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Misinformation, Social Media, and the Price of Political Persuasion

CASE STUDY: Examining Twitter’s Decision to Ban Purchased Political Advertisements

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Kon Karampelas / Unsplash / Modified

Social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter are increasingly used to promote a specific cause or political candidate, influence voting patterns, and target individuals based on their political beliefs (Conger, 2019). Social media’s impact on politics can be seen through paid political advertising, where organizations and campaigns pay to spread their messages across multiple networks. In the course of using finely crafted messages, campaigns sometimes take part in techniques such as the selling or buying of users’ data for targeted advertising (Halpern, 2019).

These “micro” targeted ads are often the location of fake news or misinformation. Twitter and Facebook both revealed that Russian operatives used their platforms in attempts to influence the outcome of the 2016 U.S. presidential election. In 2017, Facebook turned over thousands of Russian-bought ads to the U.S. Congress. The ads showed that “operatives worked off evolving lists of racial, religious, political and economic themes. They used these to create pages, write posts and craft ads that would appear in users’ news feeds — with the apparent goal of appealing to one audience and alienating another” (Entous et al., 2017). All of this was enabled by the targeting power and data collection practices of social media platforms that financially depend on selling advertising to paying individuals and companies.

In response to the growing concerns associated with the misuse of online political ads, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey announced that his social media platform would ban all political advertisements from its platform starting in November 2019 (Conger, 2019).  The platform’s move is an effort to curtail paid political speech without affecting political discourse in general. “The reach of political messages should be earned, not bought,” Dorsey wrote in a series of Tweets. Dorsey laid out the challenges he thinks paid political advertisements present to civic discourse: over-dependence on technological optimization, the spread of misinformation, and the promotion of manipulated media such as “deep fake” videos (Cogner, 2019). Another worrisome example are the “bots” or automated social media accounts that were created during the 2016 presidential election to help inflate social media traffic around specific presidential campaigns and influence “the democratic process behind the scenes” (Guilbeault, 2019). These programs magnified the reach of misinformation that seemed to run rampant over social media during the campaign.

Twitter’s restriction on political advertising is not absolute, however. Candidates or users would still be able to post videos of campaign ads, just as long as they do not pay Twitter specifically to promote the ad and enhance its audience. For example, 2020 presidential candidate Joe Biden released a viral campaign ad in December 2019 critiquing President Donald Trump’s reputation with foreign leaders (Chiu, 2019). Because the Biden campaign posted the video to Biden’s account and did not pay for Twitter to promote the ad as one of the site’s promoted revenue products, the campaign video was permitted and could be shared by other users. The platform announced it will still allow some paid issue-based or cause-based ads that pertain to subjects such as the economy, the environment, and other social causes. However, “candidates, elected officials and political parties will be banned from buying any ads at all, including ones about issues or causes” (Wagner, 2019).

Twitter’s decision to ban all paid political advertising is not celebrated by all parties. Some worry that social media platforms may go too far in the search for accuracy and an uncertain ideal of truth in political discourse in their spaces. Facebook’s reaction to paid advertising is the diametric opposite to Twitter’s approach: “In Zuckerberg’s view, Facebook, though a private company, is the public square where such ideas can be debated,” said Sue Halpern, who covers politics and technology for The New Yorker (Halpern, 2018).  Facebook has indicated that it will continue to allow politicians to post or purchase ads, even if they contain content that some may judge as false or misleading information. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerburg’s argument is that as a tool for freedom of expression, one of Facebook’s objectives shouldn’t be to censor political ads or be an arbiter of truth. Instead of getting rid of political ads, the platform said it will focus on combating micro-targeting, where “campaigns tap Facebook’s vast caches of data to reach specific audiences with pinpoint accuracy, going after voters in certain neighborhoods, jobs and age ranges, or even serving up ads only to fans of certain television shows or sports teams” (Scola, 2019). Google, owner of the video sharing platform YouTube, also made commitments to reduce targeted political ads, pledging that political advertisers “will only be able to target ads based on a user’s age, gender, and postcode.” However, the tech company’s policy for removing ads is still murky: “In the policy update, Google focused on misleading ads related to voter suppression and election integrity, not claims targeting candidates” (O’Sullivan & Fung, 2019). But some maintain that truth in political advertising is a worthy and attainable ideal. Criticizing Facebook’s stance, U.S. Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez voiced her support for paid advertising bans, saying “If a company cannot or does not wish to run basic fact-checking on paid political advertising, then they should not run paid political ads at all” (Conger, 2019).

Since Twitter and other social media platforms are companies and not government entities, they are not strictly governed by the First Amendment’s protections of speech and expression (Hudson, 2018). The debate over curtailing paid political advertising on social media brings up a related normative issue: how much free expression or speech should anyone—including social media platforms—foster or encourage in a democratic community, even if the messages are judged as untrue or skewed by many, or if they are connected to monetary interests? The challenge remains: who will decide what constitutes unacceptably false and misleading ads, whose monetary influence or interests are unallowable, and what constitutes allowable and effective partisan attempts at persuasion?

Discussion Questions:

  1. Should paid political advertisements be banned from social media? Should all political ads, paid or freely posted, be forbidden? Why or why not?
  2. What could be possible alternatives to Twitter and others banning paid political advertisements?
  3. Do you believe a focus on microtargeting is superior to banning paid political advertisements?
  4. What is ethically worrisome about microtargeting? Do you think these concerns would also extend to sophisticate campaigns run by traditional advertising agencies, or even public health campaigns targeting specific behaviors?
  5. Might there be ethically-worthy values to microtargeting political or commercial messages?
  6. Is curtailing certain kinds of political speech on social media good or bad for democracy? Explain your answer, and any distinctions you wish to draw.

 Further Information:

Chiu, A. “‘The world is laughing at President Trump’: Joe Biden highlights viral NATO video in campaign ad.” The Washington Post, December 5, 2019. Available at:

Conger, K. “Twitter Will Ban All Political Ads, C.E.O. Jack Dorsey Says.” The New York Times, October 30, 2019. Available at:

Entous, A., Timberg, C., & Dwoskin, E. “Russian operatives used Facebook ads to exploit America’s racial and religious divisions.” The Washington Post, September 25, 2017. Available at:

Guilbeault, D. & Wolley, S. “How Twitter Bots Are Shaping the Election.” The Atlantic, November 1, 2019. Available at:

Halpern, S. “The Problem of Political Advertising on Social Media.” The New Yorker, October 24, 2019. Available at:

Hudson, D. “In the Age of Social Media, Expand the Reach of the First Amendment.” Human Rights Magazine, October 20, 2018. Available at:

O’Sullivan, D. & Fung, B. “Google’s updated ad policy will still allow politicians to run false ads.” CNN, November 20, 2019. Available at:

Roose, K. “Digital Hype Aside, Report Says Political Campaigns Are Mostly Analog Affairs.” The New York Times, March 21, 2019. Available at:

Wagner, K. “Twitter’s Political Ad Ban Will Exempt Some ‘Issue’ Ads.” Bloomberg, November 15, 2019. Available at:


Allyson Waller & Scott R. Stroud, Ph.D.
Media Ethics Initiative
Center for Media Engagement
University of Texas at Austin
March 25, 2020

This case study is supported by funding from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. 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 for classroom or educational settings. For use in publications such as textbooks, readers, and other works, please contact the Center for Media Engagement at sstroud (at)


Cooperation and Compromise in the Artworld

CASE STUDY: The Ethics of Artists Working with Controversial Governments

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Rostyslav Savchyn / Unsplash

Despite the controversies surrounding the Saudi Arabian government, Desert X founder and board president Susan Davis has repeatedly defended the partnership by stating that it is a chance to help create “a new dialogue, one that reaches across boundaries and borders.” The Saudi Arabian exhibit, which will be on view from January to March 2020, looks to “bring together artists from Saudi Arabia and the surrounding region with artists from around the world,” according to the Desert X website. This exhibit allows viewers and artists to explore various topics, such as feminism and the environment, which are typically off-limits topics in Saudi Arabia. According to Desert X artistic director Neville Wakefield, none of the artists he has reached out to have declined due to political or ethical reasons; on the contrary, many have embraced the opportunity to work freely in an environment that has had many artistic restrictions in the past. According to multimedia artist Manal AlDowayan, no restrictions, as of yet, have been placed on what can be created for the exhibition

Many of the artists to be included in the exhibit, including Los Angeles based artist Lita Albuquerque, believe that art should be created free of political positioning. “I think art transcends a lot of political issues,” Albuquerque says of her involvement in the exhibit, “it’s about wanting to utilize art to make a statement and to help communicate” (Vankin, October 7, 2019). The exhibition is set to be co-curated by three individuals: Wakefield and two female Saudi artists, Raneem Farsi and Aya Alireza. Farsi believes that this exhibit will not only provide a cultural diffusion between the two countries, but also allow for a special education opportunities for the students in Saudi Arabia. “It wasn’t part of our upbringing here to be exposed to all this art and culture,” says Farsi. Albuquerque, for example, is creating a form of land art that highlights a futuristic female astronaut teaching the Earth about the stars (Vankin, October 7, 2019).

Although there are many positive aspects to the exhibition, many believe that the exhibition involves too many compromises with a repressive regime. Three of the original fourteen members of Desert X’s board of directors have resigned following the announcement of the partnership between the organization and the Saudi Arabian government. The resignations came from to the members’ refusal to work with a government that has repeatedly been accused of human rights violations, discrimination toward the LGBTQ community, and the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Former curator Yael Lipschutz, one of the three members to resign, said the decision to work with the Saudi Arabian government is “about striking a deal with a national government that has committed a horrific genocide in Yemen, that is completely undemocratic and that has an appalling record of discrimination against the LGBTQ community.” Lipschutz believes that the partnership is not about the potential to increase the dialogue between the two countries and to expand Saudi Arabia’s cultural practices, but rather, it’s about “receiving money from the Saudi royal family” (Vankin, October 7, 2019).

Shortly after the announcement, one Desert X donor withdrew funding while releasing a statement that they were “disappointed that Desert X has chosen this path.” While the act of accepting money from such a politically-polarizing country is one worrisome part of the partnership, some worry about the potential use of art as a cultural distraction to divert attention from the problems of the Saudi Arabian government. Artist Ed Ruscha, another former board member of Desert X, states that “I see Saudi Arabia as being in desperate need of cultural legitimacy, and this is a way to move the spotlight away from their other problems. It’s like inviting Hitler to a tea party in 1943 — I see a simile here” (Vankin, October 16, 2019).

This Desert X and Saudi Arabia partnership is just one example of what might happen when artists work with unethical or controversial figures. While some believe that art should be created independent of outside factors, many still believe that art can do some good in the messy and complex world of everyday life. Can the good effects of art be outweighed by the means and potentially worrisome partnerships that have to be used to do achieve them?

Discussion Questions:

  1. What ethical conflicts drive the controversy over Desert X’s partnership with the Saudi government?
  2. Do you believe working with a controversial figure or government is unethical? Does it become more problematic if money is being exchanged?
  3. Do the potential positive impacts of the exhibition outweigh the negative consequences?
  4. What ethical guidelines might companies and artists follow in working with governments charged with repressive or reprehensible behavior?

 Further Information:

Brian Blueskye, “Desert X collaborates with Saudi Arabia on exhibition at a UNESCO World Heritage site.” Desert Sun, October 8, 2019.  Available at:

Deborah Vankin, “Desert X art exhibition heads to Saudi Arabia – and into contentious territory.” Los Angeles Times, October 7, 2019. Available at:

Deborah Vankin, “Desert X show in Saudi Arabia brings more fallout: A donor pulls out.” Los Angeles Times, October 16, 2019. Available at:

Ella Peek, “Ethical Criticism of Art.” Available at:

Jackie Northam, “Investors Are Back in Saudi Arabia a Year After Khashoggi’s Killing.” National Public Radio, October 2, 2019.  Available at:


Draven Schoberg & Scott R. Stroud, Ph.D.
Media Ethics Initiative
Center for Media Engagement
University of Texas at Austin
November 11, 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 at sstroud (at) 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 Different Species of the Online Catfish

CASE STUDY: The Circle and the Ethics of Online Identity

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Promotional Poster / Wikipedia / Modified

Netflix’s new show, The Circle, is a real-life popularity contest where the winner claims the title of “the circle champion” and a whopping sum of $100,000. There’s a catch, however, which makes the show a bit fishy. Players interact with each other only through a voice-activated text messaging program designed by Netflix in a controlled and isolated environment without any other social media or internet access. Each player can choose to be themselves, another version of themselves, or someone completely different through their typed conversations. Everyone gets to choose their name and the profile pictures they present to the other contestants. The least popular players can be blocked by the circle “influencers,” the two most popular players from the previous round of competition. In this highly-controlled competition for popularity, “catfishing” is not only allowed, but it might bring considerable advantage.

“Catfishing” has become a popular internet phenomenon where social media and online dating site users trick others by pretending to be someone they are not (D’Costa 2014). Catfishes “hook” people into online friendships and romances, creating a story about themselves that is often far from the truth. The online medium allows for the easy manipulation of one’s image; an estimated 83 million Facebook accounts are fake (Gordon 2019). A catfish not only deceives people into believing they are someone else, but they also can bring considerable harm to others. It is a perfect way for pedophiles and other internet criminals to target innocent social media users, or a method for scammers to gain ill-gotten riches through impersonation. Once a catfish lures other users to share intimate information, they might extort the fooled person with threats to release this sensitive content. Cyberbullies sometimes mask their intentions and embarrass their target with information collected from the targeted individual out of misplaced trust. In less harmful cases, individuals still feel deceived when they find out an online partner or friend was not who they said they were. Catfishing for many seems like the worst sort of deception, one that involves inauthentically hiding or changing who you really are as a person.

But what The Circle teaches us is that catfishing is not as clear cut in what it means and what makes it morally questionable. For instance, what if one catfishes not out of malice, but instead from the desire to spread a message that they are more than their appearance (De Maria 2020)? One female competitor, Sean, chose to use pictures of a thinner friend “Colleen” for her profile. Sean claimed she chose to catfish so that people could fall in love with her quirky and bubbly personality, and not sneer at her “plus sized body.” In this instance, Sean only changed her appearance and not her complete self in her mediated interactions with others on the show. It’s true that people tend to “judge a book by its cover,” and using photos that are visually appealing can translate into a popularity advantage, or at least get one’s personality a hearing before someone moves on in the rapidly changing world of online interactions. Another Circle competitor, Karyn, used photos of another woman and the name “Mercedeze” to create a heterosexual personality that she predicted would gain her popularity on the show (Sanchez 2020). In another instance, the male Circle competitor Seaburn chose to completely transform himself into the character of “Rebecca,” a sweet, innocent female persona, because he thought it would give him an advantage in gaming the other male contestants. In a culminating real-life encounter over dinner before the season finale, “Rebecca”/Seaburn revealed his true self to four remaining competitors, most of whom were initially shocked about the radical deception that Seaburn had built up over many interactions. Each of these examples from The Circle allow us to imagine various ways that identity can be manipulated for different purposes and projects of the catfishing agent, each of which reveals different sorts of deception and inauthenticity by the communicating agent.

But The Circle has one more thought-provoking twist up its virtual sleeve. Male Circle contestant Ed chose to use his real name and a real profile picture for the game, but conducted his catfishing in his Netflix-controlled apartment with his secret weapon: his mom. This case of catfishing is different: even though the picture and name were accurate, the “brains” and personality behind the virtual self was really a composite of two individuals. Ed’s purpose in bringing his mother into his catfishing was to help him be the best version of himself. Ed’s mom worked on his word choice and strategy with each contestant to gain trust and popularity in The Circle. Ed, and his mother, built a relationship with Circle contestant Sammy, whom he chose to visit in real life after he was eliminated from the game. Upon revealing that he was accompanied by his mother, Sammy was shocked. Ed’s mother explained that the dynamic duo used “Ed’s looks” and her brain to flirt and build relationships with the other contestants. Ed’s catfishing was an act of deception toward the other contestants of The Circle, since he was not writing all of the messages and social media content like some of the other players. But other cases of catfishing involve a person being inauthentic in a different way—telling stories about themselves that do not match up to who they really are. But the question arses—who is Ed “really?” Ed didn’t use fake photographs or spread false information about himself, he just employed his mom as a check on his less-desirable ways of interacting with females; in other words, she was used to “enhance” his presentation of self. If one’s “authentic” identity might be the best part or version of one’s complex real-life self, could a composite catfish like Ed/Ed’s Mother bring out the highest potentials in Ed to his conversational partners?

Despite its drama and plot twists, The Circle shows us the range of ways that one can alter online identities in efforts at catfishing others. Some of these are clearly morally reprehensible, but some are not. And the reasons why we find some problematic seem to jar with what is troublesome about other cases of catfishing. If real-life identity is as complex as a human’s ever-changing life story, and if there are so many different species of the online catfish, might we be fooling ourselves into thinking we understand the complex morality of identity in digital communication?

Discussion Questions:

  1. What different types of online catfishing might you identify? What differentiates them from each other?
  2. What makes catfishing—in general, or in some of its specific forms—morally problematic?
  3. What values underlie individual negative responses to finding out that someone is a catfish? Are these reactions warranted?
  4. What does it mean to present your real or authentic self to others in online interaction? Would you put this same burden on other interactions such as job interviews, with their high emphasis on strategic presentation of personal details?
  5. What are the ethical implications of someone using deception like Ed did—perhaps to bring out his best self in every interaction? If Ed wasn’t doing this as part of a competition, would your judgment of this sort of catfishing change?

 Further Information:

D’Costa, K. (2014, April 25). Catfishing: The Truth about Deception Online. Retrieved from

De Maria, M. (2020, January 16). ‘The Circle’ Is More Than a Netflix Reality Show-It’s Challenging Fatphobia. Retrieved from

Gordon, S. (2019, December 2). Learn the Warning Signs of Catfishing to Prevent Being Cyberbullied. Retrieved from

Sanchez, O. (2020, January). Get to know the real people in ‘The Circle’ catfish photos. Retrieved from


Michaela Urban & Scott R. Stroud, Ph.D.
Media Ethics Initiative
Center for Media Engagement
University of Texas at Austin
March 24, 2020

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 at sstroud (at) 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.


To Release or Not to Release

CASE STUDY: The Ethics of Glorifying Violent Histories in South Asian Film

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Theatrical Release Poster

On October 31, 1984, two of Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s bodyguards assassinated her. The political killing came four months after the Prime Minister ordered the raid and siege of a shrine in the Punjabi city of Amritsar’s Golden Temple complex. Sikh separatists controlled the temple and Gandhi sent the Indian Army to oust them from the holy site. Hundreds died; an Indian Army general called it a “killing ground” (Raj & Najar, 2014). The two bodyguards and a third co-conspirator were Sikhs who sought revenge by killing the Prime Minister. Following their ambush of Gandhi, one was shot dead by police in the immediate aftermath of the assassination, and the second was hanged in 1989 for the crime alongside the third. The assassination provoked nationwide violence, with the communal retaliation resulting in the deaths of over 3,000 Sikhs.

Thirty years later, a film titled “Kaum De Heere”—which translates to “Diamonds of the Community”—was on the verge of opening in India. It would not be the first film to deal with Prime Minister Gandhi’s life, legacy, or death, but it would be the first to center on her assassins. In 2014, days before it was slated to be released the Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC) reversed its clearance of the movie and blocked it from distribution after Home Ministry objections that it could create religious tensions. Leela Samson, the CBFC chairperson, said “the problem lies in the fact that [the film] eulogizes things it shouldn’t … like taking the law into your own hands” (Raj & Najar, 2014). Religious tensions were particularly high when discussing the film, furthering Samson’s concern that it “puts a community or religious group above the interests of the nation” (Raj & Najar, 2014). Citing similar tensions, intelligence agencies warned the film could spark violence among religious communities within India. Youth in the Indian National Congress Party lobbied the current Indian prime minister, Narendra Modi, to ban the film because it allegedly glorified the assassins.

One of the producers, Pardeep Bansal, countered these criticisms, stating that “it is a completely balanced film wherein no religion or sect has been belittled” (Raj & Najar, 2014). Another producer, Ravinder Ravi, claimed to have spent time with the families of the two assassins—Satwant and Beant Singh. He argued, “films have been made about political assassinations all over the world, so why can’t a film be made” about Prime Minister Gandhi’s (Biswas, 2014)? What’s more, the Revising Committee screened the film multiple times before originally granting clearance adding to speculation that the Congress Party and Bharatiya Janata Party called for the reversal. By October 2014, the producers had filed an appeal of the decision.

Fast forward to 2019 and the film is finally slated for release. Justice Vibhu Bakhru of the Delhi High Court, which overturned the CBFC ban, argued once the body clears a film, they cannot use law and order as an excuse to halt its release. Bakhru also stated that the board improperly used the unconstitutional Section 6(1) of the Cinematograph Act to justify their decision. The now illegitimate section “enable[d] the Central Government to exercise revisional powers in respect to decisions rendered by CBFC,” and in this case, the procedure dictated by the now defunct policy was not even followed properly, per the high court (Press Trust of India, 2019). The court’s finding supports the producers’ appeal, which argued there was “no factual or legal basis for withdrawal of certificate” to release the film (Press Trust of India, 2019), dismissing concerns of renewed violence as either immaterial or improbable. None of the speculated violence behind the CBFC decision has come to pass since the court cleared the film for release at the end of August and the Congress Party and Bharatiya Janata Party have not mounted significant protests, yet religious tensions are still simmering.

Meanwhile, a new web series on Prime Minister Gandhi is under production. Actress Vidya Balan, who will play Gandhi, claims the series “is not about any political party, [it] is about an individual who goes beyond the party” (Indo-Asian News Service, 2019). Perhaps it too will run into trouble clearing the CBFC; after all, Balan’s argument could just as easily be applied to the Sikh bodyguards as the Prime Minister she’s slated to portray. How can the values of free speech, artistic freedom, and communal safety be balanced in the turbulent media environment of India?

Discussion Questions:

  1. What issues are at stake in dramatized retellings of contentious history, such as the events of Gandhi’s administration or her assassination?
  2. What consideration, if any, should the CBFC—or similar bodies elsewhere—give to political and cultural climate when making censorship decisions?
  3. When making a movie about historical events, is there an ethical responsibility to condemn—or at least not to encourage or valorize—violence and its perpetrators?
  4. More broadly, how do ethics relate to artistic products? Are there subjects that are simply not suitable for art?

Further Information:

Soutik Biswas, “Indira Gandhi assassination: Controversial film blocked.” BBC News, August 22, 2014. Available at:

Indo-Asian News Service, “Vidya Balan on why she decided to make web series on Indira Gandhi.” India Today, August 28, 2019. Available at:

Press Trust of India, “Delhi HC clears release of Punjabi movie ‘Kaum De Heere.’” Business Standard, August 29, 2019. Available at:

Suhasini Raj and Nida Najar, “Film about Indira Gandhi’s assassination is barred from Indian Theaters.” The New York Times, August 22, 2014. Available at:


Dakota Park-Ozee & Scott R. Stroud, Ph.D.
Media Ethics Initiative
Center for Media Engagement
University of Texas at Austin
January 22, 2020

This case is supported with funding from the South Asia Institute at the University of Texas at Austin. 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.

Censorship in Pakistan

CASE STUDY: Are Journalists Obligated to Speak Up?

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Bill Kerr / CC BY-SA 2.0

For many, there is little debate needed to reach the conclusion that Pakistan’s state sanctioned press intimidation is too harsh. One of the most pressing challenges to journalism ethics in Pakistan focuses on what the press is or is not obligated to do in response. Contemporary Pakistani laws combined with military and administrative aggression toward journalists have created a climate of self-censorship where journalists no longer act as watchdogs and informants for fear of reprisal. Self-censorship “is the worst kind of censorship, because it is done out of fear” said longtime Pakistani journalist, Ghazi Salauddin (Gannon, 2018). In response to the hostile media environment, journalists might persevere, seek greater independence, move online, or adapt to regulation, but each option is not without its own ethical considerations.


Cyril Almeida—assistant editor and columnist for Dawn—was recently named the International Press Institute’s 2019 World Press Freedom Hero for “his tenacious coverage” in reporting of the relationship between the state and militant groups and “tremendous resolve in tackling—at great risk to himself—deeply contentious issues that are nevertheless of central importance to Pakistan’s democracy” (Hashim, 2019). Almeida wrote a weekly column—discontinued in January—and interviewed an exiled former Prime Minister. As punishment for his coverage and refusal to back down from criticizing the government and military, Almeida faces treason charges, restrictions on his movement, and intimidation. Perseverance provided the citizenry with much needed information but cost Almeida much of his freedom.

On the other hand, press organizations may seek greater independence through financial divestment. Steven Butler from the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) argues Pakistan’s pressure on journalists comes in part “though the owners of media properties” (Gannon, 2018). Mohammad Ziauddin of the Pakistan Press Foundation explains that many of the business people running Pakistani media are there “not to make money, not to serve the public, but to have clout” (Gannon, 2018). In the last year, there have been layoffs and programming cuts associated with “the worst financial crisis the media industry has seen since it was liberalized,” according to Afzal Butt of the Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists (Ali, 2018). The crunch was caused by a drastic cut in government spending on media advertising because, as Saroop Ijaz of Human Rights Watch Pakistan explains, Pakistani news organizations “still rely heavily on government advertisements and subsidies” (Ali, 2018). The huge step back by the administration at once makes TV stations less beholden to government funds and thus government wishes but also makes them cash poor. As Butler asserts, “while reliance on government revenues is not a healthy model for press freedom, the sudden cutbacks have imposed extreme hardship on the media, which has had basically no time to adjust business models” (Gannon, 2018).

A third option for Pakistani journalists is to move online to less regulated and less capitally driven venues. Unfortunately, the government is cracking down on social media use by citizens but especially by journalists. They repeatedly ask companies like Twitter and Facebook to remove posts and pages and to suspend accounts. Journalist Taha Siddiqui moved to France after he was attacked but still cannot escape censorship from the Pakistani government. Reportedly, Twitter suspended his account twice in just three days because of “objectionable content that was in violation of Pakistani law” (Gannon, 2018). Several other journalists still in Pakistan, like Murtaza Solangi, have received similar notifications from Twitter that the government reported their tweets for violating the law. The problem of digital censorship is exacerbated by commonly-held impressions because, as highlighted by Asad Beyg of Media Matters for Democracy, “most accredited journalists bodies don’t recognize digital journalism as ‘real’ journalism” (Chaudry, 2018).

The CPJ advises news media owners and editors to strengthen security protocols and training, enhance self-regulation to instill confidence in accuracy and fairness, and universally condemn attacks, threats, and intimidation, potentially via professional guidelines. Almeida himself says the line of what is acceptable is drawn in terms of specificity; conflict between press and state occurs “if granular detail and specifics are reported on or commented on” (Hashim, 2019). Perhaps a solution then is to provide citizens with broad overviews of the issues and trust them to find more information for themselves, allowing journalists to serve as informants, generally, without risking censure or worse. But, if the press cannot provide details, who will? Yet, when, according to the CPJ, Pakistan’s military “restricts reporting by barring access, encouraging self-censorship through direct and indirect acts of intimidation, and even allegedly instigating violence against reporters” (Hashim, 2019), how much can we ask journalists to do?

Discussion Questions:

  1. Are journalists obligated to be the public watchdogs of governmental institutions even when it puts them at risk?
  2. Should social media companies participate in state censorship of journalism in adherence with national laws, or should they refuse such government control of information?
  3. What is the best way for journalists to fight state censorship of the press?
  4. Is there an ethical obligation for non-journalist citizens to intervene on behalf of the press? Put another way, is the reading public compelled to defend the freedoms of those institutions from which we benefit?
  5. What concerns might be raised by approaches that protect journalists by relying upon readers to gather more information outside of a vaguely-reported story?

Further Information:

Umer Ali, “The Pakistan government’s financial squeeze on journalism.” Columbia Journalism Review, December 20, 2018. Available at:

Suddaf Chaudry, “Pakistan: Censorship by stealth.” New Internationalist, November 15, 2018. Available at:

Kathy Gannon, “Pakistan’s journalists complain of increasing censorship.” Associated Press, December 26, 2018. Available at:

Asad Hashim, “Pakistan’s Cyril Almeida named IPI’s World Press Freedom Hero.” Al Jazeera, April 24, 2019. Available at:


Dakota Park-Ozee & Scott R. Stroud, Ph.D.
Media Ethics Initiative
Center for Media Engagement
University of Texas at Austin
October 15, 2019

This case is supported with funding from the South Asia Institute at the University of Texas at Austin. 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.

Actors Playing Protestors in Real Life

CASE STUDY: Bollywood and the Ethics of Celebrity Politics in India

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   Images: Twitter

The student of Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) are engaged in ongoing protests in the aftermath of a mob attack on campus. For months, students at JNU have protested “an announced rise in fees as well as a new citizenship law, which critics say discriminates against Muslims and erodes India’s secular constitution” (Reuters, 2020). On Sunday, January 5, 2020 a group of masked men stormed campus with sticks, injuring at least 30 students. Following the attack, students, including those harmed, continued to rally.

And on Tuesday, January 7, 2020, an unexpected supporter joined them: Bollywood superstar Deepika Padukone. Padukone did not make any speeches or draw attention to herself, offering quiet solidarity with her presence, leaving and arriving with discretion. This, however, did not prevent a social media firestorm, “a frenzy that only a Bollywood star can whip up in movie-mad India” (Biswas, 2020). Padukone’s presence provoked mixed reactions among Indians and Bollywood fans. The tensions have led to simultaneous hashtags supporting Padukone and calling for a boycott of her latest movie released January 10, 2020.

Student leaders like former JNU Student’s Union president Kanhaiya Kumar thanked her for her “solidarity and support,” telling her “you might be abused or trolled today, but history will remember you for your courage and standing by the idea of India” (Biswas, 2020). Supporters even promised to watch her new film—“Chhapaak”—about acid attack survivor Laxmi Agarwal, which Padukone both acted in and produced. Actor Anurag Kashyap called for “all those who stand against the violence go to @bookmyshow” and purchase tickets (Reuters, 2020).

Yet some of Padukone’s peers dismissed her. Vivek Ranjan Agnihotri, a filmmaker and supporter of India’s controversial conservative Prime Minister, Narendra Modi,  argued “by standing with this small community of anti-India students she has sent a message that she doesn’t support 98% India-loving students” (Biswas, 2020). The Rajasthan Deputy Chief Minister, Sachin Pilot, condemned boycott attempts; he argued “it’s a very narrow mindset if any actor or actress is not in your favour, then you talk about boycotting their films” (PTI, 2020). For some, the timing of the controversial move enhances perceptions of how much Padukone risked in acting on her convictions; with the release of “Chhapaak” looming, a lot is on the line. For others, the timing reads as a publicity stunt to promote the film, tweeting “what a brazen [and] cheap tactic to promote a film” (Reuters, 2020).

Stunt or not, Padukone is, on the whole, receiving more support than criticism with her follower counts increasing and critics calling “Chhapaak” an “important film to watch” (Pereira, 2020). The same internet explosion might not happen for another artist, but Padukone has tens of millions of followers on both Instagram and Twitter and in 2016 was ranked by Forbes as the 10th highest paid actress in the world. A big name brings big drama.

The JNU protests were not the first time Padukone faced controversy for her personal or profession life. Before the release of her film “Padmaavat,” members of the fringe group Rajput Karni Sena called for a nationwide ban, vandalized theaters, and threatened the actress physically. Member Mahipal Singh Makrana said in a video statement that “if need be, we will do to Deepika what Lakshman did to Shurpanakha,” meaning cut off her nose (Pereira, 2020). Amidst the same controversy, a mid-level media coordinator of Modi’s ‎Bharatiya Janata Party reportedly put a bounty on Padukone’s head.

The case of Padukone and the Delhi protests brings up the larger issue: how involved should celebrities be in protests or persuasive campaigns? Celebrities hold much power in the public realm, but it is unclear that they possess any special insight into situations of social injustice. Alternatively, their power comes with a price. Since they depend on publicity to gain followers, fans, and audiences, negative publicity due to issues unrelated to their films might harm their ability to continue making popular or successful media artifacts. Despite the common perception that Bollywood stars often avoid politics, the Padukone case highlights the ways the two are more frequently intersecting. Director Mahesh Bhatt explains the struggle between the Bollywood and political power, arguing a Bollywood filmmaker is “a vulnerable animal, especially when his film inches toward release. You can blackmail and make him kneel down” (Biswas, 2020). But Bollywood celebrities might bring attention and energy to situations and causes that otherwise might go unnoticed. Padukone surely brought more attention to the Delhi protests from the Indian media, and India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi often uses the power of other Bollywood figures to his advantage, taking selfies and spending time with supportive members of the filmmaking elite. Given the risks and potential uses of Bollywood celebrity status, India is confronting more and more the question of when Bollywood drama and power should yield to the power of ordinary politics.

Discussion Questions:

  1. Should filmmakers and actors consider economic repercussions before speaking out on political issues or controversies?
  2. What role should artists have in shaping political discourse? Do artists and celebrities have different responsibilities than ordinary protestors?
  3. Is it more ethical for celebrities with great influence to avoid or embrace politics?
  4. What are the ethical issues in boycotting or “cancelling” celebrities for their politics?

Further Information:

Soutik Biswas, “Deepika Padukone: Has Bollywood found a political voice?” BBC News, January 8, 2020. Available at:

Karen Pereira, “‘Padmaavat’ to ‘Chhapaak’: 4 times Deepika Padukone stood her ground in the face of threats, violence and controversy.” Times of India, January 9, 2020. Available at:

PTI, “Deepika Padukone’s JNU visit: Sachin Pilot condemns ‘Chhapaak’ boycott, says more people will watch the movie new.” The Economic Times, January 9, 2020. Available at:

Reuters, “Bollywood actor faces boycott calls after joining student protest.” The Guardian, January 8, 2020. Available at:


Dakota Park-Ozee & Scott R. Stroud, Ph.D.
Media Ethics Initiative
Center for Media Engagement
University of Texas at Austin
March 19, 2020

This case is supported with funding from the South Asia Institute at the University of Texas at Austin. 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.

Changing Comments or Changing Minds?

CASE STUDY: Protesting Censorship in Pakistan through Algorithmic Alterations

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DTpic-600x129On April 17, 2016, the Daily Times—a major English-language newspaper in Pakistan—published an editorial on the nation’s controversial blasphemy law. The law, according to Human Rights Watch, carries a mandatory death penalty for blaspheming against Islam. The article was published in the wake of renewed controversy over Aasia Bibi, the first woman ever convicted and sentenced to death under the blasphemy law in November 2010 for an incident in 2009. All told, no person convicted of blasphemy has been executed, but 53 people have been killed in extra-judicial violence (Ijaz, 2016).

Given the controversial nature of the law and intentionally provocative publication of the editorial, the Daily Times anticipated a deluge of comments from online readers. The article was ideal for launching the “Free My Voice” campaign. Most contemporary news outlets have websites and the majority of story webpages include a comment feature where users can post feedback, opinions, or questions below a piece of reporting. While there are some sites that moderate comments—deleting those deemed inappropriate or editing for clarity—it is not common practice to meaningfully alter the reader’s message.  That is exactly what happened on the Daily Times editorial. The Daily Times teamed up with ad agency Grey Singapore and free speech organization ARTICLE 19 to launch the “Free My Voice” campaign as a way to protest restrictions on press liberty.

When users tried to comment on the blasphemy editorial, an algorithm automatically reversed the meaning of their post. For example, a comment written to say “the author is correct. The current laws in Pakistan are a distortion of Islam” would instead read “the author is wrong. The current laws in Pakistan aren’t a distortion of Islam” (Smith, 2016). No matter how many times a comment was typed, it would reverse meaning. Readers could not leave a comment that accurately reflected their position. Eventually, potential posters were “led to a landing page to sign a petition or donate toward the Free My Voice campaign” (Hicks, 2016).

According to the Daily Times, the “statements were altered, real-time, on the medium they would least expect censorship to happen—the comment box.” They furthered that the point of the program was to make commenters “experience censorship first-hand to make them feel the frustration of what it is like to lose [a] fundamental right” (Smith, 2016). In a story they published about the project, the Daily Times explained censorship is common in Pakistan; it is ranked as the fourth most dangerous country for journalists by the International Federation of Journalists. They also deem the blasphemy law one of the “country’s biggest threats to free speech” (Smith, 2016).

In addition to the blasphemy law, the project was a response to a newly approved Electronic Crimes Bill, which gave the Pakistani government greater power to block the spread of information, potentially arbitrarily. Tahmina Rahman, Regional Director for ARTICLE 19 Bangladesh and South Asia, expressed hope the “collaboration will demonstrate the pernicious nature of censorship that so often goes unseen but has untold consequences for society” (ARTICLE 19, 2016). Shehryar Taseer, the Daily Times publisher, justified the project saying “we all have to take a stance against censorship,” which is becoming “a global issue” (Smith, 2016).

The idea was to make citizens who might take their freedom of speech for granted experience the same censorship that stifles the press, motivating them to fight back on behalf of journalists. However, there is a potentially unacknowledged irony in censoring citizens engaged with the news to highlight the problem of censoring the press. Citizens are not being directly silenced—prevented from speaking—but censored through forced alteration of their words, words still attributed to them through a username and photo next to the posted comment. The project risks falling into the same ethical trap it claims to oppose, thus alienating citizens who might otherwise support them, especially in a climate where some comments or their engineered opposites may be politically controversial. The Daily Times project could put citizens in risky social or legal territory. “Free My Voice” potentially strips readers of their autonomy in an effort to regain journalistic integrity. While many would agree that the pursuit of a free press is admirable, some might worry about the ethical value of the tactics used by the Daily Times and its collaborators. To what extent can actual and unsuspecting readers be used in a news outlet’s effort to bring public attention to common, but sometimes unnoticed, curtailments of media freedom?

Discussion Questions:

  1. Does the “Free My Voice” discussion harmfully limit discussion of the blasphemy law? What are potential worries about using an algorithm to change the meaning of reader comments?
  2. Should press organizations like the Daily Times protest censorship so directly if it risks further restrictions of their freedoms and ability to provide the public with information?
  3. What obligation, if any, do citizens have to donate, sign petitions, or otherwise participate in protests by journalists?
  4. Is censoring, or forcefully altering, citizen comments an ethical way to critique government censorship?
  5. Do acts of protest have to have the consent of all involved, or all affected by the protest?

Further Information:

ARTICLE 19, “Pakistan: ARTICLE 19 and Daily Times bring censorship home for online readers.” ARTICLE 19, April 17, 2016. Available at:

Robin Hicks, “Agency’s algorithm flips sentiment of comments in article about Pakistan’s blasphemy law.” Mumbrella Asia, May 30, 2016. Available at:

Saroop Ijaz, “Facing the death penalty for blasphemy in Pakistan.” Human Rights Watch, October 12, 2016. Available at:

Sydney Smith, “Pakistani newspaper alters readers’ comments to make censorship point.” iMediaEthics, May 31, 2016. Available at:


Dakota Park-Ozee & Scott R. Stroud, Ph.D.
Media Ethics Initiative
Center for Media Engagement
University of Texas at Austin
February 20, 2020

This case is supported with funding from the South Asia Institute at the University of Texas at Austin. 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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