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Fake News and the Future of Journalism

Oscar Martinez is an acclaimed Salvadoran journalist for El Faro, an online newspaper that dedicates itself to conducting investigative journalism in Central America, with a focus on issues like drug trafficking, corruption, immigration, and inequality.  In a recent interview for El Pais, Martinez explains that the only reason he is a journalist is because “sé que sirve para mejorar la vida de algunas personas y para joder la vida de otras: poderosos, corruptos” (“ I know it serves to, both,  improve the lives of some people and to ruin the lives of others: the powerful, the corrupt.”) Ascribing himself to further reflection, in the interview, Martinez distills journalism’s purpose as a “mechanism” to bring about change in society; however, he does raise a red flag: “El periodismo cambia las cosas a un ritmo completamente inmoral, completamente indecente. Pero no he descubierto otro mecanismo para incidir en la sociedad de la que soy parte que escribiendo” (“Journalism changes things at a completely immoral and indecent rate. But I haven’t found another way to incite the society that I am writing in to change”). Martinez’s work sheds light and lends a voice to the plight of millions of individuals, and it is important to acknowledge and admire the invaluable work that Martinez and his colleagues at El Faro do.

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Censorship on Social Media

It’s no secret that Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump has been known to write inflammatory posts on his social media platforms. Facebook employees have been questioning how to deal with these; some say that Trump’s posts calling for a ban on Muslim immigration “should be removed for violating the site’s rules on hate speech.” Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg definitively halted this talk when he said, “we can’t create a culture that says it cares about diversity and then excludes almost half the country because they back a political candidate.” A Wall Street Journal article uses this as a stepping stone to discuss whether or not presidential candidates should have more wiggle room when it comes to potentially damaging post than an average Joe. Regardless of who is posting, however, such incidents raise the question of, to what extent is it appropriate for social media platforms to censor posts at all?

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Has Your Newsfeed Hurt Your Mental Health?

Within the past few years, it has become even easier to put up videos on social media instantaneously. So many of those that go viral depict something violent, such as the many horrible instances of police brutality that have made the news this year alone. Though often shocking, disturbing, and tragic, these videos do serve as evidence in cases of violence, and sharing them on Facebook can help spread awareness against the crimes committed in them.

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Fighting Obscenity with Automation

When it comes to policing offensive content online, Facebook’s moderators often have their work cut out for them. With billions of users, filtering out offensive content ranging from pornographic images to videos promoting graphic violence and extremism is a never-ending task. And, for the most part, this job largely falls on teams of staffers who spend most of their days sifting through offensive content manually. The decisions of these staffers – which posts get deleted, which posts stay up – would be controversial in any case. Yet the politically charged context of content moderation in the digital age has left some users feeling censored over Facebook’s policies, sparking a debate on automated alternatives.

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Social Media Vigils and Mass Shootings

In the wake of the largest mass shooting in the United States to date, Facebook and other social media sites have been flooded with posts honoring the victims in Orlando. Many such posts include the faces of the victims, rainbow banners and “share if you’re praying for Orlando” posts. Although there is nothing particularly harmful about sharing encouraging thoughts through social media, opinions are surfacing that it might do more harm than good.

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Should You Have the Right to Be Forgotten?

In 2000, nearly 415 million people used the Internet. By July 1, 2016, that number is estimated to grow to nearly 3.425 billion. That is about 46% of the world’s population. Moreover, there are as of now about 1.04 billion websites on the world wide web. Maybe one of those websites contains something you would rather keep out of public view, perhaps some evidence of a youthful indiscretion or an embarrassing social media post. Not only do you have to worry about friends and family finding out, but now nearly half of the world’s population has near instant access to it, if they know how to find it. Wouldn’t it be great if you could just get Google to take those links down?

This question came up in a recent court case in the European Union in 2014. A man petitioned for the right to request that Google remove a link from their search results that contained an announcement of the forced sale of one of his properties, arising from old social security debts. Believing that since the sale had concluded years before and was no longer relevant, he wanted Google to remove the link from their search results. They refused. Eventually, the court sided with the petitioner, ruling that search engines must consider requests from individuals to remove links to pages that result from a search on their name. The decision recognized for the first time the “right to be forgotten.”

This right, legally speaking, now exists in Europe. Morally speaking, however, the debate is far from over. Many worry that the right to be forgotten threatens a dearly cherished right to free speech. I, however, think some accommodation of this right is justified on the basis of an appeal to the protection of individual autonomy.

First, what are rights good for? Human rights matter because their enforcement helps protect the free exercise of agency—something that everyone values if they value anything at all. Alan Gewirth points out that the aim of all human rights is “that each person have rational autonomy in the sense of being a self-controlling, self-developing agent who can relate to others person on a basis of mutual respect and cooperation.” Now, virtually every life goal we have requires the cooperation of others. We cannot build a successful career, start a family, or be good citizens without other people’s help. Since an exercise of agency that has no chance of success is, in effect, worthless, the effective enforcement of human rights entails that our opportunities to cooperate with others are not severely constrained.

Whether people want to cooperate depends on what they think of us. Do they think of us as trustworthy, for example? Here is where “the right to be forgotten” comes in. This right promotes personal control over access to personal information that may unfairly influence another person’s estimation of our worthiness for engaging in cooperative activities—say, in being hired for a job or qualifying for a mortgage.

No doubt, you might think, we have a responsibility to ignore irrelevant information about someone’s past when evaluating their worthiness for cooperation. “Forgive and forget” is, after all, a well-worn cliché. But do we need legal interventions? I think so. First, information on the internet is often decontextualized. We find disparate links reporting personal information in a piecemeal way. Rarely do we find sources that link these pieces of information together into a whole picture. Second, people do not generally behave as skeptical consumers of information. Consider the anchoring effect, a widely shared human tendency to attribute more relevance to the first piece of information we encounter than we objectively should. Combine these considerations with the fact that the internet has exponentially increased our access to personal information about others, and you have reason to suspect that we can no longer rely upon the moral integrity of others alone to disregard irrelevant personal information. We need legal protections.

This argument is not intended to be a conversation stopper, but rather an invitation to explore the moral and political questions that the implementation of such a right would raise. What standards should be used to determine if a request should be honored? Should search engines include explicit notices in their search results that a link has been removed, or should it appear as if the link never existed in the first place? Recognizing the right to be forgotten does not entail the rejection of the right to free speech, but it does entail that these rights need to be balanced in a thoughtful and context-sensitive way.

Uninformed Public is Danger to Democracy

The economy continues to struggle, the educational system underperforms and tensions exist at just about every point on the international landscape. And there is a national presidential selection process underway. It seems, in such an environment, that citizens would feel compelled to get themselves fully up to date on news that matters. It also would stand to reason that the nation’s news media would feel an obligation to focus on news of substance.

Instead, too many citizens are woefully uninformed of the day’s significant events. A pandering media, primarily television, is content to post a lowest-common-denominator news agenda, featuring Beyoncé’s “Lemonade” release and extensive tributes to Prince.

Constitutional framer James Madison once famously wrote, “Knowledge will forever govern ignorance. And a people who mean to be their own governors must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives.” Citizens who are unable or unwilling to arm themselves with civic knowledge diminish the nation’s ability to self-govern.

Technological advances have made it easier than ever for citizens to stay informed. The days of waiting for the evening television news to come on or the newspaper to get tossed on your doorstep are long gone. News is available constantly and from multiple sources.

A growing number of citizens, particularly millennials, now rely on social media for “news.” While that might seem like a convenient and timely way to stay informed, those people aren’t necessarily aware of anything more than what their friends had for lunch. Data from the Pew Research Center indicates that about two-thirds of Twitter and Facebook users say they get news from those social media sites. The two “news” categories of most interest among social media consumers, however, are sports and entertainment updates.

Sadly, only about a third of social media users follow an actual news organization or recognized journalist. Thus, the information these people get is likely to be only what friends have posted. Pew further reports that during this election season, only 18 percent of social media users have posted election information on a site. So, less than a fifth of the social media population is helping to determine the political agenda for the other 80 percent.

The lack of news literacy is consistent with an overall lack of civic literacy in our culture. A Newseum Institute survey last year found that a third of Americans failed to name a single right guaranteed in the First Amendment. Forty-three percent could not name freedom of speech as one of those rights.

A study released earlier this year by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni had more frightening results. In a national survey of college graduates, with a multiple-choice format, just 28 percent of respondents could name James Madison as father of the Constitution. That’s barely better than random chance out of four choices on the survey. Almost half didn’t know the term lengths for U.S. senators and representatives. And almost 10 percent identified Judith Sheindlin (Judge Judy) as being on the Supreme Court.

The blame for an under-informed citizenry can be shared widely. The curriculum creep into trendy subjects has infected too many high schools and colleges, diminishing the study of public affairs, civics, history and news literacy.

The television news industry has softened its news agenda to the point where serious news consumers find little substance. Television’s coverage of this presidential election cycle could prompt even the most determined news hounds to tune out. The Media Research Center tracked how the big three broadcast networks covered the Trump campaign in the early evening newscasts of March. The coverage overwhelmingly focused on protests at Trump campaign events, assault charges against a Trump campaign staffer and Trump’s attacks on Heidi Cruz. Missing from the coverage were Trump’s economic plans, national security vision or anything else with a policy dimension.

When the Constitutional Convention wrapped up in 1787, Benjamin Franklin emerged from the closed-door proceedings and was asked what kind of government had been formed. He replied, “A republic, if you can keep it.” Those citizens who, for whatever reasons, are determined to remain uninformed, make it harder to keep that republic intact. Our nation, suffering now from political confusion and ugly protests, sorely needs a renewed commitment to civic knowledge.

Parenting in Public: Social Media and Public Shaming

We live in a digital age in which humanity has the ability to connect in ways heretofore only imagined in science fiction. Anyone over the age of 30 has surely cringed with embarrassment as our parents shared our baby pictures with household guests. Now, parenting and parental sharing is a regular part of our online experience. Unlike those photo albums, parental posts on social media never truly go away. Backups in digital archives, cached files, or mirrors ensure that our best and worst moments are forever enshrined in some form or another, accessible to anyone with Google and a bit of patience. Social shaming and parental broadcasts of punishments are a different kind of sharing.

The suicide of Isabel Laxamana followed her father shaming her on social media and prompted a backlash of people speaking out against the ills of parental shaming. When and to what extent should parents use social media to “shame” their children? In light of what is certainly a tragedy, many parenting blogs claim that parents should never shame their children on social media. The focus of media attention has been on whether this kind of punishment is unfair for the child, but what about the challenge of parenting in the age of social media?

Parents too are brought under the microscope with every parenting decision they make. Consider the recent example of Marcy’s Diner in Portland, Maine. A couple had a small child that was crying while they waited for their food, the owner hinted several times that they might want to take the child out of the restaurant while they wait for their food, when the parents declined to do so and the child continued crying, the owner snapped and screamed at the child. Whether it’s taking a crying child out of a diner or waiting for your food in the restaurant, social media allows everyone with a smart phone or a computer connection the ability to weigh in on the proper course of action. Many people defended the restaurant owner, claiming the parents should have known better and offered advice to keep the baby quiet. Further, many labeled the child as a “brat”. Being part of an ever-growing online community means parents are now held under the microscope of countless, sometimes nameless, others who have honed in on a singular action that is now defining their life as a parent. Yet, many acts of shaming on the part of parents are voluntarily posted and shared in the blogosphere—in this way, the parents themselves are inviting the feedback, ridicule, and normative assessment of their decisions.

Parenting in public, then, takes (at least) two forms. On the one hand, there are those moments such as the Marcy’s Diner example where the public takes up a singular decision made by a parent on social media platforms. On the other hand, there are the acts of public shaming instigated by the parent(s) and shared voluntarily on social media. It seems that in the latter case that is of particular concern, since the parent is sharing the content voluntarily. What makes it worrisome are the short and long-term consequences of the post.

Parental shaming is not akin to sharing embarrassing family moments (baby bathtub photos, videos where children do something embarrassing but do not realize it, e.g.). These kinds of “shares”, which may cause mild embarrassment if uncovered by a future significant other or future coworker, will not live on in infamy.

As the colloquialism goes, it may take a village to raise a child, however online communities are no villages. They are not communities in the genuine sense of the word and the online community has an eternal, perfect memory. When a child is shamed in their neighborhood, assuming the slight is not too severe, they outgrow the infamy of the shaming (i.e., they might be teased for one week or so, but the issue eventually fades as memory does). Before a parent shames a child online, they might ask themselves a series of practical questions: Am I confident that this shame should follow my child for the next year, five years, 20 years? Do I want my child’s future boss to see this? What do I want to gain by this post; could these ends be achieved by emailing family, bringing others in the community into the conversation in a direct way? These kinds of questions will help clarify the kind of permanence that online shaming carries with it.

I Am The Lorax, I Tweet for the Trees

Lovers of social media, rejoice! It appears that even the furthest expanses of nature are not beyond the range of wireless internet. This was only further underscored this morning, when Japanese officials announced that Mount Fuji, the country’s iconic, snow-topped peaked, will be equipped with free Wi-Fi in the near future. Tourists and hikers alike will now be able to post from eight hotspots on the mountain, in a move likely to draw scorn from some environmental purists.

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Crowdsourcing Justice

The video begins abruptly. Likely recorded on a phone, the footage is shaky and blurry, yet the subject is sickeningly unmistakeable: a crying infant being repeatedly and violently dunked into a bucket of water. First it is held by the arms, then upside down by one leg, then grasped by the face as an unidentified woman pulls it through the water. Near the end of the video, the infant falls silent, the only remaining audio the splashing of water and murmured conversation as the child is dunked again and again.

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When Memories 404

The Internet is forever. Think before you post. Once something is uploaded, it can’t be taken back. These prophetic warnings, parroted in technology literacy PSAs and middle school lectures all over the country, remind us to think about our online presence, to consider what will come up when we Google our name fifteen years from now.

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How Social Media Might Silence Debate

According to this study, social media may have a negative impact on political debate. As the opening of the study notes, in the pre-internet era, there is a well documented phenomenon called “The Spiral of Silence” in which people tend not to voice opinions that differ from their friends and family. The intro also notes that:

Some social media creators and supporters have hoped that social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter might produce different enough discussion venues that those with minority views might feel freer to express their opinions, thus broadening public discourse and adding new perspectives to everyday discussion of political issues.

However, it turns out that this may not be the case. It seems that increased activity on social network sites like Facebook and Twitter also have a negative impact on people’s willingness to voice dissenting opinions that they think might be unpopular. It appears that this behavior extends to the offline world as well.

The study involved 1,800 adults, and they focused on getting participants to discuss Edward Snowden’s disclosures of government surveillance programs. Here is a summary of the findings, taken directly from the study.

People were less willing to discuss the Snowden-NSA story in social media than they were in person
86% of Americans were willing to have an in-person conversation about the surveillance program, but just 42% of Facebook and Twitter users were willing to post about it on those platforms.

Social media did not provide an alternative discussion platform for those who were not willing to discuss the Snowden-NSA story. Of the 14% of Americans unwilling to discuss the Snowden-NSA story in person with others, only 0.3% were willing to post about it on social media.

In both personal settings and online settings, people were more willing to share their views if they thought their audience agreed with them. For instance, at work, those who felt their coworkers agreed with their opinion were about three times more likely to say they would join a workplace conversation about the Snowden-NSA situation.

Previous ‘spiral of silence’ findings as to people’s willingness to speak up in various settings also apply to social media users. Those who use Facebook were more willing to share their views if they thought their followers agreed with them. If a person felt that people in their Facebook network agreed with their opinion about the Snowden-NSA issue, they were about twice as likely to join a discussion on Facebook about this issue.

Facebook and Twitter users were also less likely to share their opinions in many face-to-face settings. This was especially true if they did not feel that their Facebook friends or Twitter followers agreed with their point of view. For instance, the average Facebook user (someone who uses the site a few times per day) was half as likely as other people to say they would be willing to voice their opinion with friends at a restaurant. If they felt that their online Facebook network agreed with their views on this issue, their willingness to speak out in a face-to-face discussion with friends was higher, although they were still only 0.74 times as likely to voice their opinion as other people.

What do you all think? Does this give us reason to think the social media participationg silences debate, as this New York Times discussion of the study suggests? What should we do in light of this?

Social Media, Social Change

When a bandwagon social media trend arises, the critics are certain to follow. Last week, while the Supreme Court heard two cases on gay marriage, a separate discussion was taking place on the Internet. An estimated 2.7 million users changed their Facebook profile picture to the Human Rights Campaign’s symbol for marriage equality. Chances are you’ve seen this image or some clever variation of it—maybe you displayed the image as your profile picture too. Using this image was an act of support for the LGBT community, a perfectly harmless statement advocating for their right to marriage equality—or so many people thought. As this trend quickly took over the sphere of social media, it was the subject of both praise and controversy.

Many people were displeased that the HRC promoted this image when they have come under fire for injustices related to the LGBT community. In 2007, they excluded transgendered people when backing the Employment Non-Discrimination Act. In recent years, the HRC has also been involved in supporting major corporations, which seems rather contrary to their goals as an organization striving for equality. Derrick Clifton’s article for the Huffington Post goes into greater detail about the criticism surrounding the HRC and its involvement with the marriage equality debate. It’s my guess that most people who shared the image had no idea of the controversies surrounding the HRC. I know I wasn’t familiar with them. How does this affect the act of posting their image on Facebook and other social media outlets?

Though I didn’t change my own profile picture, I saw dozens of my friends change theirs, and I generally saw it as a good act. The intention behind it was in support and solidarity of an important cause. Changing your profile picture not only implies this support, but also that you want other people to know what side you’re on. And it’s a great way to discover just how much people care about this issue—with all the buzz about this little red and white equal sign, clearly it’s a matter of great significance among the population. With benevolent intention backing this mass trend, I don’t think the HRC’s mistakes, though disappointing, detract from the message inherent in spreading this image. The image itself is secondary to the belief that all couples have the right to get married, and it is that belief that is really at the root of posting the photo.

Still, there are a couple of things to consider when you observe or partake in any given trend like this. One, be as informed as you can be. Know what it is you’re standing for, do your own research, and reflect on your own beliefs about the issue at hand (i.e. don’t just conform to the fad because you want some Facebook “likes”). Two, don’t let your action stop there. In all honesty, the Supreme Court doesn’t care so much about your new profile picture. Sure, it’s a nice statement and collectively shows that millions of people care, but make sure you’re living out your beliefs aside from the realm of social media. Don’t let it become irrelevant once it’s no longer trendy and the image disappears from your news feed, keep the momentum going. Seek out ways to get involved on campus. For example, the student-run organization United DePauw is dedicated to promoting awareness of LGBT issues, and it’s open to all students regardless of sexuality. Attending some of their meetings and events would be a great way to further the conversation beyond your computer screen.

In regards to gay marriage, one of the most fervent debates of modern times, I think advocacy for the issue will continue to grow stronger. As it does, keep yourself up to date on the ongoing discussion. If you change your profile picture, do so thoughtfully and purposefully because it represents what you believe in—in doing this, it shouldn’t matter what the critics think.