech, his lawyers rested their defense on the claim that Trump is tweeting from a personal, and not governmental, capacity. (Appeals court judge Barrington D. Parker was ultimately unpersuaded by this claim, and ruled Trump’s social media blocking of users to be unconstitutional.)

There is an important difference in power between private citizens and governmental and public institutions. More than a difference in power, though, there is also a difference between the way that private citizens and governmental and public institutions are embedded in our social reality, especially with respect to social structures of oppression.

Philosopher Iris Marion Young has argued that different groups can be oppressed in different, but related, ways: exploitation, marginalization, powerlessness, cultural imperialism, and violence. In this context, it is especially relevant that Taiwan has been historically marginalized in the international community, and a key mechanism of that marginalization is the exclusion of Taiwan from international institutions such as the World Health Organization and, of course, ICAO.

Yes, Twitter is not real life. But it is also not not-real-life either. The interactions on Twitter are not only shaped by our social reality, they also contribute to shaping our social reality. The condemnation of ICAO’s Twitter behavior on free speech grounds crucially ignores the fact that language moves are often more than “just speech”, but actions for modifying the social world. And it is from this perspective that we can most fully appreciate the significance of that subtle difference between blocking and muting. Remember, blocking does not merely refuse a user of an audience for their speech, it excludes them from the conversation altogether. As such, ICAO’s Twitter behavior should not be judged on its own, but contextualized in the ongoing international exclusion of Taiwan from many crucial conversations, such as ones about the current novel coronavirus crisis.

So, in the end, when is it morally permissible for governmental or public institutions to block users on social media? Like most other questions in philosophy, there is no simple answer to this one. However, if my foregoing argument is sound, then the answer will crucially depend on the social context—specifically, whether doing so contributes to ongoing oppressive structures in our social reality.

But there is a clear answer in the particular case that prompted our philosophical investigation. Given its own position of power and the sociohistorical context of Taiwan’s marginalization, it is impermissible for ICAO to exercise the exclusionary power of social media blocking to systematically excise questions and criticisms from relevant conversations.

Freedom of Speech and Sexist Tweets

photograph of Indiana University campus

On November 7th, 2019, Indiana University Bloomington economics professor Eric Rasmusen tweeted a link to an article titled, “Are Women Destroying Academia? Probably.” In his tweet, Rasmusen pulled out one quote in particular as worthy of special emphasis, “geniuses are overwhelmingly male because they combine outlier high IQ with moderately low Agreeableness and moderately low Conscientiousness.” Among other things, the article claims that 1) the inclusion of women as students in universities has led to the deterioration of rigor in those institutions because emotion has replaced the cold, unemotional evaluation of facts and arguments, 2) women are highly prone to “Neuroticism,” precluding them from logical thought, 3) the presence of women in academia reduces the production of the “genius type,” a type which is overwhelmingly male, and 4) female academics are too high in agreeableness but low in I.Q. to adequately nurture the mind of the male genius. Thus, the article claims, the inclusion of females in academia both as students and as professors, is harmful to male education and has a chilling effect on the number of geniuses produced by universities.

This isn’t the first time that this professor has made headlines for his tweets. In 2003, Rasmusen came under fire for his comments on the fitness of male homosexuals to serve as teachers. In a response to this ongoing controversy, he re-affirms that position,

“I am on record as saying that homosexuals should not teach grade and high school. I don’t think they should be Catholic priests or Boy Scout leaders either. Back in that kerfuffle when I was widely attacked for saying that, I was careful to say that academia was different. Professors prey on students too, so there is a danger, but the students are older and better able to protect themselves, and there is more reason to accept the risk of a brilliant but immoral teacher.”

In response to the most recent tweet, people immediately began to call on the university to terminate Rasmusen’s employment. Lauren Robel, Executive Vice President and Provost of Indiana University Bloomington issued a statement condemning Rasmusen’s actions as “stunningly ignorant, more consistent with someone who lived in the 18th century than the 21st.” She also makes it perfectly clear that the university cannot fire Rasmusen for his comments because the First Amendment protects them.

The university did take some corrective action in response to Rasmusen’s behavior. In her statement, Robel provided the details of the steps the university is taking. First, no class offered by Rasmusen will be mandatory. In this way, students can avoid taking classes from him entirely. Second, grading of students in Rasmusen’s classes will be blind to avoid the bias that might be present. This means that assignments will be set up in such a way that Rasmusen will not know which student’s paper he is grading when he is grading it. If the nature of certain assignments is such that they cannot be graded in this way, a different faculty member will grade those assignments. With these measures in place, students can avoid any potential bias that they might expect from someone who has expressed the kinds of ideas that Rasmusen has expressed.

The public response to the incident involves some confusion about why exactly it is that Rasmusen can’t be fired. Some people view this incident as an indictment of the tenure system. It is not Rasmusen’s tenured status that makes it the case that he can’t be fired over this issue. Indiana University Bloomington is a public, state institution, funded by taxpayer dollars. As such, they cannot fire a professor for the content of the speech he or she engages in as a private citizen, and on his twitter account, Rasmusen was speaking as a private citizen.

Legal protections aside, there are compelling moral reasons that speak in favor of this position. It is valuable, both as a matter of personal liberty and for the good of society, for ideas to be expressed and evaluated. It is important to the aims of democracy that people can speak truth to power. In some cases, the speech involved will be very ugly, but the general practice is so important that we must be committed to it come what may. Punishing speech on the basis of content may seem to make good sense under certain conditions, but good, well-intentioned people don’t always have the final say in what “makes good sense.” To protect our basic liberties, we might sometimes have to be content with procedural justice, even when it seems to fly in the face of substantive justice.

Even if Rasmusen were not speaking as a private citizen, it is possible that his claims should still be protected because of the value of academic freedom. Courts have consistently ruled that academic speech—speech related to teaching and scholarship—is deserving of special protections. There are compelling moral reasons for this position as well. The practice of putting forward ideas that are then critically evaluated by peers is essential to the pursuit of truth and justice. When only the dominant view can be expressed without consequences, that dominant view becomes dogma. Its adherents believe it, not as the result of patient and diligent investigation, but because they would be punished for pursuing alternatives.

On the other hand, there are some real moral costs associated with keeping Rasmusen on the faculty. He seems to be sympathetic to the idea that the presence of women diminishes the quality of a college education. In light of this, it would probably be rather difficult to feel comfortable as a female student in Rasmusen’s classes. His female colleagues are also likely to find the climate he has created very unpleasant. In addition, to treat the ideas expressed by Rasmusen as if they are just as likely to be true as any other competing idea ignores the fact that we have made significant progress on these issues in recent decades. It encourages the conclusion that there is no such thing as a settled moral issue. The crusade for women’s rights was predicated on the idea that, to borrow a phrase from Jean Paul Sartre, “existence precedes essence.” The attitudes that other people have about a woman’s “function,” shouldn’t construct limitations on who she can become. Autonomy is generally viewed as tremendously valuable, in part because of the role that it plays in self-creation. When views like Rasmusen’s are treated as if they are deserving of protection, the result is discouraging (to say the least) for women, particularly young college women who are just beginning to craft their own lives.

Finally, there is the issue of moral character. Rasmusen’s behavior on social media demonstrates either a misunderstanding of or disrespect for the role that he plays as an educator. The article focuses on the role that universities play in creating “geniuses.” Geniuses are rare, and genius isn’t obviously valuable for its own sake, its value depends on how it is used. This isn’t even close to the primary role of a public university. The role of a professor at such a university is to assist in developing a well-rounded, educated citizenry. Ideally, professors should be preparing students to live productive and meaningful lives. Good teaching requires empathy for students, and a genuine desire to understand the conditions under which they are apt to learn. Professors should remember that they are public figures. This means that before posting on social media, professors should reflect on the question of whether what they are posting will contribute to a negative classroom environment that might make it more difficult for certain students to learn.

Morality is a social enterprise, and young people look to adults in positions of authority to determine how they ought to behave. It may seem unfair that public figures carry more of a burden than others to conduct themselves reasonably and with dignity on social media platforms. Ideally, a person who has achieved a certain high level of influence values virtue and has worked hard to develop a strong moral character. People who care about character are the kinds of people who deserve to be in these positions in the first place. On social media and elsewhere, public figures should think carefully about the implications of their messages.

American Social Media Support of the Hong Kong Protests

photograph of protest in NYC with many participants streaming on iphones

Since March of this year, there have been protests in Hong Kong which have gained mainstream media attention and regular coverage since they began. The protests began over a bill proposed by the Hong Kong government that would have allowed for the extradition of Hong Kong citizens to mainland China if China’s government found them guilty of some crime.

Hong Kong, a British colony until 1997, has a long history of more liberal and democratic governance than the mainland. When returned to China by the British in 1997, Hong Kongers were promised a policy of “two systems, one country.” However, many believed that this law would erode the independence of the Hong Kong government and the freedoms of its citizens. Mainland China is known for not being friendly to antagonistic voices, jailing those who dissent and censoring speech generally. While free speech is technically guaranteed by the Chinese Constitution, people can be arrested for endangering vaguely defined “state secrets” which allows for mass censorship. If a Hong Konger, used to the free speech protections afforded to a citizen of Hong Kong, dissented against the mainland government to such an extent that the Chinese government wished to arrest him for endangering state secrets, this proposed bill would allow him to be extradited to China. Essentially, the free speech of Hong Kong would become the “free speech” of China.

As these protests and confrontations between protestors and police grow more violent, Hong Kong is getting more attention from Western media and from Western social media. Many people on social media are calling for boycotts of the NBA and of Blizzard, a video game production company, for bowing to China in silencing employees supporting the Hong Kong protests. Far more are simply expressing support for the Hong Kong protests, a fact being taken advantage of by Hong Kong protestors. During the protestors’ occupation of the Hong Kong airport in August, signs like this one saying “Sorry for the inconvenience. We are fighting for the future of our home” made the rounds on social media. Importantly, the message on the sign was written in English, as are many of the signs used in the protests. While English was the official language until the 1970s, far more people know the local dialect of Chinese, Cantonese, than know English.

Clearly, the purpose of these signs being written on in English is for people to take photos of them and to spread them around on English-speaking social media rather than for other Hong Kongers or even mainland Chinese to read them. English-speaking nations and their people are typically very supportive of the sorts of liberal democratic values for which Hong Kongers are fighting. However, one has to wonder to what extent English-speakers, particularly Americans, should be spreading these Hong Kongers’ messages around.

The United States has a long history of intervention in the affairs of foreign nations. Some people believe that this period of intervention should end, that Americans and the American government should focus on domestic affairs instead of sticking their noses into the affairs of others. People point to the chaos in the Middle East, or the historic meddling of the US in Latin America to demonstrate the common proverb that “the road to hell is paved with good intentions.”

As China would have people see it, the Hong Kong protests are an internal affair (for discussion see Tucker Sechrest’s “The Hong Kong Protests and International Obligation”). Rather than fighting for freedom, mainland Chinese people and a portion of Hong Kongers see protestors as damaging social stability. Indeed, in response to the Houston Rockets’ general manager Daryl Morey’s tweet in support of the protests, the Chinese consulate in Houston said that “anybody with conscience would support the efforts made by the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region to safeguard Hong Kong’s social stability.” If Americans have anything to say about the protests, China says, it should be in support of normal governmental processes working to resolve the conflict and maintain stability. Supporting the protestors, no matter one’s personal beliefs on the issue, clearly is disrupting the social order. Roads are sparse and hotel rooms are cheap as tourists decline to visit. Fights between protestors and police are regular. Typically, when the US destabilizes another country’s governmental authority, collapse and chaos follow.

At the same time, while there are clear examples of US intervention going wrong, especially when it is militaristic and government-backed, it is not clear that a bunch of Americans tweeting in support of the protests will cause the same damage. For a long time, people’s social media posts in support of this or that social issue, especially with regards to protests, were labeled examples of “slacktivism” and “virtue-signalling.” The idea is that the posts people make on social media do not foment any real social change but are selfish attempts for people to make themselves look like good people. In essence, some claim that people posting about the protests do not care enough to actually support the protestors, but are simply “making it about themselves.”

Ultimately, however, this analysis falls apart when social networks are analyzed. Research out of NYU and University of Pennsylvania shows that “occasional contributors,” that is, people who are not political activists, posting about this sort of thing constantly, are vital for information about the protests to spread. Importantly, this pattern, dependent on occasional contributors, was not found in other large scale social media discussions, such as about the Oscars or the minimum wage. Hong Kong protestors recognize this fact as, again, demonstrated by their use of English in their protests. To get real change, even a ton of protestors on a small island off the coast of China cannot act alone. Rather, Hong Kong protestors, if they want their government to be pressured need to get the attention of the powerful English-speaking nations of the world. Social media posts bubble upward with even world leaders eventually taking heed of them. Donald Trump has even suggested talks with Chinese President Xi Jinping as a result of this social media attention, he himself tweeting about it.

Whether the United States, its government or its people, should be commenting on or intervening in the domestic affairs of other nations is an open question. However, it is undeniable that the Hong Kong protestors, if they are to maintain their liberal democratic society, need the support of other nations. And, that support is greatly influenced, in nations with free speech, by the most common avenue of political speech today, social media. As is often said “the revolution will not be televised,” but, as we see today, it might be tweeted.

Deceptive Vulnerability: Caroline Calloway and the “Unlikeable Woman”

photograph of framed polaroid of Caroline Calloway

In early September of 2019, an online magazine called The Cut published an essay by Natalie Beach that instantly went viral, spawning a plethora of opinion pieces and Twitter threads commenting on Beach’s story. In the essay, Beach explains that for years she has been ghostwriting and editing Instagram posts for her former best friend, controversial “influencer” Caroline Calloway.

Calloway, a 27-year Cambridge graduate with a degree in art history, rose to popularity on Instagram in 2013, eventually amassing over 800,000 followers. She doesn’t peddle dietary supplements or offer makeup tips; the only content she produces are the captions on her photos. Beneath each image of fireworks over the Cambridge skyline or her arm-in-arm with a boyfriend, she describes her personal life with the introspective and inviting language of a young adult novel.

This approach to social media, coupled with her brutal honesty about troubled relationships and drug addiction, might even have revolutionized Instagram. In an article on Calloway for Vox, Constance Grady notes that in 2013, “the idea of writing a blog post in an Instagram caption was new and fresh. It made her appear almost uniquely vulnerable: She was just a girl, she seemed to be telling her followers, trying to make it through her life in the beautiful, dangerous world.”

However, the illusion of down-to-earth relatability couldn’t last forever. Her Instagram posts eventually caught the eye of Flatiron, a major publishing house, which offered her a book deal for roughly half a million dollars. The deal fell through under mysterious circumstances, but it seems Calloway backed out of her contract without writing anything after spending the exorbitant advance from the publishers. She was heaped with even more criticism for her disastrous series of “creativity workshops.” The workshops would ostensibly teach attendees, who paid $165 each to participate, the ins and outs of brand-building and the artistic process. Many sessions were cancelled without refunds for ticket-buyers. Those who were able to attend claimed it was a glorified meet-and-greet at best, and a scam at worst, with one journalist dubbing it a one-woman Fyre festival.

While Calloway received negative attention from the media for these incidents, Beach’s essay has transformed her into a viral sensation. The article catalogues nearly a decade of hurt and deception, from Calloway’s struggle with addiction to Beach’s silent role in Calloway’s rise to fame. Now the media focus is on their fractured friendship, which in Beach’s essay reads like an Elena Ferrante novel transplanted from mid-20th century Naples to the virtual landscape of Instagram. But most remarkable about the story is Calloway’s continued commitment to telling all. Her Instagram feed is littered with screenshots of articles condemning her, with captions like “I cannot believe this is my life right now. I feel like I’m about to wake up at any moment.” She consistently emphasizes the unreality of the situation, her shock and hurt at how events have unfolded, and part of what keeps drawing people to her page is her willingness to comment on the drama rather than hide or stop posting.

Her response to this situation is exemplified by a trademark artsy-photo-with-lengthy-caption post about her relationship with Natalie. In the photo, Calloway stands before a large nude sculpture of a woman without arms. Like the statue, she has stripped herself bare before the court of public opinion, made herself vulnerable to fans and detractors alike.

This front of honesty, however, is more strategic than genuine. She hasn’t stopped creating an online persona, she’s just creating a different one. As Washington Post editorialist Molly Roberts astutely points out, “Calloway is still selling us something. She built her brand from the start, at least in part, by pointing out the deceptiveness of brand-building, blending Instagram’s typical aspirational posts with just enough vulnerability to make her look, well, genuine.” Vulnerability is the main weapon in Calloway’s arsenal, though she’s shifted from being vulnerable about boyfriends and addiction to being vulnerable about the scandal with Beach. She posts extensively about their friendship, pulling the curtain back on old stories, or as Roberts puts it, making herself look even more genuine by “contrasting [her new story] with the unreality she was selling everyone before.”

With her rough edges and insistence on openness, Calloway almost seems to have stepped out of the growing mass of Millennial literature about “unlikeable women,” which is perhaps why the media is so perversely attracted to Calloway’s story. In her essay “The Making of a Millenial Woman,” Rebecca Liu explores the moral implications of our obsessive interest with this kind of character. The classic example of this narrative follows “an archetypical Young Millennial Woman – pretty, white, cisgender, and tortured enough to be interesting but not enough to be repulsive. Often described as ‘relatable,’ she is, in actuality, not.” Rather, she is “more beautiful, more intelligent, and more infuriatingly precocious than we are in real life. But her charm lies in how she is still self-hating enough to be attainable: she’s an aspirational identifier.” Liu’s emphasis on “aspirational” is especially relevant to influencer culture, which relies on our dissatisfaction with ourselves and aspirations for “self-improvement” to reel us in.

Calloway’s employed vulnerability bears a particular resemblance to one of the unlikeable millenial women Liu touches on in her essay, the unnamed protagonist of the hit show Fleabag. The format of the show seems designed for an easy comparison to social media; the main character, played by the show’s creator Phoebe Waller-Bridge, is constantly addressing the audience with shocking honesty about everything from her sex life to her relationship with her family. It’s part of what makes the show funny, but her honesty functions on another level. By the end of the first series, we learn that Fleabag doesn’t tell us nearly as much as we think. In an interview with Paste Magazine, Waller-Bridge describes how her character is “using a certain type of honesty as a weapon of distraction. She talk very openly and honestly about sex so you feel like she’s being open with you when, actually, she’s completely hiding by doing that.”

This is exactly the approach taken by Calloway, using a “certain type of honesty” to create the illusion of genuineness. One might say that Calloway, unlike unlikeable women in fiction, is receiving condemnation for her actions rather than praise. However, our obsessive interest with her story, illustrated by a new Buzzfeed quiz titled “Are You a Caroline Calloway or a Natalie Beach?” smacks more of celebrity worship, of celebrating messiness and drama, than anything else. Our response to her is a kind of celebration, and as Liu points out,

“For every celebration of a rich white woman as carelessly destructive with her life as her privileged male counterparts, we should ask what it is that gives her the ability to be so brazen, and who is sidelined as collateral. Neurosis, often framed as a sign of powerlessness, can also be a sign of the opposite. To demand someone enter into and entertain your anxious mind-palace and reckon with your complicated and endlessly fascinating individuality can be an act of power. But who gets to be an individual to the Western public? Who gets to be complex?”

“To demand someone enter into and entertain your anxious mind-palace and reckon with your complicated and endlessly fascinating individuality can be an act of power” — this is exactly what Calloway’s Instagram posts ask us to do. Even when she is apologetic, even when she purports to be at her weakest, she holds power over her audience in a way that profits her in the end.

Part of the problem is the impetus to appear “relatable” (just messy enough to be interesting while still remaining palatable) online. Liu critiques this idea when she says that “Relatability as a critical tool leads only to dead ends, endlessly wielding a ‘we’ without asking who ‘we’ really are, or why ‘we’ are drawn to some stories more than others.” She asks, “What does it tell us that ‘we’ are meant to be drawn to women who live in elite social worlds, whose lifestyles many cannot afford, and whose rebellions against the world are always a little doomed and not that unconventional, even if we’re meant to think otherwise?”

Real personal growth cannot be achieved without vulnerability, but when influencers like Calloway substitute relatability with vulnerability, we end up consuming the same tired narratives without questioning who gets our attention and why.

Online Discourse and the Demand for Civility

drawing of sword duel with top-hatted spectators

It often seems like the internet suffers from a civility problem: log onto your favorite social media platform and no doubt you’ll come across a lot of people angrily arguing with one another and failing to make any real progress on any points of disagreement, especially when it comes to political issues. A common complaint is that the “other side” is failing to engage in discussion in the right kind of way: perhaps they are not giving opposing views the credit they think they deserve, or are being overly dismissive, or are simply shutting down discussion before it can get started. We might think that if everyone were just to be a bit more civil, perhaps we could make some progress towards reconciliation in a divided world.

But what, exactly, is this requirement to be civil? And should be civil when it comes to our online interactions?

At first glance the answer to our first question might be obvious: we should certainly be civil when talking with others online, and especially when we disagree with them. Perhaps you have something like the following in mind: it is unproductive in a disagreement to name-call, or use excessive profanities, or to generally be rude or contemptuous of someone else. Acting in this way doesn’t seem to get us anywhere, and so seems to be something to be generally avoided.

However, when people in online debates accuse the others of failing to be civil, they are often not simply referring to matters of mere etiquette. One of the more common complaints with regards to the lack of civility is that the other side will refuse to engage with someone on a topic about which they disagree, or else if they do discuss it, not discuss it on their terms. A quick stroll through Twitter will bring up numerous examples of claims that one’s opponents are not engaging in “civil discourse”:

“I can essentially find something we agree on through civil discourse with anyone willing to engage in it. Society has become so sheltered that too many brats think their opinions matter more than others.”

https://twitter.com/illumiXnati/status/1124656164443000834

“If you are in America here, none of you understand this. Pick up a copy [of the constitution] and read it, study it, and then maybe we can engage in civil discourse. Until then you need to sit down and remain silent.”

https://twitter.com/CAB0341/status/1123957247548248064

Notably, many of those who have been banned from one or more social media platforms have claimed that their banning is a result of the relevant companies refusing to engage in the kind of civil discourse of which they take themselves to be champions. Consider, for example, former Alex Jones writer and conspiracy theorist Paul Joseph Watson who, upon his banning from Facebook, tweeted the following:

“The left has learned that they can silence dissent by labelling anyone they disagree with an ‘extremist’. I am not an ‘extremist’. I disavow all violence. I encourage peaceful, civil discourse. Anyone who has met me or is familiar with my work knows this”

https://twitter.com/PrisonPlanet/status/1124641179771994114

Or consider the following from journalist Jesse Signal:

“90% of the time ‘I will not debate someone who is arguing against my right to exist’ is simply a false derailing tactic, but if someone DOES deny your right to exist, and is in a position of power and willing to debate you, how crazy would it be to NOT debate them??”

https://twitter.com/jessesingal/status/1117077434032119808

Signal’s tweet was in response to backlash in response to his writings on trans issues, in which many took him to be portraying the trans population in America as consisting largely of people who seek to transition because of mental illness or trauma, many of whom ultimately end up regretting their decision. Signal, then, takes the refusal of trans persons to debate with him about the nature of their very being to be a “derailing” tactic, while Watson claimed that his views, regardless of their content, ought to be allowed to be expressed because he is doing so in a manner that he takes to be civil.

In the above tweets (and many others) we can see a couple of different claims about civil online discourse: the first is that so long as one’s views are expressed in a civil manner then they deserve to be heard, while the second is that an opponent who refuses to engage in such civil discussion is doing something wrong. What should be make of these claims?

In response to the Signal tweet and the resulting controversy, Josephine Livingstone argues that “[d]ebate is fruitful when the terms of the conversation are agreed upon by both parties…In fact, it is the “debate me, coward” crowd that has made it impossible to have arguments in good faith, because they demand, unwittingly or not, to set the terms.” The worry, then, is that when one demands debate from one’s opponent, one is really demanding debate on the grounds that they themselves accept. When one’s grounds and those of one’s opponent are fundamentally at odds, however – consider again the charge that Signal wants to debate people whose very right to existence he is denying – it seems impossible to make any real progress.

As Livingstone notes, there is a persistent culture of those who call for debate and, when this call is inevitably ignored, cry that one’s opponents somehow fail to meet some standard of civil discourse. The thought is that refusing to engage with an opponent in civil discourse, then, is a sign of cowardice, or that one is secretly worried that one’s views are false or will not hold up to scrutiny. But of course this is hardly what has to be the case: dismissing or putting an end to a discussion that fails to be productive is not a tacit admittance of defeat or insecurity in one’s views. Instead, if there does not seem like there will be any progress made because the discussion is not productive, refusing to engage or ending it might be the best course of action.

The assumption that there can be some kind of neutral ground for debate, then, will already make demands on one’s opponent when their values are fundamentally different from one’s own. Again, if you are arguing that I should not have the right to exist it is difficult to see how we could reach any kind of midway point on which to have a discussion, or why I should be required to do this in the first place. Far from failing to meet a standard of civility, then, refusing to engage in what one takes to be civil discourse does not seem like any kind of failing when doing so would prove unproductive.

Should Instagram Remove Its Like System?

photograph of cappuccino with heart made with foam

We live in an era where we are at the mercy of the internet. Social media gives users the power to share their life with the world. And in exchange for sharing their life, users are rewarded with likes. The act of liking something on social media, double tapping a photo or thumbs-upping a status, is a way for users to connect and interact with one another. When someone’s content is liked, it gives them digital agency. Multiple likes, those that allow users to go viral, indicate both digital agency and status. But what about the users who don’t get that many likes? In the social media realm, does their lack of likes devalue the life that they share online? Instagram is addressing this dilemma by considering removing likes from posts and videos. The photo sharing app ran a test in Canada last week and could consider making the change for the entire app. Should Instagram go forward with removing the like system…or leave things as they were?

They say that something shouldn’t be fixed if its not broken. And technically, nothing is wrong with the Instagram app itself. People connect on the app by sharing photos and their lives. They possess the freedom of expressing themselves.  People can travel the world just by logging in to the app. The issue that is being addressed is the digital currency that has been imbued in the like system and its effects on Instagram users. Instagram has been associated with anxiety, depression, low self-esteem, and bullying. Why is this? Perhaps it’s because what some people post–be it social media celebrities, other famous people, or even those in someone’s friend group. Users might feel low self-esteem when their friends post their new car that they got for college graduation or record every moment of that international spring break trip. Users who don’t have that new car or can’t go on the trip might feel inferior and feel FOMO (the fear of missing out), especially if their own posts are getting only 10 to 20 likes. But this idea could be the whole reason to why Instagram is considering removing the likes system. Some users seem to be treating Instagram like a competition–seeing who has the most likes; who has more social status. Treating Instagram in such a manner takes away from its core mission–to connect and to allow people to express themselves freely and creatively. If so many people are focused on likes and you remove all of that, all should be right with the world…right?

Removing the liking system from Instagram would affect users in others ways in addition to addressing issues of self-esteem and anxiety. Influencer marketing has had a big impact on Instagram. By 2020, it is on pace to become an $8 billion dollar industry. Per Lexie Carbon, a staff writer for Later.com, Instagram is the best performing platform for influencer partnerships with brands, for there is an average 3.21% engagement rate compared to the 1.5% engagement rate on other social media platforms. In addition, entire businesses are created on Instagram–clothing brands, photography companies, etc. For some influencers and companies on Instagram, the likes–the digital currency–translate into actual money. The success of brands is often based on likes because how many people engage with a brand indicates its status and therefore, it’s quality and success. If there is no liking system, how can brands and companies communicate to potential clients that they can do something for them that their competition cannot? Some people have based their entire paycheck and livelihood in Instagram. Without a like system, how would they make a living?

At the same time, removing a liking system might give an opportunity for smaller brands and smaller influencers to gain more exposure after being overshadowed by the pages with hundreds of thousands of followers. The same applies for users who feel depression because of other posts on Instagram. A non-liking system could give their page more exposure. But the users could also unfollow the pages that make them feel low self-esteem and the liking system could stay in place. So, should Instagram incorporate a system without likes? The pros and cons seem to meet at a stalemate. But the thing about the internet is that it’s always changing the status quo. There are constant updates and improvements. Bug fixes and concept changes. Instagram could test a system without likes and see the responses from users. If positive, the app could keep it and if not, they could change it. Either way, it’s an opportunity to alter how people interact, and at its core, that’s what social media is about.

Cancel Culture

close-up image of cancel icon

“Cancelled” is a term that millennials have been using in the past few years to describe people whose political or social status is controversial. Celebrities, politicians, one’s peers—even one’s own mother could be cancelled if someone willed it. If a person is labeled as cancelled, they are no longer supported morally or financially by the individuals who deemed them so. It’s a cultural boycott. But is cancelling really as simple as completely cutting someone off because of their beliefs or actions? The term itself—being cancelled—presents a larger argument. What does it accomplish? Is this “cancelling culture” something that can be beneficial or is it just a social media fad?

In 2018, rapper Kanye West not only endorsed the controversial President Donald Trump, but also said that slavery was a choice in an interview with TMZ. West received a ton of backlash from the black community and some people declared Kanye West cancelled and vowed to no longer listen to his music. On one hand, canceling Kanye West can be viewed as something positive depending on one’s political stance. It questions the impact that celebrities have in a political realm and it holds celebrities responsible for their actions by placing them under scrutiny on a viral scale. But at the same time, is Kanye West really cancelled? People still listen to his music. Even after his slavery comment, his most recent album debut at the top of the Billboard chart. West has also been hosting what is now known as Sunday Service, where West and a group of singers go into a remote location and perform some of his greatest hits. Social media has been loving it, so much that Sunday Service was brought to Coachella. It’s current sentiment about West that brings into question the impact of cancelling someone.

Can West be un-cancelled if he does something that most of social media enjoys? Is cancelling someone then just based off general reactions from social media? If one person declares an individual cancelled, does that mean everyone should consider them cancelled? The obvious answer would be no, but the act of “cancelling” almost works like the transitive property. If you don’t cancel someone that everyone else does, you yourself might risk being cancelled. Can cancelling be just another way to appear hip and knowledgeable–staying up on trends and the news but challenging those who create them? If so, cancelling could simply be interpreted as social media users wanting to stay relevant and maybe even go viral. If such a situation is the case, it would only take agency away from the act of cancelling.

Although cancel culture is heavily associated with celebrities, the hierarchy of who is cancelled can become a bit more complex. Per Billboard, it was revealed that Philip Anschutz, owner of entertainment conglomerate AEG, the company that overlooks Coachella, has supported anti-LGBTQ and anti-climate change foundations. Anschutz has also shown support to the Republican party. Coachella is one of the most highly coveted events to attend for millennials, and LGBTQ rights, climate change, and liberalism rank high in their agendas. When major news outlets first began writing about Anschutz and his support for anti-LGBTQ and anti-climate change foundations back in 2017, it was also revealed that Beyoncé would be headlining Coachella as well as popular rap artists such as Kendrick Lamar. Janelle Monáe, a popular hip-hop/R&B singer who identifies as queer, has also performed at Coachella. What do we make of this? Yes, Anschutz is “cancelled,” but is Coachella? Some vowed to no longer support Coachella after learning of the foundations that Anschutz supported, but when tickets went on for sale after it was announced that Beyoncé would be headlining, they sold out in three hours. So… probably not. But is Janelle Monae “cancelled?” Kendrick Lamar? Is it even possible to “cancel” Beyoncé?

The benefits of cancelling Anschutz seem minimal when there is still mass support for Coachella. Perhaps in such a case, cancelling does seem like a social media fad because one could interpret cancelling Anschutz as a way of easing their own conscience. After all, individuals who support LGBTQ still go to Coachella. But again, cancelling could be a way for social media users to prevent themselves from being cancelled. Condemning controversial topics on social media might make one appear favorable and keep them from being shunned on social media. But maybe such an idea is a key to “cancelling” and its overall impact on the social sphere. Yes, cancelling can sometimes have a large impact in some instances. Public pressure on companies and celebrities can often influence their decisions. But sometimes, “cancelling” can be just some random social media users venting their frustration in the endless void that is the internet. Maybe once and awhile, their words go into the void and resound with another user and gain virality. But is Kanye West or whoever else is cancelled really seeing these cancelling posts? Some of them only have a few retweets, so they are unlikely to get too much traction. In addition, saying someone is cancelled can often be used a joke. The distinction, especially on social media, between a user being serious and being facetious can often be blurred. Therefore, it is difficult to ascertain the agency that cancel culture truly has. However, it does attest to the power of social media and the users who pump content into it.

The Ethics of Brand Humanization

close-up photo of Wendy's logo

Brand humanization is becoming increasingly common in all arenas of advertisement, but it’s perhaps the most noticeable on social media. This strategy is exactly what it sounds like; corporations create social media accounts to interact directly with customers, and try to make their brand seem as human and relatable as possible. It’s ultimately used to make companies more approachable, more customer-oriented. The official Twitter account for Wendy’s, for example, has amassed a massive audience of nearly three million followers. Much of their popularity has to do with their willingness to interact with customers, like when the account famously roasted other Twitter users, or when they post memes to reach out to a younger demographic. The goal is to make the brand itself feel like a real person, to remind the consumer of the human being on the other end of the interaction.

In an article advising brands how to humanize themselves in the eyes of consumers, Meghan M. Biro, a marketing strategist and regular contributor to Forbes, describes how a presence on social media allows companies,

“to build emotional connections with their customers, to become a part of their lives, both in their homes and—done right—in their hearts. The heart of this is ongoing, online dialogue. Both parties benefit. The customer’s idiosyncratic (and sometimes maddening) needs and wants can be met. The company gets increased sales, of course, but also instant feedback on its products—every online chat has the potential to yield an actionable nugget of knowledge.”

The tactic of presenting ads as a mutually beneficial conversation between consumer and brand has become increasingly prominent in recent years. Studies have shown that millenials hate being advertised to, so companies are adopting strategies like the one Biro recommends to restructure the consumer-company interaction in a way that feels less manipulative. However, not everyone believes this new arrangement is truly mutually beneficial. In an article for The New Inquiry, Kate Losse takes a critical view of conversational advertising. “The corporation,” she notes, “while needing nothing emotional from us, still wants something: our attention, our loyalty, our love for its #brand, which it can by definition never return, either for us individually or for us as a class of persons. Corporations are not persons; they live above persons, with rights and profits superseding us.” On the subject of using memes as marketing, she says, “The most we can get from the brand is the minor personal branding thrill of retweeting a corporation’s particularly well-mixed on-meme tweet to show that we ‘get’ both the meme and the corporation’s remix of it.” In this sense, the back-and-forth conversational approach is much more one-sided than it seems.

There is, however, a difference between traditional marketing strategies and the tactics employed by social media accounts to gain popularity. If you follow Wendy’s on Twitter, it’s because you choose to follow them, because you want to see their content on your feed. For those who don’t want to be directly advertised to, it’s as simple as not following (or if you want to be more thorough, blocking) corporate Twitter accounts. Responding to transparent advertising with a sarcastic meme, an increasingly common and often funny response to these kind of Tweets, only gives the brand more exposure online, so the best strategy is to not engage at all.

Furthermore, a 2015 study on brand humanization conducted by the Vrije University of Amsterdam provides another dimension to this issue. When studying the positive correlation between social media presence and a brand’s reputation, they wondered whether “the fact that exposure to corporate social media activity is, to a large degree, self-chosen raises the question whether these results reflect a positive effect of exposure on brand attitudes, or rather the reverse causal effect–that consumers who already have positive brand attitudes are more likely to choose to expose themselves to selected brand content.” No extensive studies have been done on this yet, but it might provide valuable insight on the actual impact of corporate Twitter accounts.

Using a Facebook page to take questions or criticism from consumers seems like a harmless and even productive approach to marketing through social media. Even corporate Twitter accounts posting memes, while not as beneficial to the consumer as companies like to present it as, is hardly unethical. But brand humanization can steer companies into murky moral waters when they try too hard to be relatable.

In December of 2018, the verified Twitter account for Steak-umm, an American frozen steak company, posted a tweet that produced significant backlash. The tweet reads, “why are so many young people flocking to brands on social media for love, guidance, and attention? I’ll tell you why. they’re isolated from real communities, working service jobs they hate while barely making ends meet, and are living w/ unchecked personal/mental health problems.” A similar tweet from February of 2019, posted by the beverage company Sunny-D, reads cryptically, “I can’t do this anymore.” Both of these messages demonstrate two things; firstly, the strategy employed by modern companies to speak to customers in the more humanizing first-person, to move away from the collective corporate “we” to the individual (and therefore more relatable) “I”. The voice of corporations has changed; once brands were desperate to come across as serious and professional, but now brands marketing to a twenty-something demographic want to sound cool and detached, and speak with the voice of an individual rather than a disembodied conglomerate of shareholders and executives.

Secondly, these brands are now appropriating and parroting millennial “depression culture”, which is often expressed through frustration at capitalism and its insidious effect on the individual. To quote Kate Losse again, “It isn’t enough for Denny’s [another prominent presence on the social media scene] to own the diners, it wants in on our alienation from power, capital, and adulthood too.” There is something invasive and inauthentic about this kind of marketing, and furthermore, something ethically troubling about serious issues being used as props to sell frozen food. The point of the Steak-umm tweet may be salient, but the moral implications of a corporate Twitter account appropriating social justice issues to gain attention left many uneasy. As John Paul Rollert, a professor of business and ethics at the University of Chicago, said in an interview with Vice, “It can’t say anything good about society when depressed people feel their best outlet is the Twitter account for Steak-umm.”

MAGA Hats, Nathan Phillips, & Journalism in the Social Media Age

photo of ABC "eyewitness news" news van

Social media inundates its users with information at a rapid rate. The intersection of seemingly boundless and immediate digital information with the expectations of traditional journalism poses some compelling ethical concerns such as whether journalists should be responding to news as quickly as it comes to them. The frenzy that was aroused from a brief video clip of a MAGA hat-wearing high school student and a Native American activist serves as a case-study of these concerns. That frenzy calmed, in part, because how the incident was originally portrayed was not entirely accurate. It is worth pondering if the inaccuracy was caused by the rapidity of information innate to our digital age.

In its original article, The New York Times described the setting of the video as: “a throng of cheering and jeering high school boys, predominantly white and wearing “Make America Great Again” gear, surrounding a Native American elder.” The reporter continues, explaining that the high schoolers in question were being investigated by their school, Covington Catholic High School, and could be subject to punishment by expulsion.

An effort was made to portray this video as being emblematic of the political division in the country:

The encounter became the latest touchpoint for racial tensions in America, particularly under Mr. Trump, who has painted immigrants in broad strokes as rapists and drug dealers and recently mocked Senator Elizabeth Warren with a reference to Wounded Knee and Little Bighorn, sacred ground for Native Americans whose ancestors fought and died there.”

This characterization arguably extends beyond the realm of objective reporting and flirts with editorializing. Some may argue that the article is simply situating the incident within a larger national context, attaching it to a larger issue to make its significance more clear. While this article, relying on incomplete information for its content, was never retracted, a clarificatory article was published the following day after a longer video became available, disproving early characterizations.

The New York Times was not alone in its haste to interpret the social significance of the video. Nearly all the major news sources did the same. Perhaps that is the effect of an era dominated by social media in which there is a free-flowing abundance of information. The major traditional news sources must compete not simply with each other but also with this waterfall of events and happenings to remain relevant. They are forced to respond to news as it occurs because everyone is receiving the information at the same time.

There are two issues of note: firstly, should journalists be taking a stand on newsworthy incidents? In other words, should they offer their opinion on events and should they be the ones to grant import or assign value to such events? And secondly, should journalists be responding so rapidly to the information they receive? There may be public value to having a detached fourth estate in society – one that is not only independent from ideology and does not advance political interests, but also refrains from offering “hot takes” on events as they occur. And there may be long-term value in allowing things to settle before attempting to make sense of them. The answer to both of these questions lies in what ethical obligations journalists ought to adhere to.

The Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics provides a comprehensive list of objectives that the ideal journalist should meet. Of course, the SPJ’s code of ethics is not the end-all, be-all of ethically appropriate behavior, but it does provide a useful touchstone by which we can judge news stories. The maxims most relevant to the encounter between Nick Sandmann and Nathan Phillips are included below:

Provide context. Take special care not to misrepresent or oversimplify in promoting, previewing or summarizing a story…

Support the open and civil exchange of views, even views they find repugnant...

Avoid stereotyping. Journalists should examine the ways their values and experiences may shape their reporting

Label advocacy and commentary...

Consider the long-term implications of the extended reach and permanence of publication. Provide updated and more complete information as appropriate…

According to the first maxim, The New York Times was well-within its ethical bounds to provide a larger context for the story. Although, the reporter (and numerous others) did so without complete information, which led to a misrepresentation of the incident.

The second, third, and fourth maxims relate to the question of subjectivity in journalism.

The misrepresentation of events by news outlets has greater significance today not only because political tensions are at their height, but also because of how quickly an incorrect portrayal can spread throughout the internet. Those two factors resulted in strong reactions. Nick Sandmann claims that he was subjected to cyberbullying and received death threats and is suing the The Washington Post for their alleged role in stoking the reaction. It would not be preposterous to suggest that the media’s portrayal was responsible for such a negative reaction to the incident.

Perhaps the journalists failed to follow the ethical dictums that inform objective journalism. Or maybe the age of social media has rendered those dictums irrelevant and in need of revision. Either way, a nation quickly formed an opinion based on an erroneous portrayal at a moment in its history when political friction sparks violence.

What Does It Mean to Be an Ally?

Photograph of protesters holding "Stop Police Brutality" banner

Despite the social progress the United States has made, it still has many shortcomings. Amidst its many flaws, race is always one that persists–specifically regarding the treatment of black people. As long as black people are judged and disenfranchised because of the color of their skin, race will remained unresolved in the United States–a mass of prejudice, discrimination, and injustice that dates back centuries. But there is some progress that has been made and some racial tension in the country has been assuaged. After all, white Americans have showed their support for black people as they struggled with police brutality, the killings of black men, and the Black Lives Matter movement. But is the support shown enough? The term ally has often been used when referring to an individual who supports a marginalized group of people. Regarding the injustices done to African Americans, many white people have declared themselves avid supporters in their struggle. What form does this support come in and to what extent? What does it really mean to be an ally?

A year ago, DePauw University invited actress Jenna Fischer to speak as an Ubben Lecturer, serving as part of the Ubben Lecture series where notable public figures are invited to campus to interact with students and give a public address. Only about a week or two prior to Fischer’s arrival, a series of racially charged incidents occurred on DePauw’s campus. Racial slurs had been written on campus bathrooms and some large stones in DePauw’s nature park had been rearranged to spell out the n-word. Students of color on campus were infuriated and felt as if the campus administration was not doing enough to ensure the safety of students of color. The campus was filled with racial tension, and it finally erupted during Fischer’s lecture. In the middle of her address, one by one, students of color began standing up and declaring “we are not safe.” Eventually, the whole auditorium was filled with “we are not safe” chants. The protest left campus on high alert as tension between students rose. The protest also brought media coverage, with black students standing at the forefront.

Not too long after the Ubben Lecture protest, white students on DePauw’s campus began to show their support for students of color by taking to social media. All across Instagram and Facebook, white students declared that they stood in solidarity with students of color. On a tree in the middle of campus, white students also made a sign declaring that they stood with students of color. But even as white students expressed their support, was it enough? Did their actions embody allyship? Heather Cronk, co-director of Showing Up for Racial Justice, a network of activists that organizes white people to fight racial injustice, stresses that allyship, in terms of supporting black people, needs to consist of trusting black leadership to direct white allies in ways that are helpful to the movement. Cronk goes on to explain that allyship also means building deep relationships with black people and other people of color. The willingness to discuss controversial topics such as police brutality and educate oneself are other integral components to allyship as well. Simply being a physical presence also represents allyship. In photos of Black Lives Matter protests, white people can be seen marching with their black counterparts holding up the Black Lives Matter banner.

With allyship in regards to the Black Lives Matter movement in mind, did white students on DePauw’s campus really demonstrate allyship? Taking to social media and posting something on one’s Instagram story and hanging a banner in the middle of campus can have meaning and influence, but the extent of that meaning and influence is questionable. When people post to their Instagram and Facebook stories, they last for 24 hours and then disappear. It is likely that both the people who viewed the story and even the person who posted the content eventually forgets about it. Did the same situation happen when white students at DePauw posted about standing in solidarity with students of color? The social media posts are a form of support, but it could be argued that the white students who made them were simply trying to deflect any criticism from themselves. Perhaps the question of allyship comes down to the old saying “actions speak louder than words.” It’s so easy to declare one’s support, but how does one demonstrate it? What if the same white students on DePauw’s campus who declared their allyship passively watch as their friends use racial slurs and disregard the struggle of students of color? What if the same white students who showed support to students of color don’t understand the importance of recognizing the difference between Black Lives Matter and All Lives Matter? Is that still allyship?

If more white students on DePauw’s campus stood in black spaces and were willing to have tough conversations with students of color, would that be enough? Possibly. But the support that white students demonstrated through social media and the use of the banner cannot be ignored. Regardless of what the true definition of allyship is, perhaps it can be agreed that in order for racial issues to be resolved in the United States, black and white bodies must come together.

Pinterest’s Block on Anti-Vaccination Content

Photograph of hands of a scientist, under a sterile hood, preparing a vaccine

Pinterest, the good-natured social media site where users re-pin new ideas and things to try, has made recent headlines for their stance against anti-vaccination propaganda. In fall 2018, Pinterest quietly removed results to vaccination-related questions from the search bar.  Now, when you type “vaccine” or “anti-vax,” a pop-up will relay that there is no related content and will provide a link to the community guidelines. Reported first by the Wall Street Journal, Pinterest finally disclosed their choice to censor the questionable health claims made by anti-vaccination groups.

Pinterest’s decision to block vaccines in their search domain was widely based on the fact that the site had become a hub for anti-vaccination activists. These groups aim to educate parents regarding the dangers of vaccinations but with theories that are unsupported by peer-reviewed, scientific research. The tactics used are typically fear-inducing photographs or stories about harm to children caused by vaccinations without any scientific proof. The groups claim to offer parents the “most transparency” but also don’t mention the dangers of not vaccinating. Pinterest’s response aimed to discontinue the spread of misinformation and falsehoods on their website.

When it comes to vaccines, the spread of misinformation could have a devastating impact on individuals and the society. There has been an increase in confusion and mistrust among the public when it comes to vaccines in general. One of the most noteworthy fear-causing publications was by the doctor Andrew Wakesfield, who suggested a connection between the measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) vaccine and the development of autism in young children. Although deemed fraudulent, it is considered the beginning of the anti-vaccination movement. This movement is equally seen in the cases of influenza in America. Last year during the 2017-2018 season, there was a record-breaking number of hospitalizations and deaths among children in the US with less than half of Americans receiving the flu shot. It is because of these that World Health Organization (WHO) has recently listed the anti-vaccine movement a top health threat for 2019. When Pinterest decided to curtail vaccine-related content on their site public, it raised the question; should social media censor for misinformation?

Pinterest’s new policy stems from the fear that misinformation can have “detrimental effects on a pinner’s health or on public safety.” The guidelines officially state that the website bans the “promotion of false cures for terminal or chronic illnesses and anti-vaccination advice.” A report found in 2016 claimed that 75 percent of posts on Pinterest referring to vaccines were negative. In addition, other studies have found that 80 percent of mothers and 38 percent of fathers in the US have used Pinterest. It is likely that mothers and fathers, looking for advice regarding their children’s heath, ran across posts on Pinterest with anti-vaccination rhetoric. One could argue that media sites have an obligation to censor this kind of propaganda for public health and safety reasons. On the other hand, even well-intentioned censorship threatens to intrude on our rights protecting free speech (also discussed in this Prindle Post article about the case of Alex Jones).

With a website that is used by mothers and fathers, restricting these groups’ ability to voice their concerns or opinions could be seen as a commentary on parenting styles. Vaccine hesitancy is often caused from worries about side effects, cost, moral or religious obligations, or lack of knowledge about immunizations. There is value in the autonomy that parents have in choosing whether or not to vaccinate their children because they have the right to make medical decisions focused around their own values. In addition, who is to say whose opinion is more valid regarding vaccinations? Who’s to say which opinions deserve censure? Pinterest approached this issue in banning all vaccine-related information, reputable or not. This absolute censorship, while avoiding the bias of what is considered a reputable source, could also be seen as problematic. It is taking the opportunity away from readers to decide for themselves what sources they think are credible or not and through Pinterest they cannot be educated on the subject to any extent. A spokesperson from Pinterest, Jamie Favazza says, “Right now, blocking results in search is a temporary solution to prevent people from encountering harmful misinformation.”

Vaccine misinformation isn’t only a Pinterest problem; other social media outlets like YouTube and Twitter have been infiltrated by vaccination misinformation as well. YouTube’s policy doesn’t allow ads for anti-vaccine videos. Twitter has no specific policy on the matter. A spokesperson for Twitter, Katie Rosborough, said that “We, as a company, should not be the arbiter of truth,” and also added that, “the company was working to surface the highest-quality and most relevant content first.”

Social media represents an open platform for people to voice interests and create spaces that unite beliefs. But should some spaces not exist and should some beliefs not be circulated? In the case of anti-vaccine movement, people continue to adhere to their beliefs which further energizes the movement and polarizes the theories. With our ever-growing reliance on social media for information, social media outlets have a reason to worry about the ramifications of their content, especially in influencing user’s decisions about their health.

On Tumblr, Adult Content is Banned – For Good?

Photo of a man speaking into a microphone, standing in front of a screen displaying a tumblr dashboard

In early December, blogging platform Tumblr announced that it would be banning adult content from its site starting mid-month. In a post explaining the decision, CEO Jeff D’Onofrio stated that removing such content would better allow Tumblr to be a “safe place for creative expression [and] self-discovery” and would result in “a place where more people feel comfortable expressing themselves.” D’Onofrio explained further that while he recognized that many users sought out Tumblr as a source of adult content, that “[t]here are no shortage of sites on the internet” that users could turn to. The content to be removed includes “images, videos, or GIFs that show real-life human genitals or female-presenting nipples—this includes content that is so photorealistic that it could be mistaken for featuring real-life humans (nice try, though)” although “certain types of artistic, educational, newsworthy, or political content featuring nudity” will be allowed to stay.

While creating safe places for expression and self-discovery are laudable goals, if a bit vague, recent problems with the platform are perhaps a better explanations of Tumblr’s decision. Notably, the fact that the Tumblr app was recently removed from the iOS App Store, ostensibly for the reason that Tumblr was not doing enough to ensure that illegal content – specifically in the form of child pornography – was being filtered out. Whether Tumblr’s decision to ban all adult content was based on genuine moral concern or simply concern for the bottom-line (it would no doubt be a major blow to Tumblr to be removed from the iOS store permanently), many online have speculated that the ban will spell the death of the platform. As Motherboard discovered, approximately a significant percentage of Tumblr blogs were based around providing adult content, with an even more significant percentage of users seeking out that content.

It is clear that Tumblr has a moral obligation to do as much as they can in order to prevent harmful material like child pornography from appearing on their platform. It also seems clear that Tumblr has, up until this point, failed to meet said obligation. The move to ban all adult content, then, might seem to be the straightforwardly right way to attempt to amend for their past transgressions, as well as to prevent further such harms in the future. And indeed, it may very well be the case that, overall, Tumblr’s ban on adult content will result in the prevention of many further harms (especially given many of the problems inherent to the type of pornography that tends to be propagated online).

Nevertheless, there has been a good amount of negative response to Tumblr’s decision, as well. In general, people appear to be expressing three main types of worries. The first is that Tumblr’s new filters are bad at distinguishing the kind of content they want to ban from content that they have deemed inoffensive, and thus that an attempted universal ban on adult content will potentially stifle legitimate creative expression; second, that Tumblr is being hypocritical in banning of adult content but not, for example, taking strides to address other problems on its platform, especially those involving hate speech; and third, that the ban on adult content disproportionately affects users from marginalized groups.

With regards to the first worry, many Tumblr users have already noticed that their filters are not great at separating inappropriate from appropriate content. As The Guardian reports, Tumblr has already flagged as inappropriate images of fully-clothed historical figures, artists, and ballet dancers, as well as a painting of Jesus in a loincloth. If Tumblr is meant to be a site that encourages self-expression, stifling said expression as a result of bad programming does not seem to be the best way to achieve this goal.

The second concern pertains to Tumblr’s policies generally about what kind of content is deemed acceptable on the platform. As The Washington Post reports, while searches involving sexually explicit terms on Tumblr gave no results, “racist and white supremacist content, including Nazi propaganda, was easily surfaced”, despite the fact that such posts violate Tumblr’s policies surrounding hate speech. It seems that just as Tumblr has an obligation to attempt to prevent illegal pornographic content, it similarly has obligations with respect to preventing users from promoting hate speech. It seems hypocritical, however, to focus only on one type of content and not another, especially given the widespread harms that can result from the dissemination of the type of racist and white supremacist content that is easily searchable on the platform.

The final worry pertains to the way that Tumblr’s new ban, combined with inefficient filtering technology, could potentially impact members of marginalized communities. Writing for BBC News, David Lee argues that,

“Unlike typical pornography sites, which overwhelmingly cater to men, and serve an often narrow definition of what is attractive, Tumblr has been a home for something else – content tailored at vibrant LGBT communities, or for those with tastes you might not necessarily share with all your friends.”

In a post on his blog, actor Wil Wheaton concurs:

“The reality is that for a lot of the LGTBQ+ community, particularly younger members still discovering themselves and members in extremely homophobic environments where most media sites were banned (but Tumblr wasn’t even considered important enough to be), this was a bastion of information and self-expression.”

Wheaton supported his view by performing an experiment, one in which he posted a series of images of “beautiful men kissing” on Tumblr. The post was flagged by as inappropriate, despite the images not being pornographic or in any clear violation of Tumblr’s newly stated policies. Wheaton laments that “it’s ludicrous and insulting that – especially in 2018 – this is flagged, either by some sort of badly-designed algorithm, or by shitty homophobic people”. Finally, Kaila Hale-Stern writing at The Mary Sue, argues that

“What D’Onofrio and his corporate overlords at Verizon’s Oath [who own Tumblr] don’t understand—or don’t care about—is that this sort of adult content is frequently generated by women, marginalized people, and all sorts of creatives struggling in our vicious ‘gig economy.’ They’re going to be hurt the most by the ban.”

Aside from stifling self-expression, then, Hale-Stern points to a more tangible harm in the form of creators of adult content losing their livelihoods as a result of Tumblr’s new ban.

What initially appeared as a seemingly straightforward fulfilment of Tumblr’s obligations to prevent harmful content from appearing on their platform is, on closer inspection, more complicated. As many have argued, there is perhaps room for a middle-ground: instead of issuing a universal ban on all adult content on the platform, Tumblr could have done a better job of implementing more effective algorithms to detect and filter out offensive content without removing the means for self-expression and livelihoods of many users (better filtering could also, hopefully, address concerns about hate speech, as well).

How Much Should We Really Use Social Media?

Photograph of a person holding a smartphone with Instagram showing on the screen

Today, we live in a digital era. Modern technology has drastically changed how we go about our everyday lives. It has changed how we learn, for we can retrieve almost any information instantaneously. Even teachers can engage with students through the internet. Money is exchanged digitally. Technology has also changed how we are entertained, for we watch what we want on our phones. But perhaps one of the most popular and equally controversial changes that modern technology has brought to society is how we communicate. Social media. We live in an era where likes and retweets reign supreme. People document their every thought using platforms such as Facebook and Twitter. They share every aspect of their lives through platforms like Instagram. Social media acts as way to connect people who never would have connected without it, but the effects of social media can also be negative. Based on all the controversy that surrounds social media, should we be using it as often as we do?

If you were to walk down the street, or go wait in line at a restaurant, or go to a sporting event, or go anywhere, you’d most likely see people on their phones. They’re scrolling through various social media platforms or sharing the most recent funny dog video. And this phenomenon is happening everywhere and all the time. Per Jessica Brown, a staff writer for BBC, three billion people, which is around 40 percent of the world’s population, use social media. Brown went on to explain that we spend an average of two hours per day on social media, which translates to half a million pieces of content shared every minute. How does this constant engagement with social media affect us?

According to Amanda Macmillan of Time Magazine, in a survey that aimed to gauge the effect that social media platforms had on mental health, results showed that Instagram performed the worst. Per Macmillan, the social media platform was associated with high levels of anxiety, depression, bullying, and other negative symptoms. Other social media platforms, but Instagram especially, can cause FOMO, or the “fear of missing out.” Users will scroll through their feed and see their friends having fun that they cannot experience. For women users, there is the pressure of an unrealistic body images. Based on the survey that ranked social media platforms and their effect on users, one participant explained that Instagram makes girls and women feel that their bodies aren’t good enough because other users add filters and alter their pictures to look “perfect,” or the ideal image of beauty. The manipulation of images on Instagram can cause users to feel low self-esteem, anxiety, and feel insecure about themselves overall. The negativity that users feel because of what others post can create a toxic environment. Would the same effects be happening if people spent less time on social media? If so, maybe users need to take a hard look at how much time they are spending. Or social media platforms could monitor the content that is being posted more to prevent some of the mental effects that some users are getting from social media usage.

Although Instagram can cause have adverse effects on mental health, it can create a positive environment for self-identity and self expression. It can be a place of community building support as well. However, such positive outcomes from social media must be a result of all users cooperating and working to make the digital space a positive environment. Based on the survey of social media platforms, though, this does not seem to be the case and currently, the pros of social media platforms like Instagram seem to be far outweighed by the cons.

Although Facebook and Twitter were ranked higher than Instagram in terms of negatively affecting the mental health of users, they can still have adverse effects as well. In a survey of 1,800 people, women were found to be more stressed than men and a large factor to their stress was Twitter. However, it was also found that the more women used Twitter, the less stressed they became. It’s likely that Twitter acting as both a stressor and a coping mechanism comes from the type of content that women were interacting with. In another survey, researchers found that participants reported lower moods after using Facebook for twenty minutes compared to those who just browsed the internet. But the weather that was occurring that day (i.e rainy, sunny) could have also been a factor in the user’s mood.

Although social media seems to only have adverse effects on the mental health of its users, social media is a great way to connect with others. It can act as a cultural bridge, bringing people from all across the globe together. It’s way to share content that can be positive and unite people with similar beliefs. With the positives and negatives in mind, should we change how much we are using social media? Or at least try to regulate? People could take it upon themselves to simply try and stay off social media sites, although with the digital age that we live in, that might be a hard feat to pull off. After all, too much of a good thing can be a bad thing, as demonstrated from the surveys on social media. But perhaps we should be looking at the way that we are using social media rather than the time we spend on it. If users share positive content and strive to create a positive online presence and community, other users might not deal with the mental health issues that arise after usage of social media. But then again, people should be free to post whatever content they want. At the end of the day, users have their own agenda for how they manage their social media. So perhaps it’s dependent on every individual to look at their own health and their social media usage, and regulate it based on what they see in themselves.

The Dangers and Ethics of Social Media Censorship

"Alex Jones" by Sean P. Anderson licensed under CC BY 2.0 (via Flickr).

Alex Jones was removed from Youtube and other major social networks for repeatedly violating the site’s community guidelines. Among other things, Youtube’s community guidelines prohibit nudity or sexual content, harmful or dangerous content, violent or graphic content, and most relevant to this situation, hateful content and harassment. While the site describes its products as “platforms for free expression,” it also states in the same policy section that it does not permit hate speech. How both can be true simultaneously is not entirely clear to me.

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Should We Romanticize the Dead?

"John McCain with supporters" by Gage Skidmore liscensed under CC BY 2.0

It seems as if it is human nature to disagree– to go against that which one doesn’t believe in. Often disagreements between people can elicit hostility from either side, causing individuals to simply dislike one another or purely hate each other. But what happens when one side dies? Does the living side rejoice in their opposition’s death or take the time to appreciate the life they lived? It’s almost as if choosing to decide is a decision between the lesser of two evils, for rejoicing in someone’s death is immoral, and relishing in their life seems hypocritical. To oscillate between these two choices raises the question: should we romanticize the dead?

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Facebook and the Rohingya Genocide

Photograph of a long line of people in a refugee camp

The Rohingya are a mixed ethno-religious group that have lived in Myanmar’s Rakhine province for centuries. The Rohingya are mostly Muslim, though a minority of Hindus exist among their number. Both religious identities are vastly outnumbered by the 88% Buddhist population of Myanmar. Despite their long residence in the area, the Rohingya are not among the eight major ethnic groups recognized by the government. Instead, the Burmese government has systematically worked to strip the Rohingya of citizenship, characterizing them as ethnic and religious outsiders, chiefly referred to as “Bengalis.”

Stringent restrictions on mobility, employment, and eventually voting rights left the now-stateless Rohingya completely disenfranchised over a period of decades, leading them to be labeled “the most persecuted people in the world.” Amnesty International and Desmond Tutu described the Burmese treatment of the Rohingya as apartheid.

In 2016, men with knives and sharpened sticks attacked police outposts on the Burmese and Bangladesh borders, killing a handful of officers. The Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) claimed responsibility for these attacks as protest against the harms suffered by the Rohingya. The Burmese military retaliated with a full-scale pogrom against the Rohingya, culminating in the present day.

The military instantiated a reign of terror, using murder, rape, and torture against this already battered people. 392 villages were partially or wholly destroyed, while an estimated 10,000 Rohingya deaths are considered to be a conservative estimate of the bloodshed. 723,000 of the Rohingya (according to the UN’s count) have fled to neighboring countries.

Recent UN reports found evidence of a concerted, premeditated effort on the part of Burmese generals to engage in ethnic cleansing. Aung San Suu Kyi, leader of Myanmar and 1991 Nobel Peace Prize winner who herself once suffered at the hands of the Burmese military, has long ignored or denied atrocities against the Rohingya, eliciting international censure. Buddhists monks like Ashin Wirathu, though idealized in the Western imagination as the Platonic realization of the pacifist, play a significant role in advocating violence against Muslims in the name of Buddhist nationalism.

In this systematic decimation of the Rohingya, Burmese authorities found help from a surprising quarter: Facebook. The UN ascribed a fundamental role to Facebook for the dissemination of hate and disinformation. For most people in Myanmar, Facebook is the only source of information. It was thus easy for military generals to deploy Facebook as a covert propaganda tool. Their efforts reached 12 million users (a large chunk of the national population of 51 million). Recently, in response to intense international scrutiny, Facebook finally announced that it was removing the accounts of twenty military individuals and organizations, provoking a greater outcry among the Burmese than the Rohingya genocide itself.

Facebook hate speech throughout the Burmese ethnic cleansing was not just a concerted military operation. It flourished among political parties in Myanmar. An analysis by Buzzfeed News found that, of four thousand posts by Burmese politicians, one in ten contained hate speech that violated Facebook’s community standards. Examples included “othering” comments comparing Rohingya to animals, misogynistic statements against Muslim women saying that they were “too ugly to rape,” claims that the Rohingya faked their tragedies and that Muslims were seeking to out-populate Buddhists, and direct threats of bloodshed. After months of inaction, when confronted by a Buzzfeed representative, Facebook finally began to take some of these posts down.

It is surprising that, in the words of writer Casey Newton, it took “a genocide to remove someone from Facebook.” It is slightly less surprising in light of Facebook’s policies and track record on dealing with hate speech on scales less than genocide. Through numerous shared user experiences, we see a picture forming of Facebook’s extraordinarily crude application of their officially “neutral” policy. Within the less extreme North American context, women regularly get suspended by Facebook administrators for calling out men who threaten them with rape and violence (while their harassers suffer no consequences). Meanwhile, black children are not a protected group, although white men are. Danielle Citron, law professor at the University of Maryland and expert on information privacy, notes that Facebook’s context-blind algorithms purporting to curb hate speech ultimately serve to “protect the people who least need it and take it away from those who really need it.”

Facebook possess the resources to hire experts on best practices in regulating hate speech and propaganda, even in highly volatile contexts. And yet, the social media platform falls wide of the mark in confronting hate speech, harassment, and disinformation even in stable democracies. What is holding them back?

Facebook’s culpable vulnerabilities to becoming a propaganda machine and fuel for unsavory regimes will continue unless civil society devises clear norms to demand of it and other social media platforms. We must work to translate social, scientific, and political knowledge about how hate and violence are generated in local contexts. We must also establish minimum standards for internal oversight on social media so that plausible deniability on the part of corporations can no longer be an option. Facebook is a reminder that corporations are not guided by the advancement of humankind but by markets and users. Being indifferent to outcomes, their platforms can nurture community building, the spread of knowledge, and skill-building, or they can foster intense group identification, disinformation, hatred, and government propaganda. As Facebook is currently the global giant of social media, synonymous with the Internet itself in Myanmar, it is up to us as members of the international community to hold them accountable with other players in this tragedy.


This article has a set of discussion questions tailored for classroom use. Click here to download them. To see a full list of our discussion questions, check out the Educational Resources page.

What’s the Story with Fake News?

Photograph of Donald Trump speaking into a microphone

Every day U.S. President Donald Trump calls “fake news” on particular stories or whole sections of the media that he doesn’t like. At the same time there has been a growing understanding, inside and outside the U.S., that “fake news”, that is to say fabricated news, has in recent years had an effect on democratic processes. There is of course a clear difference between these two uses of the term, but they come together in signifying a worrying development in the relations of public discourse to verifiable truth.

Taking the fabricated stories first – what might be called “real fake news” as opposed to Trump’s “fake fake news” (to which we shall return) – an inquiry concluded by the UK parliament in recent weeks that sheds further light on the connections between lies and disinformation, social media, and hindrance of transparent democratic processes makes sobering reading.

On July 24 the British House of Commons Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) Committee released its report on ‘disinformation and fake news’. What began as a modest inquiry into recent developments and trends in digital media “delved increasingly into the political use of social media” and grew in scope to become the most detailed look yet to be published by a government body at the use of disinformation and fake news.

The report states that

“…without the knowledge of most politicians and election regulators across the world, not to mention the wider public, a small group of individuals and businesses had been influencing elections across different jurisdictions in recent years.”

Big Technology companies, especially social media companies like Facebook, gather information on users to create psychographic profiles which can be passed on (sold) to third parties and used to target advertising or fabricated news stories tailored to appeal to that individual’s beliefs, ideologies and prejudices in order to influence their behavior. This is a form of psychological manipulation in which “fake news” has been used with the aim of swaying election results. Indeed, the DCMS committee thinks it has helped sway the Brexit vote. Other research suggests it helped to elect Donald Trump in the 2016 U.S. presidential Election.

The report finds that

“…urgent action needs to be taken by the Government and other regulatory agencies to build resilience against misinformation and disinformation into our democratic system. Our democracy is at risk, and now is the time to act, to protect our shared values and the integrity of our democratic institutions.”

It’s not easy to define what “fake news” is. The term is broad enough to include lies, misinformation, conspiracy theories, satire, rumour or stories that are simply wrong. All these categories of falsehood have been around a long time and may not necessarily be malicious. The epistemic assumption that the problem with fake or misleading news is that it is untrue is not always warranted.

Given that information can be mistaken yet believed and shared in good faith, an evaluation of the epistemic failings of false information should perhaps be judged on criteria that include the function or intention of the falsehood and also what is at stake for the intended recipient as well as the purveyor of misinformation. In other words, the definition of fake news should include an understanding of its being maliciously produced with the intention to mislead people for a particular end. That is substantively different from dissenting opinions or information that is wrong, if disseminated or published in good faith.

The DCMS report recommended dropping the term “fake news” altogether and adopting the terms ‘misinformation’ and/or ‘disinformation’. A reason for this recommendation is that “the term has taken on a variety of meanings, including a description of any statement that is not liked or agreed with by the reader.”

The ethical dimensions of fake news seem relatively uncomplicated. Though it is sometimes possible to make a moral case for lying – perhaps to protect someone from harm, for fake news there is no such case to be made, and there is little doubt that its propagators have no such reasoning in mind. We don’t in general want to be lied to because we value truth as a good in itself; we generally feel it is better for us to know the truth, even if it is painful, than not to know it.

The thorny ethical problems arise around the question of what, if anything, fake news has to do with freedom of speech and freedom of press when calls for regulation are on the table. One of the greatest justifications for free speech was put forward by the liberal philosopher John Stuart Mill. Mill thought that suppression of error (by a government) could never rule out accidental (or even deliberate) suppression of truth because we are not epistemically infallible. The history of knowledge is, after all, a history of having very often to correct grave and, sometimes, ludicrous error. Mill convincingly argued that unrestricted discussion allowed truth to flourish. He thought that a “clearer perception and livelier impression of truth [is] produced by its collision with error.”

However, on closer consideration, free speech may not really be what is at stake. Mill’s defense of free press (free opinion) ends where ‘in good faith’ ends, and fake news, as wielded by partisan groups on platforms like Facebook, is certainly not in good faith. Mill’s defense of free and open discussion does not include fake news and deliberate disinformation, which is detrimental to the kind of open discussion Mill had in mind, because rather than promote constructive conversation it is designed to shut conversation down.

Freedoms are always mitigated by harms: my freedom to swing my fist around ends where your nose begins. And the DCMS report is one of numerous recent findings that show the harms of fake news. Even if we grant that free speech doesn’t quite mean freedom to lie through one’s teeth (and press / media doesn’t quite mean Facebook) it still is not easy to come up with a regulatory solution. For one thing, regulations can themselves be open to abuse by governments – which is precisely the kind of thing Mill was at pains to prevent. The term “fake news” has already become a tool for political oppression in Egypt where “spreading false news” has been criminalized in a law under which dissidents and critics of the regime can be, and have already been, prosecuted.

Also, as we grapple with the harms caused by deliberate, targeted misinformation, the freedom of expression question dogs the discussion because social media is, by design, not a tightly controlled conversational space. It can be one of the internet’s great benefits that it has a higher degree of freedom than traditional media — even if that means a higher degree of error. Yet it is clear from the DCMS report that social media “platforms” such as Facebook are culpable, if not legally (since Facebook is at present responsible for the moderation of its own content), then ethically. The company failed to prevent use of its platform for targeted and malicious campaigns of misinformation, and failed to act once it was exposed.

Damian Collins, the Conservative MP for Folkestone and chair of the DCMS committee, spoke of “Facebook’s complete lack of moral responsibility”; the “disingenuous” responses from its executives, and its determination to “time and again… avoid answering… questions to the point of obfuscation”. Given that attention-extraction companies like Facebook are resistant to change because it is against their business model, democratic governments and regulators will have to consider what measures can be taken to mitigate the threats posed by social media in its role in targeted dissemination of misinformation and fake news.

At stake in the problem of fake news is the kind of conversational space necessary for a healthy functioning society. Yet the ‘”fake fake news” of President Donald Trump is arguably more insidious, and perhaps even harder to inoculate against. In what can only be described as an Orwellian twist in the story of fake news, Donald Trump throws the term at the mainstream media even as they report something much more answerable to epistemic standards of truth and fact than the fabricated stories propagated through social media or the transparent lies Trump himself so effortlessly dispenses.

Politicians have long had a reputation for demagoguery and spin, but Trump’s capacity to lie in the face of manifest reality (inauguration crowd size just for one obvious example) and to somehow ‘get away with it’ (at least to his supporters) is extraordinary, and signals a deep fissure in the relation between truth, trust, and civic discourse.

To paraphrase Australian philosopher Raimond Gaita: to deride the serious press as peddling fake news, to deride expertise that proves what justifiably can count as knowledge, is to undermine the conceptual and epistemic space that makes conversations between citizens possible.

J. S. Mill’s vision for a society in which, despite and sometimes through error, truth can be discovered, and where it has an epistemic priority in establishing trust as a foundation for a liberal, democratic life is lost in the contempt for knowledge and truth that is captured in the idiom of this “post-truth” era.

Both senses in which “fake news” is now pervading our civic conversational space threaten public discourse by endangering the very possibility of truth and fact being able to guide, ground and check public discourse. Big Technology and social media have no small part to play in these ills.

An epistemic erosion is underway in public discourse which undermines the conversational space – that space that Mill thought was so important for the functioning of a free society – which allows citizens to grapple with self-understanding and to progress towards more just and better forms of civic life.

Donald Trump and Twitter: A Turbulent Relationship, Here to Stay

An image of Donald Trump making a speech.

Many people across the United States have joked about Donald Trump’s Twitter. He is often brunt and open about his opinions regarding everything from foreign policy to his own political agenda. To the average American, Twitter is a place to get one’s thoughts out there and state opinions. However, Trump is not the average American. He is the President of the United States. Trump’s Twitter has become an immature platform for him to say essentially whatever he wants. Some of his tweets are harmless and ego-inflating. Yet, other tweets present danger to the United States as a whole.

 

On January 2, Donald Trump tweeted, “North Korean Leader Kim Jong Un just stated that the “Nuclear Button is on his desk at all times.” Will someone from his depleted and food starved regime please inform him that I too have a Nuclear Button, but it is a much bigger & more powerful one than his, and my Button works!” Despite the playful nature of the tweet, Donald Trump made a threat to use nuclear weapons on North Korea. At this time, North Korea has significantly developed its nuclear program and could eventually have the capability to send nuclear warheads as far as the continental US. Trump’s tweet seems to further destabilize an already unstable relationship.

 

Lawmakers, diplomats, and security experts alike have offered mixed opinions on the tweet and what it implies.Some have expressed their alarm and scorn at the immaturity and the danger of the president’s current approach to foreign policy with North Korea. That approach is characterized mainly by his tweets directed towards Kim Jong Un. In August  2017, a similar threat was made towards North Korea when Trump threatened to rain “fire and fury” down upon the country if it were to put the United States in any sort of danger. Eliot A. Cohen, former counselor to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice under President George W. Bush, said that he found the January tweet immature and dangerous for someone in such a position of power. He tweeted, “Spoken like a petulant ten-year-old. But one with nuclear weapons- for real- at his disposal. How responsible people around him, or supporting him, can dismiss this or laugh it off is beyond me.

Yet, Trump’s supporters and even some high level diplomats view the tweet positively as a message of strength. Ban Ki-moon, the former UN Secretary General called the tweets “a message from the international community.” In some ways, the tweet could be seen as a more aggressive tactic for relations with North Korea, as many presidents have seemed to take a passive role in response to the dictatorship.

Amidst the controversy surrounding Trump’s North Korea tweet (and many others), some have called for Twitter to ban Donald Trump. However, Twitter responded to the requests and said that they did not believe that it was beneficial to international discussions to ban political leaders from Twitter. In a way, banning public figures from Twitter silences them. So, in spite of the danger that Trump imposes by tweeting, his tweets are here to stay.

Despite the controversial tweets that spew from Donald Trump’s account daily, banning him from Twitter would be equally controversial. Twitter is right when it says that banning him would be silencing him. Like it or not, he is a powerful public figure and the President of the United States, and his opinions cannot be silenced. However offensive and dangerous his remarks may be, banning Donald Trump from Twitter would probably have negative implications.

The Ethics of Facebook’s Virtual Cemeteries

A photo of reporters taking pictures of the Facebook logo with their phones.

In May, Facebook reported hitting 1.94 billion users—a statistic that speaks to the tremendous popularity and influence of the social network.  As any Facebook user knows, members must take the good aspects of the technology with the bad.  The network can be a great place to reconnect with old friends, to make new ones, and to keep in touch with loved ones who live far away.  Unfortunately, conversations on Facebook also frequently end friendships. Facebook profiles and posts often tell us far more about people than may seem warranted by the intimacy level of our relationship with them.

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Telling Stories, Seeking Justice: The #MeToo Movement

"Women's March Austin-1" by Lauren Harnett liscensed under CC BY 2.0 (via Flickr)

When Tarana Burke served as a youth worker, she heard her “share of heartbreaking stories from broken homes to abusive or neglectful parents.” A little girl, Heaven, reached out to Burke to talk in private, relaying stories of “her mother’s boyfriend who was doing all sorts of monstrous things to her developing body.” Unable to handle the horror, Burke interrupted and directed the girl to a different counselor. Haunted by her response, Burked reflected, “as I cared about that child, I could not find the courage that she had found. I could not muster the energy to tell her that I understood, that I connected, that I could feel her pain.” Shocked and hurt by the rejection, Heaven walked away, and Burke remembers the moment: “I watched her put her mask back on and go back into the world like she was all alone and I couldn’t even bring myself to whisper…me too.”

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Social Media, Blasphemy, and Protecting People from Speech

The norms of communication on social media are evolving quickly. In the first death penalty case involving social media, a court in Pakistan has sentenced a man to death for blasphemy. Though Taimoor Raza still has appeals remaining that he can avail himself of, this verdict has come days after a college professor was refused bail on charges of blasphemy; the attitude of the state towards such online offenses seems clear.

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Facebook Live’s Violence Problem

On the evening of Easter Sunday, 74-year-old Pennsylvania resident Robert Godwin was enjoying a walk through his neighborhood after a holiday meal with his family when he was approached, at random, by self-described “monster” Steve Stephens.  Stephens, who was given the moniker “The Facebook Killer” by the media, blamed what was about to happen to Godwin on his broken relationship with his girlfriend, before shooting Godwin in the head, killing him instantly.  

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