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Google Assistant and the Ethics of AI

CASE STUDY: The Ethics of Artificial Intelligence in Human Interaction

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Artificial intelligence (AI) is increasingly prevalent in our daily activities. In May 2018, Google demonstrated a new AI technology known as “Duplex.” Designed for our growing array of smart devices and specifically for the Google Assistant feature, this system has the ability to sound like a human on the phone while accomplishing tasks like scheduling a hair appointment or making a dinner reservation. Duplex is able to navigate various misunderstandings along the course of a conversation and possesses the ability to acknowledge when the conversation has exceeded its ability to respond. As Duplex gets perfected in phone-based applications and beyond, it will introduce a new array of ethical issues into questions concerning AI in human communication

There are obvious advantages to integrating AI systems into our smart devices. Advocates for human-sounding communicative AI systems such as Duplex argue that these are logical extensions of our urge to make our technologies do more with less effort. In this case, it’s an intelligent program that saves us time by doing mundane tasks such as making diner reservations and calling to inquire about holiday hours at a particular store. If we don’t object to using online reservation systems as a way to speed up a communicative transaction, why would we object to using human-sounding program to do the same thing?

Yet Google’s May 2018 demonstration created an immediate backlash. Many agreed with Zeynep Tufekci’s passionate reaction: “Google Assistant making calls pretending to be human not only without disclosing that it’s a bot, but adding ‘ummm’ and ‘aaah’ to deceive the human on the other end with the room cheering it… [is] horrifying. Silicon Valley is ethically lost, rudderless and has not learned a thing” (Meyer, 2018). What many worried about was the deception involved in the interaction, since only one party (the caller) knew that the call was being made by a program designed to sound like a human. Even though there was no harm to the restaurant and hair salon employees involved in the early demonstration of Duplex, the deception of human-sounding AI was still there. In a more recent test of the Duplex technology, Google responded to critics by including a notice in the call itself: “Hi, I’m calling to make a reservation. I’m Google’s automated booking service, so I’ll record the call. Uh, can I book a table for Sunday the first” (Bohn, 2018)? Such announcements are added begrudgingly, since it’s highly likely that a significant portion of humans called will hang up once they realize that this is not a “real” human interaction.

While this assuaged some worries, it is notable that the voice accompanying this AI notice was even more human-like than ever. Might this technology be hacked or used without such a warning that the voice one is hearing is AI produced? Furthermore, others worry about the data integration that is enabled when such an AI program as Duplex is employed by a company as far-reaching as Google. Given the bulk of consumer data Google possesses as one of the most popular search engines, critics fear future developments that would allow the Google Assistant to impersonate users at a deeper, more personal level through access to a massive data profile for each user. This is simply a more detailed, personal version of the basic worry about impersonation: “If robots can freely pose as humans the scope for mischief is incredible; ranging from scam calls to automated hoaxes” (Vincent, 2018). While critics differ about whether industry self-regulation or legislation will be the way to address technologies such as Duplex, the basic question remains: do we create more ethical conundrums by making our AI systems sound like humans, or is this another streamlining of our everyday lives that we will simply have to get used to over time?

Discussion Questions:

  1. What are the ethical values in conflict in this debate over human-sounding AI systems?
  2. Do you think the Duplex AI system is deceptive? Is this use harmful? If it’s one and not the other, does this make it less problematic?
  3. Do the ethical concerns disappear after Google added a verbalized notice that the call was being made by an AI program?
  4. How should companies develop and implement AI systems like Duplex? What limitations should they install in these systems?
  5. Do you envision a day when we no longer assume that human-sounding voices come from a specific living human interacting with us? Does this matter now?

Further Information:

Bohn, Dieter. “Google Duplex really works and testing begins this summer.” The Verge, 27 June 2018. Available at: https://www.theverge.com/2018/6/27/17508728/google-duplex-assistant-reservations-demo

McMullan, Thomas. “Google Duplex: Google responds to ethical concerns about AI masquerading as humans.” ALPHR, 11 May 2018. Available at: https://www.alphr.com/google/1009290/google-duplex-assistant-io-ai-impersonating-humans

Meyer, David. “Google Should Have Thought About Duplex’s Ethical Issues Before Showing It Off.” Fortune, 11 May 2018. Available at:  https://www.fortune.com/2018/05/11/google-duplex-virtual-assistant-ethical-issues-ai-machine-learning/

Vincent, James. “Google’s AI sounds like a human on the phone — should we be worried?” The Verge, 9 May 2018. Available at: https://www.theverge.com/2018/5/9/17334658/google-ai-phone-call-assistant-duplex-ethical-social-implications

Authors:

Sabrina Stoffels & Scott R. Stroud, Ph.D.
Media Ethics Initiative
Center for Media Engagement
University of Texas at Austin
September 24, 2018

www.mediaethicsinitiative.org


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 use. 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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CASE STUDY: Online Comment Sections and Democratic Discourse

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The online world seems defined by interaction. We converse with known and unknown others on social media sites, blogs, and even at the bottom of stories on news sites. For journalism, this interaction is fairly new. In the early 2000s, only about eight to 30 percent of news sites had comment sections. About 10 years later, that number rose to 85 percent. As of 2010, Pew reported that 32% of Internet users have posted a comment on an online news article (Stroud et al., 2014). Newspapers and news websites realized the value of online comment sections: they can facilitate reader interaction and the sharing of opinions about journalistic content. But having the ability to comment doesn’t necessarily mean that readers will leave constructive or thoughtful comments; sites such as NPR, Popular Science, VICE News, MSN, and the Guardian decided to abandon comment sections altogether. Many cited the hateful, irrelevant, or crude content that so often populates comment sections as the primary reason for eliminating them on a news site.

In 2013, Popular Science got rid of their comment sections due to “trolls and spambots” who overwhelmed those who were actually “committed to fostering intellectual debate.” Some evidence seemed to show that uncivil comments can “skew a reader’s perception” or even change a reader’s mind altogether about the scientific information presented in the article. As Natalie Stroud and co-authors (2014) argue, “instead of being a forum for learning and discovery, comment sections can devolve into a dark cave of name-calling and ad hominin attacks.” Following Popular Science, NPR announced their decision to eliminate comment sections in 2016. They explained that the comment sections attached to their stories were “not providing a useful experience for the vast majority of [their] users” (Montgomery, 2016). Comments could be moderated, but this slows down discourse and increases costs; it also puts a news company in the uncomfortable position of judging and potentially censoring certain opinions. Eliminating comment sections avoids the worries and costs about selecting which comments are worthwhile to post, while avoiding the distractions and harms of uncivil, irrelevant, or hateful posts.

 

Instances such as these evoked both support and condemnation from those interested in creating more vibrant journalistic practices. Some worried that the hateful and uncivil actions of a small percentage of users was dictating the communication opportunities of the majority of news audiences. If the interaction of citizens through reason-based debate and discussion is vital for a democracy’s flourishing, removing the immediate space for such discussion on a specific newsworthy story is seen as problematic. Additionally, some may argue that the ability to put up with or tolerate disagreement—or in the worst case, hateful opinions—is an important skill for democratic citizens living in a community that often has to live with difference and disagreement among its members. Disabling the airing of such strong and controversial views may also discourage this habit in citizens, especially when connected with the pro-democratic institution of journalism.

Other applaud closing down of comment sections that have become a magnet for trolls seeking to provoke others to no real-world end. They point out the harm that giving a platform for extreme and hateful viewpoints creates; clearly, a democracy cannot be totally free of disagreement or hateful views, but should it place a spotlight on these by allowing any and all to comment on the news of the day? If relevant comments get overwhelmed by comments filled with irrelevant, false, or even derogatory content (often stoked by the ability to post anonymously), the real conversational value of comment sections disappears. Beyond this, newspapers worried about what a hostile and vitriolic comment section may do to their image as an objective news source.

The supporters of eliminating comment sections place the hope for civil discourse in other, more controlled, contexts. The cost to democratic community and the information-conveying function of the news is too high. Alternatively, supporters of comment sections see these areas of sometimes-wild discourse as a vital part of democracy. Perhaps one can clean up the comments—by using software that require individuals to log in with social media accounts—but these may raise the cost of risky or unpopular comments too high and stifle speech that would otherwise be uttered if protected by the veil of anonymity. How free should our discussions be on websites that offer us the news we need to be a flourishing democracy?

Discussion Questions:

  1. Are comment sections integral for the functioning of digital journalism in a democracy? Why or why not?
  2. Is eliminating comment sections the right decision when they become targets of trolling, hateful comments, irrelevant discussion, or personal attacks?
  3. How ought we to react to comments we judge as hateful or vile? Should we respond to them, ignore them, or find a way to get them removed from the discussion section?
  4. What are the ethical obligations of a citizen of a democratic state to others who hold differing views? What are the ethical obligations of news corporations and social media platforms to those who hold unpopular or even hateful views?

Further Information:

Scott Montgomery, “Beyond Comments: Finding Better Ways To Connect With You.” National Public Radio, August 17, 2016. Available at: https://www.npr.org/sections/npr-extra/2016/08/17/490208179/beyond-comments-finding-better-ways-to-connect-with-you

Suzanne LaBarre, “Why We’re Shutting Off Our Comments.” Popular Science, September 24, 2013. Available at: https://www.popsci.com/science/article/2013-09/why-were-shutting-our-comments

Clothilde Goujard, “Why news websites are closing their comments sections.” Medium: Global Editors Network, September 8, 2016. Available at: https://medium.com/global-editors-network/why-news-websites-are-closing-their-comments-sections-ea31139c469d

Maranda Jones, “Why Traditional Comment Sections Won’t Work in 2018.” SquareOffs, March 29, 2018. Available at: https://blog.squareoffs.com/why-traditional-comment-sections-wont-work-in-2018

Natalie Jomini Stroud, Ashley Muddiman, Joshua Scacco, Alex Curry, and Cynthia Peacock, “Journalist Involvement in Comment Sections.” The Engaging News Project, September 10, 2014. Available at: https://mediaengagement.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/04/ENP_Comments_Report.pdf

Authors:

Bailey Sebastian & Scott R. Stroud, Ph.D.
Media Ethics Initiative
Center for Media Engagement
University of Texas at Austin
August 31, 2018

www.mediaethicsinitiative.org


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 use. 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.

Virtual Reality, Immersive Media, and Journalism

CASE STUDY: The Ethics of Facebook’s Virtual Trip to Puerto Rico

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Screen capture from Facebook.com

Immersive media technologies increasingly provide opportunities for engagement with media texts in more expansive ways than traditional modes of media consumption. Virtual reality technologies open up new possibilities for journalists and news organizations that are looking to provide more powerful experiences to convey the news. However, the merging of journalism and virtual reality technologies create new ethical challenges for digital reporting. “Virtual reality” is an ambiguous term, but it most often denotes the use of 360-video, spherical videos, and computer-generated experiences. These technologies are valued for their immersive qualities and their ability to elicit greater empathy, emotion, and understanding from viewers for events happened outside of their everyday experience.

In October 2017, Facebook executive Mark Zuckerberg released a video showing the capabilities of Facebook’s virtual reality (VR) headset and a platform called “Facebook Spaces” by touring Puerto Rico in virtual reality after the devastation of Hurricane Maria. The presentation combined an immersive 360-video captured by National Public Radio (NPR) with Facebook’s virtual reality engine that allowed users to create avatars of themselves and virtually travel to and interact with new locations through a VR headset. The video provided an example of the potential applications of VR as a combination of reporting and journalism, and it highlighted the immersion that Facebook could provide to a large audience through Facebook Spaces.

Reaction to the video was not confined to expression of awe at the new technology. Many were outraged, criticizing Zuckerberg’s use of VR to capture the experience of the devastation, loss, and damage in Puerto Rico. Critics argued that even though VR is sold as “virtually” real, the immersive qualities that make the images seem so vivid were not equivalent to the painful reality of the situation. They claimed that the visceral response that VR induces only creates a pseudo-understanding of the reality of a situation or of the experiences of others; from an emotional—but simulated—experience, viewers are left feeling and knowing that they understand the lived experience of those affected by a real tragedy. Many argued that Zuckerberg’s declaration in the video that “it feels like we’re really here in Puerto Rico,” while praising the immersive experience that NPR’s 360-video created, is “so far off from the actual experience” of those actually in Puerto Rico (Kastrenakes, 2017). Another line of criticism focused on the ability of VR to evoke a powerful emotional response from viewers: immersive VR experiences can play “powerfully upon our emotions” and can impact users in a negative way by encouraging irrational or ineffective reactions because of this powerful emotional reaction (Bailenson, 2018). Many viewers critiqued Zuckerberg’s demonstration of the technology as evoking these powerful emotions only as a means of selling and promoting a Facebook product. By engaging in “voyeuristic tourism” and “using [this] tragedy” as a means of drawing attention to a service rather than the tragedy itself, many argue that the video manipulated users into further engagement with Facebook Spaces and VR, rather than to actually help with relief efforts in Puerto Rico (Kharpal, 2017). Thus, VR’s strength of evoking moving experiences was portrayed as its greatest weakness—it can easily become a way to distract people from real experiences or as a way of using very emotional, but simulated, experiences to provoke less-than-fully-rational responses.

Not all are discouraged by the prospects of VR in journalism, however. Those that did not sense any ethical problems with Zuckerberg’s use of VR technology and the 360-video captured by NPR argued that the enhanced visceral response of virtual reality is a powerful tool in evoking empathy and understanding. Barbara E. Allen argues that VR allows you to “see, and hear, and feel the human impact of a story” precisely by eliciting empathy from the powerful emotional reactions viewers have to being immersed inside of an event. In this manner, many argued that the immersive technologies used by Zuckerberg and NPR allowed for viewers to uphold the goals of journalism by helping audiences to understand more clearly the experiences of those in Puerto Rico. By imagining what it is like to be inside of an event through an interactive VR experience, Molly Swenson describes the journalistic payoff; viewers may realize the import of the story when they think “oh my God, what if I couldn’t take off this headset and this is my reality” (2013)? This moment of simulated experience triggers a powerful emotional response, one that may motivate audiences to action that affects positive change in a way that traditional journalism may not.

The controversy over VR in journalism orbits around the question of what parts of experience are valuable, and how we value emotions and information in journalism. Zuckerberg argued that “one of the most powerful features of VR is empathy” and that his goal was to show how VR can be effective in raising awareness and understanding of events happening in different parts of the world (Kharpal, 2017). But how important are emotions for a journalist’s quest to convey newsworthy information, and how might emotional reactions obfuscate or hinder the sort of rational decision making that journalists see as stemming from their work? What is the real journalistic value of immersive, but technologically created, VR experiences?

Discussion Questions:

  1. Was Facebook’s use of VR technologies in response to the disaster in Puerto Rico unethical? Why or why not?
  2. One can write a story full of information about a tragedy, but how important is it to convey the experience of what that tragedy is like? What more does a viewer know if they have all the information about Hurricane Maria’s destruction and they experienced the site of this disaster?
  3. Conveying information is a crucial goal of journalism, but how important is evoking emotion from one’s audience? What are the journalistic benefits of getting a strong emotional reaction from one’s audience?
  4. What might be the problems of journalists using VR technologies to create strong emotional reactions among their audience?
  5. When might the values of conveying information and creating strong emotional reactions come into conflict in journalistic practice? How might a journalist use VR technologies and balance these two concerns?

Further Information:

Allen, B. E. (n.d.). “Virtual Reality and Hurricane Katrina.” Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TC_9suXEswY

Bailenson, J. (2018, January 15). “How Virtual Reality Could Change the Journalism Industry.” PBS. Available at: https://www.pbs.org/newshour/economy/making-sense/how-virtual-reality-could-change-the-journalism-industry

Carson, E. (2015, November 25). “Immersive Journalism: What Virtual Reality Means for the Future of Storytelling and Empathy-Casting.” TechRepublic. Available at: https://www.techrepublic.com/article/immersive-journalism-what-virtual-reality-means-for-the-future-of-storytelling-and-empathy-casting/

Garling, C. (2015, November 03). “Virtual Reality, Empathy and the Next Journalism.” Wired.. Available at: https://www.wired.com/brandlab/2015/11/nonny-de-la-pena-virtual-reality-empathy-and-the-next-journalism/

Kastrenakes, J. (2017, October 09). “A Cartoon Mark Zuckerberg Toured Hurricane-Struck Puerto Rico in Virtual Reality.” The Verge. Available at: https://www.theverge.com/2017/10/9/16450346/zuckerberg-facebook-spaces-puerto-rico-virtual-reality-hurricane

Kharpal, A. (2017, October 10). “Mark Zuckerberg apologizes after Critics slam his ‘Magical’ Video of Puerto Rico Devastation.” CNBC. Available at: https://www.cnbc.com/2017/10/10/facebook-ceo-mark-zuckerberg-slammed-for-puerto-rico-vr-video.html

Authors:

Jason Head & Scott R. Stroud, Ph.D.
Media Ethics Initiative
Center for Media Engagement
University of Texas at Austin
August 15, 2018

www.mediaethicsinitiative.org


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 use. 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.

Sweet Justice?

CASE STUDY: Pepsi’s Controversial Use of Protest Iconography in Advertising

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Screen Capture of Pepsi Ad / Modified

Sometimes advertising catches a viewer’s attention and speaks to important needs of the present. In April 2017, Pepsi released what it thought was just such a timely commercial starring Kendall Jenner on YouTube. The commercial showed Jenner leaving a photo shoot to join a protest that appeared to be innocuous. After taking part of the protest that consisted of a racially diverse group of individuals with signs reading, “Join the Conversation,” Jenner walked up to a line of stoic police officers who formed a wall in front of the protesters. She handed one of them a freshly-opened can of Pepsi. The officer carefully took a sip of the drink and then smiled. The crowd of protesters began to cheer and celebrate. The advertisement concluded with the Pepsi logo and the words “Live for Now” displayed beneath it.

The commercial proved controversial. Some saw in this video the possibility of unity in an America caught in the throes of anti-police protests. Those who lauded the commercial believed it was Pepsi’s well-intentioned attempt to promoting diversity and unity among viewers. The ad incorporated a diverse group of actors composed of various races, genders, and possibly religions representing the protesters. An anonymous actor involved with the commercial stated that Pepsi tried to “depict a message of unity.” He also said that “The commercial had hip-hop dancers and we were all together as humans. I think they tried to show the meaning that people from every country can be together.”

But many viewers did not appreciate the advertisement. Those who were offended by the commercial believed that the video was tone-deaf and that it co-opted serious protests that were occurring across the U.S. in order to sell a soft drink. Many people expressed their frustration towards Jenner online. The video’s images brought to mind the Black Lives Matter protests that were featured in most news sources at the time. For instance, the shot of Jenner giving a Pepsi can to the officer resembled the powerful photo of Ieshia Evans, a black woman protesting the death of Alton Sterling, drifting unflinchingly and effortlessly toward approaching heavily-armed police officers. Others argued that the commercial oversimplified and trivialized the progress and struggle of the civil rights movement in America. Those who disagreed with the commercial saw Pepsi as asserting the idea that the simple gesture of giving a police officer a sugary beverage would put an end to police brutality and racial animosity. Berenice King, the daughter of Martin Luther King Jr., tweeted a photo of her father with the following caption: “If only Daddy would have known about the power of #Pepsi.”

Pepsi eventually capitulated to the rising public pressure. After removing the ad from online sources, they released the following statement: “Pepsi was trying to project a global message of unity, peace and understanding. Clearly we missed the mark, and we apologize. We did not intend to make light of any serious issue. We are removing the content and halting any further rollout. We also apologize for putting Kendall Jenner in this position.”

Discussion Questions:

  1. Did Pepsi do anything ethically problematic in producing the ad in question? Why? What values are in conflict in this case?
  2. How much do the intentions of advertising companies matter in judging the appropriateness of their advertisements?
  3. Was Pepsi’s response to the controversy over the advertisement adequate?
  4. Should an advertiser’s creative freedom be limited by social issues of the day? If so, how should advertisers guide themselves in creating edgy but ethical advertisements?
  5. Would there be an ethical way to use protest iconography in a Pepsi ad? Explain how you might do so, if you think it is possible. How does this use differ from the advertisement that Pepsi released?

Further Information:

Hirsh, Sophie. “An Actor From THAT Pepsi Commercial Says Most Actors Weren’t Aware It Would Be Problematic.” Teen Vogue. 30 May 2017. Available at: https://www.teenvogue.com/story/pepsi-commercial-backlash

Pinsker, Joe. “How on Earth Does an Ad Like Pepsi’s Get Approved?” The Atlantic, 8 Apr. 2017. Available at: https://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2017/04/pepsi-kendall-jenner-ad-how/522423/

Schultz, E.J., and Ann-Christine Diaz. “Pepsi Is Pulling Its Widely Mocked Kendall Jenner Ad.” Ad Age, 5 Apr. 2017. Available at: http://adage.com/article/cmo-strategy/pepsi-pulling-widely-mocked-kendall-jenner-ad/308575/

Victor, Daniel. “Pepsi Pulls Ad Accused of Trivializing Black Lives Matter.” The New York Times, 5 Apr. 2017. Available at: https://www.nytimes.com/2017/04/05/business/kendall-jenner-pepsi-ad.html

Wong, Julia Carrie. “Pepsi Pulls Kendall Jenner Ad Ridiculed for Co-opting Protest Movements.” The Guardian,  06 Apr. 2017. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/media/2017/apr/05/pepsi-kendall-jenner-pepsi-apology-ad-protest

Authors:

Urub Khawaja & Scott R. Stroud, Ph.D.
Media Ethics Initiative
Center for Media Engagement
University of Texas at Austin
July 22, 2018

www.mediaethicsinitiative.org


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 use. 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.

#MeToo and the Arts

CASE STUDY: The Met’s Decision Over Balthus’ Thérèse Dreaming

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A painting at the Metropolitan Museum of Art titled Thérèse Dreaming (1938), painted by the French artist Balthasar Klossowski de Rola (or simply, Balthus), depicts a young girl in a suggestive pose, “leaning back in a wicker chair, eyes closed, arms clasped above her head, her knees are splayed open and her red skirt is flipped up to reveal a pair of white underwear.” The girl in this painting was said to be Balthus’ neighbor who modeled for him for several years, who was around 12 or 13 years of age at the time.

Mia Merrill visited the museum and was shocked and disturbed by this piece in particular. Leveraging the growing societal concerns with sexual harassment, Merrill created an online petition to have the museum remove the piece. She later altered her demands, suggesting the alternative of the Met editing the description accompanying the painting to better inform people about the “potentially disturbing nature” of the piece. Merrill’s concern about the painting was fueled by today’s climate around sexual assault and the #MeToo movement. Her worry is that museums aren’t doing their part in standing up for women and minors when they are being objectified or sexualized in paintings that are hanging on their walls. Merrill was not alone in her objections to showcasing this work: her petition received over 11,000 signatures.

Priscilla Franks notes that Merrill’s petition simply crystalized an ongoing worry in the #MeToo era: “Some have wondered, in particular, whether museums have a responsibility to change the way they present work that sexualizes or objectifies women ― especially vulnerable populations like minors and sex workers. What should become of images made under murky conditions, when a female subject’s dignity, agency and safety were potentially at risk?” As Merrill stated in an interview, “at the end of the day, we’re talking about an artist who asked very young girls to come to his studio and take their clothes off. What does that do to the question of consent?” This is important, Merrill notes, since “the Met is, perhaps unintentionally, supporting voyeurism and the objectification of children.” If museums enshrine and valorize “great art,” should works created under such conditions be rewarded with this spotlight?

Shortly after Merrill’s petition, the Met announced that they would not be making any changes to Thérèse Dreaming. They added that “moments such as this provide an opportunity for conversation” and that “visual art is one of the most significant means we have for reflecting on both the past and the present.” The National Coalition Against Censorship also agreed with the museum’s decision to not remove the painting or alter the text accompanying it.

Some art critics voiced their opposition to Merrill’s demands, saying that if this painting were to be taken down because of its content and production history, then there would be many others that would also have to be removed, including works from artists such as Picasso, Klimt, and Munch. During this era, women were usually the subject of these paintings and often were depicted nude. These artists were also, for the most part, male, and therefore implicated in Merrill’s concern with western art’s “dominant male narrative.” How much art is to be thrown out or reframed if we take into account often-problematic cultural contexts of their production history?

However, most of these critics also believe that these paintings can be used as a way of teaching about consent and sexualization of women. Ronna Tulgan Ostheimer, the director of education at the Clark Museum argued that discussing the paintings’ problematic context is a “much more valuable choice than putting something out of someone’s eyes.” In the end, a painting’s context of production and history of the artist is crucial to understanding the piece, but the question still remains: how much should museums do to correct the sins of our artistic past?

Discussion Questions:

  1. What should the Met do about Balthus’ painting? If they leave it on display, should they do anything further to contextualize its history and content? If so, what in particular should they say?
  2. Do you see any potential conflicts or problems emerging if descriptions of artists or artworks begin to address matters as complex as the consent involved in their production?
  3. Is the value of a “great” artwork harmed by an immoral context of production? Why or why not? Is this damage to an artwork’s aesthetic value irreparable, or can it be recovered or repaired in some way?
  4. If an artist—or an artist’s other works—have been found to be misogynistic or racist, does this impugn or harm the value of their other works that aren’t problematic? Could an artist be so toxic that there would exist a reason to never display anything that he or she created in a museum?     

Further Information:

Mia Merrill, “Metropolitan Museum of Art: Remove Balthus’ Suggestive Painting of a Pubescent Girl, Thérèse Dreaming.” The Petition Site, November 30, 2017. Available at: https://www.thepetitionsite.com/157/407/182/

Eileen Kinsella, “The Met Says ‘Suggestive’ Balthus Painting Will Stay After Petition for Its Removal Is Signed by Thousands.” Art Net News, December 5, 2017. Available at: https://news.artnet.com/art-world/met-museum-responds-to-petition-calling-for-removal-of-balthus-painting-1169105.

Associated Press, “New York art museum refuses to remove painting of girl after ‘voyeurism’ complaint.” The Guardian, December 5, 2017. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2017/dec/06/new-york-metropolitan-museum-art-refuses-remove-girl-balthasar-klossowski-voyeurism-complaint.

Priscilla Frank, “In The #MeToo Era, Do These Paintings Still Belong In A Museum?” Huffington Post, December 14, 2017. Available at: https://www.huffingtonpost.com/ entry/museums-me-too-sexual-harassment-art_us_5a2ae382e4b0a290f0507176.

Authors:

Bailey Sebastian & Scott R. Stroud, Ph.D.
Media Ethics Initiative
Center for Media Engagement
University of Texas at Austin
July 16, 2018

www.mediaethicsinitiative.org


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 use. 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.

When Comedic Stereotypes Cease to Be Funny

CASE STUDY: The Controversy over Apu and The Simpsons

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istolethetv / CC BY 2.0 / modified

From characters such as Tonto in the 1950s show, The Lone Ranger, to Apu Nahasapeemapetilon from the highly acclaimed cartoon The Simpsons, racial and ethnic stereotypes remain an abiding concern throughout the media. Though strides toward equal representation and accurate racial depiction in movies and television are being made, racial stereotypes and jokes regarding race and racial stereotypes continue to run rampant across genres. This is especially true for comedy, a genre that thrives on pushing the boundaries of appropriateness, tasteful humor, and what is often called “political correctness.” An important part of this debate centers on whether these stereotypical portrayals made for the sake of getting a laugh are truly harmful or if they are simply making hot-topic issues seem less dauntingly serious.

Following the making of a documentary by comedian Hari Kondabolu entitled “The Problem with Apu,” The Simpsons has faced an onslaught of criticism about Apu, the Indian convenience store owner with a heavy accent. The show responded via a scene featuring a short interaction between characters Marge and Lisa in its 29th season; Lisa breaks the fourth wall and states to the camera, “Something that started decades ago and was applauded and inoffensive is now politically incorrect. What can you do?” Many concerned with the show’s portrayal of Indian-Americans seemed to perceive this response as dismissive. Matt Groening, the creator of The Simpsons, has largely written off the backlash saying, “I’m proud of what we do on the show. And I think it’s a time in our culture where people love to pretend they’re offended.” Others who have worked with the show do not share the same sentiment. The non-Indian voice actor behind the Apu character, Hank Azaria, indicated that “The idea that anyone, young or old, past or present, was bullied or teased based on the character of Apu, it just makes me really sad. It was certainly not my intention. I want to spread laughter and joy.”

Defenders of The Simpsons feel that comedy should be able to delve into controversial issues without repercussions. Danielle Gutierrez exhibited such a perspective on the controversy, writing in a blog post “While tastefulness is a virtue when approaching touchy topics, being overly vigilant can be just as questionable as insensitivity.” Comedy is intended to make audiences laugh. Tense or difficult issues can be perceived as more approachable through jokes. Additionally, there is the chance that stereotypical ethnic and racial depictions can be used in ways that ultimately challenge these negative stereotypes. For instance, the ABC sitcom Fresh Off the Boat attempts to give an accurate representation of Asian American life that does not end up by putting its characters into stereotyped boxes.

When does the use of potentially offensive stereotyped depictions of race and ethnicity go too far in artistic expressions or comedic employments? In Kondabolu’s documentary, actor Utkarsh Ambudkar argues that “The Simpsons stereotypes all races, the problem is we (South Asians) did not have any other representation.” Such racial depictions become harmful when they form a basis for audience opinion and perception of a minority group. A study of stereotypical portrayals of African Americans in television by Thomas E. Ford found that these portrayals have a priming effect: “Stereotypical television portrayals of African-Americans in a humorous context increase the likelihood that whites will perceive an African-American target person in a stereotypical manner.” This study implies that these stereotypical depictions can carry a harmful, social weight. How can we balance the use of stereotypical depictions of race and ethnicity in comedy without reinforcing social biases?

Discussion Questions:

  1. What values are in conflict in the controversy involving Apu and The Simpsons? Is there any way to have made the show with this character that would not create such a conflict?
  2. Did The Simpsons respond appropriately to this controversy? If not, what should they have done in light of these criticisms?
  3. What limits should guide artistic uses of racial and ethnic stereotypes? Do their uses in different genres matter, such as comedy or crime dramas?
  4. Does the intention of the artist, comedian, or film-maker matter in finding a representation such as Apu problematic?
  5. Are there ethical pitfalls in how an audience enjoys shows such as The Simpsons? Is it wrong to enjoy scenes with Apu, or even the entire show that contains this character?

Further Information:

Deb, Sopan. “‘The Simpsons’ Responds to Criticism about Apu with a Dismissal.” The New York Times, 9 Apr. 2018, Available: www.nytimes.com/2018/04/09/arts/ television/the-simpsons-responds-to-criticism-about-apu.html.

Ford, Thomas E. “Effects of Stereotypical Television Portrayals of African Americans on Person Perception.” Social Psychology Quarterly, vol. 60, no. 3, 1997, pp. 266-75.

Gutierrez, Danielle. “In Defense of ‘Family Guy.’” The Daily Californian, 22 Sept. 2016, Available: www.dailycal.org/2016/09/22/defense-family-guy/.

Ito, Robert. “You Love ‘The Simpsons’? Then Let’s Talk about Apu.” The New York Times, 10 Nov. 2017, Available: www.nytimes.com/2017/11/10/arts/television/ the-problem-with-apu-the-simpsons.html.

Lee, Christina. “Fresh Off the Boat shows Hollywood there’s life beyond yellow face.” The Guardian, 11 Oct. 2016, Available: http://www.theguardian.com/tv-and-radio/2016/oct/11/ fresh-off-the-boat-asian-american-stereotypes.

Victor, Daniel. “‘Simpsons’ Creator Says of Apu Criticism, ‘People Love to Pretend They’re Offended’.” The New York Times, 1 May 2018, Available: www.nytimes.com/ 2018/05/01/arts/television/matt-groening-simpsons-apu.html.

Author:

Sabrina Stoffels
Media Ethics Initiative
Center for Media Engagement
University of Texas at Austin
July 5, 2018

www.mediaethicsinitiative.org


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 use. 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.

Doxing and Digital Journalism

CASE STUDY: The HuffPost Story on Amy Mekelburg

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TwitterOn May 31, 2018, HuffPost reporter Luke O’Brien published a story revealing the identity of the person behind an infamous Twitter account with over 200,000 followers as 45-year-old Amy Mekelburg. The in-depth profile was part of HuffPost’s ongoing investigation into the most influential anonymous Twitter and Facebook users that, in the words of HuffPost reporter Nick Baumann, “spread hate.” The account, which O’Brien correctly linked to Mekelburg, is a powerful proponent of far-right political ideologies and was active in spreading what many deem as Islamophobic propaganda and factually untrue claims. Averaging around 25 tweets a day, the account quickly gained popularity on social media, it was endorsed by President Donald Trump and members of his administration, making it well-known in conservative circles. O’Brien’s story quickly became controversial due to its use of “doxing” (or “doxxing”), the tactic of revealing the identity and personal details of the person behind an anonymous online account or website. By connecting and publicizing the online actions and words associated with a specific named individual, online activists can coordinate with others and use doxing in a campaign to embarrass individuals, ruin reputations, harm political ambitions, or to get an individual’s employment terminated. The practice is increasingly used by members across the political spectrum, from the far left to the far right, and has become an everyday weapon in the battle of political ideologies. Some think of it as a tactic that leverages the critical power of free speech, whereas others see it as a vigilante approach to online justice given that its practitioners are often anonymous, or at least unaccountable for the harms of doxing individuals. The doxing of Mekelburg is important as it merges tactics of investigative journalism and online activism, and raises many ethical concerns.

The crowdsourced nature of social media has made it possible for everyday individuals to gain celebrity status or to become known as public figures through their online personas. The malleable nature of online identity means that individuals are able to remain anonymous or control which parts of their identity are viewable to others, often making it easier to share controversial opinions or ideas. As such individuals gain more social and political influence, some argue that the public has a right to know who they are. This is why HuffPost started investigations into influential anonymous social media accounts, such as that of Mekelburg, that were spreading what many judge as false information and hate speech. HuffPost reporter Nick Baumann explains that while the First Amendment gives individuals the right to spread hate speech and discredited ideas anonymously, “the identities of influential anonymous people are inherently newsworthy” and should be made know to those who wish to know them. Baumann and O’Brien argued that the story was not a case of doxing at all, since it presented newsworthy information to the public and answered concerns about the possibilities of Mekelburg’s account being an artificial bot or Russian troll. In this manner, they maintain that the story followed journalistic codes of ethics, including reaching out to Mekelburg’s family and her husband’s employer, World Wrestling Entertainment, who subsequently terminated his employment after news of the story broke. The journalists maintained that this was not the coordinated harassment of many doxing campaigns, but was instead the common journalistic practice of seeking comments and reactions from those affected by the story before its publication. O’Brien argued that giving sources and affected parties “a chance to respond to information” is “exactly how ethical journalism works” and defended the information included in his report as necessary to the story. Emma Grey Ellis points out that while doxing campaigns tend to be undertaken by anonymous individuals that cannot be criticized in return, cases such as this involve named reporters who “have bylines, and can therefore be held accountable” for the stories they write and the information they include. Because of this, she argued that reporters like O’Brien “include only personal information that is relevant to a story–facts the public has a compelling interest in knowing.” Many believe that the information in the story was necessary to create a profile of Amy Mekelburg and provided context for her often-bigoted posts. Others consider the story to be a case of justified doxing and as serving the public good. Many, like Marla Wilson, believe that doxing is “an effective way to make people think twice about being so bold with their racism” and that releasing the names of those behind racist online accounts creates a sense of accountability and encourages reflexivity by those who feel inclined to create them. Some argue that doxing forces those uttering unpopular opinions and beliefs to face the public and defend their ideologies rather than just placing them online.

Some believe that the Mekelburg story included information that was not necessary, or that was counterproductive for improving political discourse. Conservative reporter Kevin Boyd points out that by including background information that revealed the identities of Mekelburg’s family members and their businesses, the story gave “the impression that they either knew about or [agreed] with her tweets” and indicted them as supporters of her account and her beliefs. Because of such implications, many consider the story to be nothing more than an attempt to shame Mekelburg for her views and hurt her family’s businesses, ones that Mekelburg “has never been linked to or involved with” according to her sister-in-law Alicia Guevara. Damon McCoy points out that one of the main reasons doxing is used is to “expose those with whom [people] disagree with,” a position held by those who suggest that the report done by O’Brien and HuffPost was motivated by bringing shame to those with divergent political viewpoints. Some may argue that the revealing the identities of those behind reprehensible or unpopular speech is actually counterproductive to serving the public interest. Tony McAleer, a former white supremacist who now runs a rehabilitation program for neo-Nazis, argues that doxing is not effective in ending hate speech and changing peoples’ viewpoints. “If isolation and shame is the driver for people joining [hate] groups, doxxing certainly isn’t the answer” argues McAleer. It actually “slows things down” in his efforts to rehabilitate those who subscribe to hateful ideologies given its employment of isolation and shame.

The ethics of doxing must be discussed more as its practice grows to include journalists and targets on all sides of the partisan spectrum. Emma Gray Ellis worries that “once you strip away the intentions… both sides are sharing the same swampy low ground” when doxing is used as an attempt to punish individuals for their political or personal beliefs. What are we to think about the uses of intentional or unintentional doxing by journalists working on contentious but important stories that might shed light on the political and social controversies of the day?

Discussion Questions: 

  1. Was the HuffPost story on Mekelburg a case of doxing? Why or why not?
  2. Was the story written and researched in the right way, regardless of whether we label it as a case of doxing?
  3. Can journalists “dox” individuals behind online accounts? When and why can they participate in this practice? What limits should constrain their revelation of online identities?
  4. How does the practice of doxing differ in the context of online journalism from that of activists seeking social justice? Does the role of journalist make any difference to the ethical limits of the act of doxing? How does investigative journalism differ from doxing, either by journalists or members of the public?

Further Information:

Baumann, N. (2018, June 05). “A HuffPost Reporter Was Bombarded With Threats. Twitter Suspended Him.”  HuffPost. Available at: https://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/luke-obrien-doxed-threats-amymek_us_5b16bb9de4b0734a9937f2ca

Bowles, N. (2017, August 30). “How ‘Doxxing’ Became a Mainstream Tool in the Culture Wars.” New York Times. Available at: https://www.nytimes.com/2017/08/30/technology/doxxing-protests.html

Boyd, K. (2018, June 04). “The HuffPost Ruined An Entire Family For One Person’s Tweets.” The Federalist. Available at: https://thefederalist.com/2018/06/04/huffpost-ruined-entire-family-one-persons-tweets/

Ellis, E. G. (2017, August 17). “Don’t Let the Alt-Right Fool You: Journalism Isn’t Doxing.” Wired. Available at: https://www.wired.com/story/journalism-isnt-doxing-alt-right/

Ellis, E. G. (2017, August 18). Doxing Is a Perilous Form of Justice-Even When It’s Outing Nazis. Wired. Available at: https://www.wired.com/story/doxing-charlottesville/

McCoy, D. (2018, May 01). When Studying Doxing Gets You Doxed.” HuffPost. Available at: https://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/opinion-mccoy-doxing-study_us_5ae75ec7e4b02baed1bd06cc

O’Brien, L. (2018, May 31). “Trump’s Loudest Anti-Muslim Twitter Troll is a Shady Vegan Wed to An Ex-WWE Exec.” HuffPost. Available at: https://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/anti-muslim-twitter-troll-amy-mek-mekelburg_us_5b0d9e40e4b0802d69cf0264

Wilson, M. (2018, June 06). “An Online Agitator, a Social Media Exposé and the Fallout in Brooklyn.” New York Times. Available at: https://www.nytimes.com/2018/06/06/nyregion/amymek-mekelburg-huffpost-doxxing.html

Author:

Jason Head
Media Ethics Initiative
Center for Media Engagement
University of Texas at Austin
June 15, 2018

www.mediaethicsinitiative.org


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 use. For use in publications such as textbooks, readers, and other works, please contact the Media Ethics Initiative. This case was produced in conjunction with Media Ethics Magazine.

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