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Reality TV and Real Ethics

CASE STUDY: Love Island and the Ethics of Relationships

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For those who don’t tune into reality TV, a compelling new series has been attracting attention and provoking debate about the ethics of televised relationships. The hit series, Love Island, focuses on a group of attractive, young singles who are flown to an isolated villa in Mallorca to find love. In just a matter of weeks, contestants will seek a significant other among their cohort. If that wasn’t challenging enough, the contestants must compete to stay in the game. If they successfully get through the series without being dumped or voted off, contestants are scrutinized by the audience who votes for their favorite couple at the end of the show (Martin, 2019). Some might find this show to be a recipe for disaster while others might find this to be nothing but a net gain for everyone involved—for both contestants and for viewers.


Many would argue that this show is ripe with demonstrable benefits for those who are daring enough to compete. Who wouldn’t enjoy a free holiday at a booze-filled villa in the Mediterranean surrounded by beautiful singles? It is basically a month-long slumber party for adults with a chance to win a £50,000 prize. More than that, many contestants reap the long-term benefits of massive social media followings that allow them to make a living off of sponsoring brands. As noted writer Jenny Éclair of The Independent affirms, “This could potentially be your magic golden Willy Wonka ticket to Lamborghini land” (Eclair, 2019). Without question, being a Love Island contestant is a sure-fire way to get your day in the spotlight and benefit financially to boot.

Fans of the hit series also contend that Love Island invites open discussion about what it means to be in a healthy relationship. As audiences get to know the contestants, they can begin to relate to them and see commonalities in their relationships. By watching the dramas on the show, audiences can self-reflect and explore questions about relationships that may not have occurred to them outside this medium. In fact, in a recent blog post, famed actress Lena Dunham shared her experience of indulging in the show. In doing so, she explored important questions about the complexities of romantic relationships. Like many of the contestants on the show, she found herself asking, “Can you love again after the hurt? What does partnership mean? And what does it mean to know someone if you don’t know yourself?” (Dunham, 2019). Raising such questions are valuable for coming to a better understanding of ourselves in our relationships.

Importantly, this show is an effective way to promote a national dialogue about relationships.  RAZZ Magazine writer, Charlotte Foster, explains that viewers can “point at the screen while saying ‘they should not treat another human being like this’” when they see psychological abuse” (RAZZ, 2018). By recognizing abuse, we’re in a better position to address it where it exists off-screen. Just as Lena Dunham was able to see the shortcomings of her relationships portrayed in the show, so too will millions of other Love Island viewers.

Even so, many would argue that Love Island may not be the most legitimate foundation for cultivating real-life healthy relationships. The show presents unhealthy examples of relationships and so cannot inform audiences about what is necessary to develop healthy ones. Since most viewers live such radically different lives from participants on the show, it is unlikely that they could come away from watching it with applicable lessons for their lives. As a case in point, the contestants are all incredibly fit, tan, and beautiful socialites in their twenties. The relationships that are represented are heteronormative and masculine-centric ones. Moreover, as Luanna de Abreu Coelho from RAZZ Magazine points out, “contestants are chosen and rejected by other islanders based almost entirely on appearance” (RAZZ, 2018). Of course, healthy relationships are not primarily motivated by physical attraction.

Another reason that many have found this show problematic is due to its unhealthy effects on the show’s contestants. The show achieves its supreme drama by effectively cutting them off from the outside world. The extreme isolation and the competitive nature of that social dynamic creates a unique and unnatural social environment. The show’s provocation of contestants under the watchful eye of cameras has recently led to serious public concerns about the contestants’ mental health. Following the suicides of two ex-contestants of Love Island, the English Parliament began an inquiry into the “production companies’ duty of care to participants, [asking] whether enough support is offered both during and after filming, and whether there is a need for further regulatory oversight in this area” (“Committee Announces,” 2019). After finishing their two-month stint in Mallorca, Love Island contestants come back to the real world as celebrities. However, that celebrity status quickly fades when the next stirring season of Love Island comes out. Contestants go from relative obscurity to fame and back again within a year. This instability would certainly be taxing on anyone’s mental health.

Love Island has captured the attention of millions of viewers in recent years. The show could spark much-needed discussion about relationships. At the same time, it is questionable whether this or any reality TV show can serve as a pedagogical tool for guiding viewers to cultivate healthy relationships.

Discussion Questions:

  1. Are creators of reality TV shows morally responsible for the psychological effects on their on-screen participants? Why or why not?
  2. What are the ethical problems with reality TV? What values are in conflict in this case study?
  3. Do the possible benefits of sparking a conversation about healthy relationships outweigh its possible harms for contestants? Explain your reasoning.
  4. What principles would you suggest to someone who wanted to make an ethical reality TV series about relationships?

 Further Information:

“Bafta TV Awards: Britain’s Got Talent, Love Island and Blue Planet II win.” BBC News, May 2018, Available at:

“Committee Announces Inquiry into Reality TV.” UK Parliament Website, May 2019, Available at:

Dunham, Lena, “Lena Dunham on Love Island: ‘I’m Asking the Same Question They Do – Can You Love after Hurt?'” The Guardian, July 2019, Available at:

Forrester, Charlotte, and Coelho, Luanna de Abreu. “It’s Debatable: The Ethics of Love Island.” RAZZ, July 2018, Available at:

Eclair, Jenny. “If You’re Thinking of Applying for Love Island, the Reality TV Suicide Rate Should Make You Think Again.” Independent, March 2019, Available at:

Martin, Laura. “When Is the Love Island 2019 Final Tonight? Start Time, How Long the Final Episode Is and Prize Money Explained.” INEWS, July 2019, Available at:


Nicholas Aufiero & Alicia Armijo
The UT Ethics Project/Media Ethics Initiative
Center for Media Engagement
University of Texas at Austin
December 5, 2019

Cases produced by the Media Ethics Initiative remain the intellectual property of the Media Ethics Initiative and the Center for Media Engagement. They can be used in unmodified PDF form without permission for classroom or educational uses. Please email us and let us know if you found them useful! For use in publications such as textbooks, readers, and other works, please contact the Media Ethics Initiative.


Beer Cans and Cancel Culture

CASE STUDY: The Ethics of the Carson King Case

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On ESPN’s “College GameDay” program, a 24-year-old’s sign requesting beer money went viral and raised more than a million dollars from amused fans. The football fan and beer-lover, Carson King, purchased just one case of beer with the funds and donated the rest to the Stead Family Children’s Hospital. Anheuser-Busch and Venmo matched the final sum, tripling the total donation (Ta, 2019). Initially, King was hailed as an “Iowa Legend” for his philanthropy. However, Des Moises Register reporter Aaron Calvin eventually uncovered and published two racist tweets that King wrote as a high school student, quickly sparking controversy. Calvin’s article ultimately led Anheuser-Busch to withdraw their public support for King, and although he retained some of his supporters, his previously glowing reputation was tarnished.

King’s story is an exemplary case of a rising phenomenon of public shaming known as cancel culture. After an accusation of problematic speech or action, an individual is “cancelled” from a social group by being boycotted and ostracized.  John Hirschauer argued that Calvin intended to cancel King by publishing his tweets. Hirschauer declared that Calvin’s “decision to highlight two obscure, inflammatory tweets from a man’s adolescence of a sentiment that Calvin admits are ‘not representative artifacts of’ the man being profiled, is the sort of spiteful ‘gotcha’ thinking devoid of proportion that fuels ‘cancel culture’ writ large” (Hirschauer, 2019). In Hirschauer’s opinion, publishing the tweets was a malicious choice that disregarded King’s good deeds and personal growth.

The Des Moines Register’s executive editor, Carol Hunter, disagrees. She believes that Calvin acted ethically by providing comprehensive information about a public figure of interest. She explains that “The jokes were highly inappropriate and were public posts. Shouldn’t that be acknowledged to all the people who had donated money to King’s cause or were planning to do so?” (Andrew and Zdanowicz, 2019). Hunter argues that donors have the right to know about the man asking for their money. After all, if donors know that their donations could be associated with racism, they might choose to give their money to other charities that share their values. She maintains that Calvin’s choice informed and empowered donors to make a better moral decision.

Calvin’s decision to publish King’s tweets could also be viewed as an effort to morally educate the public. A virtue of cancel culture is that it effectively signals that speech or behavior like King’s is unacceptable. It draws attention to problematic speech and punishes it, demonstrating to observers that they too should avoid such speech. On the other hand, the immediate “cancellation” of those who have made mistakes may not be the best way to educate them. By being shamed and isolated, they are cut off from informed and moderating influences. As a result, cancel culture may play a role in radicalizing individuals with problematic views and may actually discourage ethical growth.

Former President Barack Obama takes the latter view, explaining that cancel culture isn’t a way to effect change in others’ behavior. Shortly after King’s rise to fame and fall from glory, Obama argued that, “if all you’re doing is casting stones, you’re probably not going to get that far. That’s easy to do” (Reub & Taylor, 2019). In essence, merely shaming people for their moral errors isn’t enough to get someone to do better or to participate in the community in acceptable ways. According to Obama, “That’s not activism. That’s not bringing about change” (Reub & Taylor, 2019). By this view, Calvin’s publication of King’s tweets was not a noble act. Rather, it distracted attention from meaningful action—the hospital fundraising—to a more petty controversy about past mistakes.

Cancel culture—for better or worse—is changing how people engage with one another. In fact, shortly after Calvin released his profile on King, readers dug up a few of Calvin’s own old, offensive tweets (Shepherd, 2019). The Des Moines Register fired Calvin and he found himself cancelled along with King. This ironic twist of events leaves many to wonder: is this how the story should have played out?

Discussion Questions:

  1.  Is there an ethical problem with cancel culture? What values are in conflict in this case study?
  2. Is cancel culture socially just? Can an apology or remorse by the wrongdoer suffice to excuse them from being “cancelled”?
  3. Communicating true information is an important goal of journalism. Even so, would it have been morally permissible for Calvin to leave the racist tweets out of his profile on King if additional donation opportunities for sick children could have followed?
  4. How is cancel culture and its punishments like or unlike the judgments and punishments prevalent in the court system?

 Further Information:

Andrew, Scottie, and Zdanowicz, Christina, “He raised a million dollars for a hospital through beer money. Then his old racist tweets surfaced.” CNN, September 2019. Available at:

Hirschauer, John, “On the Firing of Aaron Calvin.” National Review, October 2019. Available at:

Reinstein, Julia, “The Reporter Fired In The ‘Busch Light Guy’ Scandal Said He Feels ‘Abandoned’ By The Des Moines Register.” BuzzFeed News, September 2019. Available at:

Reub, Emily S., and Taylor, Derrick Bryson, “Obama on Call-Out Culture: ‘That’s Not Activism.’” The New York Times, October 2019. Available at:

Shepherd, Katie, “Iowa reporter who found a viral star’s racist tweets slammed when critics find his own offensive posts.” Washington Post, September 2019. Available at:

Ta, Linh, “Carson King reflects on new fame, the future after fundraiser for Iowa children’s hospital hits nearly $3M.” USA Today, October 2019. Available at:


Grace Leake, Alicia Armijo, & Scott R. Stroud, Ph.D.
The UT Ethics Project/Media Ethics Initiative
Center for Media Engagement
University of Texas at Austin
December 4, 2019

Cases produced by the Media Ethics Initiative remain the intellectual property of the Media Ethics Initiative and the Center for Media Engagement. They can be used in unmodified PDF form without permission for classroom or educational uses. Please email us and let us know if you found them useful! For use in publications such as textbooks, readers, and other works, please contact the Media Ethics Initiative.


The Ethics of Anonymous Criticism in Political Journalism

CASE STUDY: The New York Times and the Unknown Trump Official

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  Photo: Twelve Books

In September 2018 The New York Times made the decision to publish an anonymous op-ed from a senior official from President Donald Trump’s administration. The official, who ideologically identifies as conservative, wrote about the struggle to uphold and further Republican legislation and ideals while “thwarting Mr. Trump’s more misguided impulses until he is out of office.” A blatant critique of Trump’s leadership style, the piece serves as a warning to the American public as it also attempts to comfort them: “Americans should know that there are adults in the room. We fully recognize what is happening. And we are trying to do what’s right even when Donald Trump won’t” (“I Am Part of the Resistance,” 2018).

The op-ed was immediately met with criticism. President Trump called the unsigned op-ed “gutless,” news reporters from The Times expressed bewilderment at the editorial department’s decision to release an anonymous opinion piece, and social media bustled with chatter trying to decipher the writer’s identity. In the past, The Times op-ed department has granted anonymity to writers. However, these instances were when the writers were an undocumented immigrant or a Syrian refugee — people whose identity needed to be protected for their own safety (Calderon & Schwartz, 2018).

Criticism of the author reappeared when it was announced that the same senior Trump official would be releasing a 259-page book, titled A Warning. The book’s author is listed as “anonymous,” and the work is described as “an unprecedented behind-the-scenes portrait of the Trump presidency” (Rucker, 2019a). The Washington Post obtained the book ahead of its release, detailing revealing excerpts. In the book the anonymous author writes, “I have decided to publish this anonymously because this debate is not about me. It is about us. It is about how we want the presidency to reflect our country, and that is where the discussion should center. Some will call this ‘cowardice.’ My feelings are not hurt by the accusation. Nor am I unprepared to attach my name to criticism of President Trump. I may do so, in due course.” The Post also revealed the book does not go into detail about specific events within the administration, in an effort to protect the author’s identity. The book preview also reveals that the author does not hold back on his transparent criticisms of Trump, arguing “that Trump is incapable of leading the United States through a monumental international crisis” and “foreign adversaries see him as ‘a simplistic pushover’ who is susceptible to flattery and easily manipulated” (Rucker, 2019b).

After the announcement of the book’s release, arguments against the anonymous official again arose: journalists and media professionals questioned the ethics of granting a government official anonymity — not only for an op-ed piece but for a highly publicized book— and worried about how readers can judge the trustworthiness and veracity of the author if their identity is unknown. In response to the 2018 op-ed Ari Fleischer, press secretary for President George W. Bush, tweeted the following: “It’s impossible to evaluate how important it is without knowing how high up the author is. There are hundreds of people at the [White House] who think they’re ‘senior’ officials” (McBride, 2018). The suppression of specific details to protect the author’s identity also render such political criticisms difficult to confirm or argue against. There is also uncertainty over the status of information that the anonymous author could or should reveal. The United States Department of Justice sent a letter to the author’s publishing house, asking if the author had signed “any nondisclosure agreements while working for the government” (Stelter, 2019). The publishing house, however, said the Justice Department’s request was merely an attempt to out the identity of the author.

Journalists granting anonymity to protect a source’s identity within a news article is not a novel concept. However, news departments and opinion departments operate separately in their functions and goals. Op-ed pages of newspapers are where writers are allowed to employ their personal opinion complemented with heavy analysis of a topic and usually the weight of anonymity there doesn’t carry over the same as it would in a news story. Kelly McBride, a media ethics commentator who writes for the Poynter Institute, said about the anonymous op-ed, “If this had been a news story, we would have insisted on more details” (McBride, 2018).

Some see the senior Trump official’s anonymity as justified. When answering readers’ questions as to why The Times decided to publish the piece, op-ed editor James Dao said it was to give readers a unique perspective on the Trump presidency “of a conservative explaining why they felt that even if working for the Trump administration meant compromising some principles, it ultimately served the country if they could achieve some of the president’s policy objectives while helping resist some of his worst impulses” (“How the Anonymous Op-Ed Came to Be,” 2018). Representatives involved in the author’s book project have remained protective of the author’s identity (Rucker, 2019a). Matt Latimer, co-founder of the literary agency publishing the anonymous author’s book, said the book “was not written by the author lightly, or for the purpose of financial enrichment. It has been written as an act of conscience and duty” (Tapper, 2019).

Some have even made remarks that the op-ed author’s newest work will do more to help confirm unsubstantiated revelations from the Trump White House. Jack Shafer, senior media writer at POLITICO, gave the example of how the author’s op-ed spoke about the possibility of a group within the Trump cabinet invoking the 25th Amendment to invoke removal of the President. A couple of weeks later, reporters with The Times confirmed the formation of the group (Shafer, 2019). Shafer said, “This steady confirmation of the op-ed’s key points by the best journalists covering the Trump administration makes it easy to award A Warning a four-star, prepublication review and predict that it will serve as a revelatory text” (Shafer, 2019).

Despite such lauding of A Warning and explanations in defense of the author’s anonymity, ethical questions still remain: is it ethical for a person unwilling to share their identity to solicit attention from the public, and should media and literary gatekeepers grant anonymity to a senior Trump official about their function within the administration?

Discussion Questions:

  1. How might this situation have been different if The New York Times decided to do a news story on this Trump official, granting them anonymity, rather than letting the official write an op-ed?
  2. What are the pros and cons of the author remaining anonymous? Does their anonymity take away from or add more to their validity? Why or why not?
  3. What ethical role does The New York Times and the literary agency Javelin, representing the anonymous author, in this situation? In other words, what are their ethical responsibilities?
  4. If the author were to reveal their identity, how might the impact of their words change or stay the same?
  5. How might this situation further affect how the general public consumes political communication?

Further Information:

Alter, A. “Anonymous Trump Official Behind Times Op-Ed Is Writing a Book.” The New York Times, October 22, 2019. Available at:

Calderon, M. & Schwartz, J. “With anonymous op-ed, it’s Times vs. Times.” POLITICO, September 5, 2018. Available at:

“How the Anonymous Op-Ed Came to Be.” The New York Times, September 8, 2018. Available at:

“I Am Part of the Resistance Inside the Trump Administration.” The New York Times, September 5, 2018. Available at:

McBride, K. “How the NYTimes’ anonymous op-ed may change journalism.” Poynter Institute, September 6, 2018. Available at:

Rucker, P. “Anonymous author of Trump ‘resistance’ op-ed to publish a tell-all book.” The Washington Post, October 22, 2019a. Available at:

Rucker, P. “Book by ‘Anonymous’ describes Trump as cruel, inept and a danger to the nation.” The Washington Post, November 7, 2019b. Available at:

Shafer, J. “Why You’re Wrong to Hate the ‘Anonymous’ Book.” POLITICO, October 23, 2019. Available at:

Stelter, B. “Anonymous anti-Trump book is already a hit and it’s not on shelves until next week.” CNN, November 12, 2019. Available at:

Tapper, J. “Anonymous Trump official who wrote New York Times op-ed has a book coming out.” CNN, October 22, 2019. Available at:


Allyson Waller & Scott R. Stroud, Ph.D.
Media Ethics Initiative
Center for Media Engagement
University of Texas at Austin
December 4, 2019

Image: Twelve Books

Cases produced by the Media Ethics Initiative remain the intellectual property of the Media Ethics Initiative and the Center for Media Engagement. They can be used in unmodified PDF form without permission for classroom or educational uses. Please email us and let us know if you found them useful! For use in publications such as textbooks, readers, and other works, please contact the Media Ethics Initiative.


Secret Facebook Groups and the Ethics of Democracy

CASE STUDY: Are Secret Facebook Groups Good for Democracy?

Case Study PDF| Additional Case Studies

In an era where increased partisanship is easily palpable through society’s inundated media landscape, social media users are taking advantage of a corner of the internet where they can cultivate a like-minded community— secret Facebook groups. Unlike a “closed” Facebook group, a user can only gain access to a secret or privately hidden group by invitation. The invitation-only caveat for secret groups means these groups are not easy to find through simple searches. Some groups are small in size, composed of only a handful of members, while other groups have accumulated millions of members. Examination of secret groups seemed to take off leading up to and in the aftermath of the 2016 presidential election.

In October 2016, Maine voter Libby Chamberlain founded “Pantsuit Nation,” a secret Facebook group created to celebrate presidential nominee Hillary Clinton. According to The New York Times, the page reached over two million members in just three short weeks. Chamberlain described to the Times the make-up of the Facebook group: “We have lifelong Republicans who are voting for Hillary, lefty liberals and everything in between. People are chiming in from around the world” (Correal, 2016). Users of the group see it as a way for people to escape the possibility of pushback and rush of judgement for their political and social opinions. Unification also plays an important role. According to the Times, the group received a plethora of posts from members posed in pantsuits on Election Day 2016 while casting their vote for who would have been the first woman president.

David Weinberger, a researcher at Harvard University, said private corners of the internet such as secret Facebook groups may have a positive side: “Our ideas, our feelings, our values, develop primarily in the company of people who we trust, where we can speak frankly, where we don’t have to make explicit our assumptions and our values, where we have the freedom to talk in small and big ways about things that really matter,” (Dreyfuss, 2017).

Although these secret groups provide a virtual safe space, in the context of politics critics see them as also raising some red flags. Some may be concerned that these groups go against the democratic ideal of community among individuals who hold diverse views, and that they further contribute to community fragmentation through a retreat to echo chambers. For example, when reporting on the repercussions of secret political Facebook groups, Wired reporter Emily Dreyfuss was added to a secret group formed by pro-Clinton voters during the 2016 Democratic primaries. Clinton supporters formed the group to air their grievances about Bernie Sanders’ supporters. However, even after the 2016 election, when it wasn’t clear if Sanders would run again in 2020, the page continued to direct its ire at Sanders: “The people in the group get each other fired up, egg each other on to disown friends who support Sanders’ initiatives in congress, and largely ignore posts that try to move the conversation away from this now tangential political figure” (Dreyfuss, 2017). One might worry that these secret Facebook groups, foster a sense of community only by shutting out conflicting opinions.

Another side effect of these secret groups is the potential of enabling misinformation. According to The Washington Post, “Misinformation experts have repeatedly pointed out that people in like-minded groups are less likely to flag one another’s content as problematic” (Dwoskin, 2019). Because these groups are hard for the outside world to detect, they are not vulnerable to the same monitoring access as public groups, and they are not readily accessible to the everyday person who could provide facts and counterarguments to negate misinformation.  These concerns are not hypothetical. In August 2019, Facebook announced an update to group privacy settings in conjunction with its Safe Communities Initiative to combat misinformation and secret groups that become “gathering places for racist, offensive activity” (Lee, 2019).

The outward benefits of social media are evident in the fact that they help to generate a sense of connectedness with often-distant others. However, in the context of secret Facebook groups, the question arises: should we find ways to interact with those who share our deepest political commitments, or should we seek out those with whom we strongly disagree?

Discussion Questions: 

  1. What are some of the benefits of secret, or hidden, Facebook groups?
  2. What are the ethical issues that arise from participating in a secret Facebook group?
  3. How might a secret Facebook group be different from a physical in-person organization or club created to support like-minded individuals? Would the same ethical issues arise? Why or why not?
  4. Would Facebook getting rid of the secret Facebook function be good for democracy? Why or why not?

Further Information:

Correal, Annie. “Pantsuit Nation, a ‘Secret’ Facebook Hub, Celebrates Clinton.” The New York Times, November 8, 2016. Available at:

Dreyfuss, Emily. “Secret Facebook Groups Are the Trump Era’s Worst, Best Echo Chamber.” Wired, January 20, 2017. Available at:

Dwoskin, Elizabeth. “‘Facebook says private groups are its future. Some are hubs for misinformation and hate.” The Washington Post, July 5, 2019. Available at:

Engel, Pamela. “‘People want it to be true’: Inside the growing influence of a mysterious anti-Trump website.” Business Inisider, May 16, 2017. Available at:

Lee, Dami. “Facebook is simplifying group privacy settings and adding admin tools for safety.” The Verge, August 14, 2019. Available at:

Silverman, C., Lytvynenko, J., & Thuy Vo, L. “How Facebook Groups Are Being Exploited To Spread Misinformation, Plan Harassment, And Radicalize People.” Buzzfeed News, March 19, 2018. Available at:


Allyson Waller & Scott R. Stroud, Ph.D.
Media Ethics Initiative
Center for Media Engagement
University of Texas at Austin
November 18, 2019

Image: Glen Carrie / Unsplash

Cases produced by the Media Ethics Initiative remain the intellectual property of the Media Ethics Initiative and the Center for Media Engagement. They can be used in unmodified PDF form without permission for classroom or educational uses. Please email us and let us know if you found them useful! For use in publications such as textbooks, readers, and other works, please contact the Media Ethics Initiative.


Fighting the Amazon Fires with Misinformation

CASE STUDY: The Ethics of Celebrity Activists and Environmental Change

Case Study PDF| Additional Case Studies

amazonMany are alarmed by the recent sensationalized news of the Amazon fires in Brazil, demonizing current President Jair Bolsonaro for his destruction of this vital ecological hub (Pecanha et al., 2019). Celebrities are posting and presidents are tweeting: “stop the Amazon fires!” Adding to the social media fires, graphic imagery has the potential to sway perceptions of and provide (mis)information to casual Instagram or Twitter users about the burning Amazon. What they don’t know by looking at these posts, however, is that many may be geographically and factually inaccurate.

“The lungs of the earth are in flames,” exclaims actor Leonardo DiCaprio on his Instagram account to a staggering 35.3 million followers. The striking image he posted, which he frames as a recent photograph of the Amazon, is actually over 20 years old. A self-proclaimed environmentalist, DiCaprio argues these ongoing fires are propagated by one man, President Bolsonaro, and are a direct result of climate change. According to the Washington Post, however, only the forest fringes are on fire, and have been for at least the last decade because of illegal logging and deforestation (Penanha et al., 2019). Humans, not nature, started the fires. Using the age-old technique of slash and burn, economically-motivated farmers are preparing already deforested areas for planting. The high European demand for products like soy drives farmers to burn these forest fringes illegally to expand Brazilian cropland (Symonds, 2019). Brazil’s economy is based on such commodity exports, predominately from agriculture. With Brazilian unemployment at 12%, millions of people are struggling and “the country can ill-afford to back off one of its few thriving sectors” (Pecanha et al., 2019).

While bloggers and other humanitarians are worried about the destruction of the Amazon, some say they neglect the economic issues behind environmental concerns, such as the consumption habits that support illegal deforestation. Meanwhile, more and more people are going to social media for news (Suciu, 2019), finding celebrities like Cristiano Ronaldo, Madonna, and Ellen DeGeneres posting about Bolsonaro’s Brazil. Celebrity engagement can draw vital attention to issues that have long gone unnoticed. However, celebrities rarely study problems in depth, and can scarcely be counted as experts in controversial environmental domains. Many celebrities frame the Amazon forest fires as an environmental catastrophe that is exclusively the result of climate change. Erratic environmental conditions increasing incidences of drought are linked to climate change, and an increase in droughts does lead to more fires; yet the Amazon is not experiencing unusually dry weather (Dunne, 2019). Thus, many say the evidence points to humans as the cause of these fires, and not simply or mostly climate change. The result of this conflict over information and environmental judgment is an angered Brazilian population and a potentially misinformed global social media public.

Ironically, this celebrity focus on the Amazon fires has resulted in increased public interest in both climate justice and land preservation. Despite potential misinformation and oversimplification, the mounting international pressure has led to concrete action in the Amazon. Demonstrators are marching and Europeans are boycotting trade agreements in an effort to effect change in the Amazon and on the global scene (Andreoni et al., 2019). In response, President Bolsonaro has sent an unprecedented number of Brazilian troops to extinguish the fires (Silva de Sousa, 2019).  This seems to be a case where fake news, or at least hasty readings of a situation and its causes, are mobilizing the public and contributing to concrete change. Such pressure may be needed for other battles to save the Amazon, since funding for “Brazil’s main environmental agency fell by 20 percent during the first six months of this year” (Symonds 2019).

At the same time, the continued risk of fires on the fringes of the Amazon is not mitigated by simply putting the current blazes out. The expansion of cropland by slash and burn techniques is at least partially a response to foreign demand, and the economic suffering of the farmers pursing this mode of income. As long as the demand for beef and land-intensive crops such as soy stays high, so will the flames. Social media platforms like Instagram and Twitter allow for the instantaneous dissemination of news, well-sourced or not, to billions of people who may be motivated to solve an important problem without addressing, or even knowing, all of its causes. What happens when popular voices on social media help us address a problem that they seem to be misreading?

Discussion Questions:

  1. Is fake news or misinformation that helps with recovery from or prevention of environmental harm always an ethical ill?
  2. What ethical responsibilities, if any, do celebrities have to their followers when spreading information?
  3. Should social media platforms be more closely monitored for incidences of fake news?
  4. Should social media platforms monitor celebrity accounts and those with large followings differently than those without?

Further Information:

Andreoni, M., Casado, L., & Londoño, E., “With Amazon Rain Forest Ablaze, Brazil Faces Global Backlash.” The New York Times, August 22, 2019. Available at:

Dunne, D., “Media Reaction: Amazon Fires and Climate Change.” Carbon Brief, August 28, 2019. Available at:

Silva de Sousa, M., “Bolsonaro Sends Army To Fight Amazon Fires Amid Mounting International Pressure.” The Huffington Post, August 24, 2019. Available at:

Suciu, P., “More Americans Are Getting Their News From Social Media.” Forbes, October 11, 2019. Available at:

Symonds, A., “Amazon Rainforest Fires: Here’s What’s Really Happening.” The New York Times, August 23, 2019. Available at:


Michaela Urban & Dakota Park-Ozee
Media Ethics Initiative
Center for Media Engagement
University of Texas at Austin
December 2, 2019

Cases produced by the Media Ethics Initiative remain the intellectual property of the Media Ethics Initiative and the University of Texas at Austin. They can be used in unmodified PDF form without permission for classroom or educational uses. Please email us and let us know if you found them useful! For use in publications such as textbooks, readers, and other works, please contact the Media Ethics Initiative.

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