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Fighting (Online) Fire with Fire?

CASE STUDY: The Complex Ethics of Online Harassment and Feminist Counterspeech 

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Sydney SimsUnsplash

In online spaces where hostile interaction is common, women often bear the brunt of malicious harassment which “involves more severe experiences, such as being the target of physical threats, harassment over a sustained period of time, stalking, and sexual harassment” (Duggan, 2014). The Pew Research Center conducted a survey on sex-based negative interactions in online dating spaces which revealed that “57% of female online dating users ages 18 to 34 say someone has sent them a sexually explicit message or image they did not ask for” compared to the 28% reported by their male counterparts (Anderson & Vogels, 2020). Additionally, female users in this age range are roughly twice as likely than male users to report that someone has called them an offensive name (44% vs. 23%) or threatened to physically harm them (19% vs. 9%) on dating sites or apps (Anderson & Vogels, 2020).

Legal measures are often ineffective against such bullying or verbal harassment; if it even falls under a criminal statute, authorities are often reluctant to pursue cases against anonymous or semi-anonymous individuals residing in some far corner of the internet. Rather than seeking legal interventions to remedy such misogynistic bullying, some feminists have resorted to counterspeech, which relies on “the idea that ‘bad speech’ can be effectively cured with more speech” (Stroud & Cox, 2018, p. 294). Counterspeech, however, can take many forms, and like any use of speech, carries with it benefits and drawbacks. The different tactics of Anna Gensler and the organization “TrollBusters” illustrate how counterspeech can tackle misogynistic rhetoric online, ranging from online dating culture to the harassment of female journalists.

ag pic

Anna Gensler / Instagram Screenshot / Modified

When Maryland-based artist Anna Gensler joined the popular dating app Tinder, she was quickly met with offensive and misogynistic messages, such as “Bet your tight” and “If I was a watermelon, would you spit or swallow my seeds?” (Hess, 2014). Wanting to teach these men a lesson that “objectification is a two-way street,” she decided to respond to their harassment with her own take on feminist counterspeech (Richards and Calvert, 2000, p. 554). On her portfolio website, as well as on her Instagram page, Gensler shares her method of “objectifying men who objectify women in 3 easy steps: (1) Man sends crude line via Tinder. (2) Draw him naked. (3) Send portrait to lucky man; Enjoy results” (Gensler, 2019). Her drawings, accompanied by the man’s first name and sometimes his profile picture, are then paired with the pick-up lines used by the culprits and published on her website and Instagram account as part of her “Granniepants” project. In an interview with Slate, Gensler claimed that the drawings are all “based off of these guys’ profile pictures… but from there I tried to make them look a little chubbier or scrawnier or just not particularly well-endowed” (Hess, 2014). Despite the positive attention from women who have encountered similar harassment on dating apps, the men depicted in Gensler’s drawings did not appreciate her artistic counterspeech. On her blog, Gensler notes that she’s received death threats from some of these men, but “more than anything, [she’s] afraid because the police just don’t seem to care” (Gensler, 2014). In a world where authorities don’t care much about death threats, let alone internet objectification, Gensler’s supporters see her tactics as an effective way that women can strike back at online harassers—it publically shames them because of misogynist behaviors and serves as a warning to others as to how they ought to behave.

On one hand, Gensler’s use of counterspeech may be viewed as a way to give harassers a taste of their own medicine. However, because her drawings target specific individuals and may contain identifiable details beyond their first names, ethical concerns might be raised about the similarities of this response to doxxing or even revenge porn, since only “a little information may be enough to find this specific person in the age of image search or online mobs acting as sleuths” (Stroud & Cox, 2018). Like the use of nude images in revenge or nonconsensual pornography (or even in deepfake or fake image editing), none of these subjects gave their consent to be depicted as nude in images connected with their names, ages, and online activities. Furthermore, to draw particular body shapes and sizes (e.g. “scrawny” or “chubby”) with the intent to embarrass or shame these men perpetuates harmful ideas about body image which ultimately hurts people of any gender. On the other hand, Gensler’s form of counterspeech may also be viewed as unjust if one believes all human agents, even misogynists, are intrinsically valuable and deserving of respect. Objectifying women on Tinder is wrong and disrespectful, the argument might go, and so is objectifying male perpetrators. Others could argue that objectifying those who objectify doesn’t violate any sort of dignity they are due, but it simply is ineffective—it would probably only increase the hate for women that the targeted individuals would feel.

Given the concerns raised by Gensler’s method to feminist counterspeech, Michelle Ferrier took another approach to the harassment of women with the founding of, an online community which seeks to undo the psychological harm women face in online spaces. The website describes its purpose as a “just-in-time rescue service for women writers and journalists,” using “positive messaging and education to create a hedge of protection around targets in online spaces like Twitter” (Hare, 2016). Instead of responding directly to misogynists or seeking individual revenge, TrollBusters posts “inspirational quotes, safety tips for dealing with harassment, and general words of encouragement to remind women in the public eye who speak their minds that they shouldn’t be ashamed and they’re not alone” (Kabas, 2016). Ferrier’s organization has particularly sought to help female journalists; TrollBusters supports targeted women not only by providing a “counter narrative to drown out hateful trolling” but also by helping them rebuild their digital brand (Sillesen, 2015). Overall, the work of TrollBusters aims to support the target of abuse in a public way, and to show observing individuals that there are supporters when one is under attack online. Trollbusters’s tactics emphasize the path of showing social support in online communities of women. Thus, the organization has proven that just as online harassers can gain momentum, so too can feminist counterspeech create a movement to support victims. While these women may certainly appreciate the support, questions might be raised about how much “protection” TrollBusters can genuinely provide—do trolls and misogynists really care about supportive messages aimed at their targets? Some skeptics might argue that Trollbusters’ approach is too limited, and that positive messages and education are unlikely to bring comfort to women like Gensler who receive daily death threats from online misogynists and little help from authorities.

As Anna Gensler and TrollBusters work to combat online misogyny, their different counterspeech tactics serve as guidance for others to follow. In the case of Gensler’s art, she publicly exposes her harassers, inviting the public to make judgements of them. Perhaps this attention can serve as a deterrent for other male users of online dating sites and apps who may consider sending crude messages to women. However, there remains problematic ethical implications for the depicted men and safety concerns for women who uses this form of counterspeech in response. Conversely, the work of TrollBusters embodies a more constructive spirit in its social-support based counterspeech methods. While their purpose aims to undo harm and build a positive online reputation for the targeted victims of the online harassment, it is difficult to assess guaranteed success against the “mob” force of online trolls. One thing is certain: misogynistic harassment will continue to be a problem for women online. In our own acts of speech responding to this online misogyny, it is imperative for us to continually consider whether the most effective ways to shame and silence misogynists are also the most ethical ways to protect women and ensure they are safe in online spaces.

Discussion Questions: 

    1. Why is the harassment of women in online spaces ethically problematic? What value grounds your judgment?
    2. What ethical values are in conflict surrounding Gensler’s way of using speech to combat online harassment? Do you find her approach defensible?
    3. Are there any ethical values in tension with Trollbusters’ approach to using counterspeech?
    4. What ethical limits, in general, should counterspeech be subject to in responding to speech that harasses or hurts?
    5. What other approaches to using counterspeech against online misogyny might be available? What are their ethical advantages or concerns? 

Further Information:

Anderson, M., & Vogels, E. A. (2020, March 6). Young Women Often Face Sexual Harassment Online – Including on Dating Sites and Apps. Available at:

Duggan, M. (2014). Online Harassment. Available at:

Gensler, A. (2019). Anna Gensler Instagranniepants. Available at:

Gensler, A. (2014, June 10). The Truth of the Matter. Available at:

Hare, K. (2016, March 28). Meet the Woman Drowning Out Trolls that Harass Female Writers. Available at:

Hess, A. (2014, April 22). How to Get Revenge on Online Dating Creeps: Draw Them Naked. Available at:

Kabas, M. (2016a, January 27). Harassment-Fighting HeartMob Aims to Drown Out the Trolls. Daily Dot. Available at: hollaback-online-harassment-heartmob/

Richards, R. D., & Calvert, C. (2000). Counterspeech 2000: A New Look at the Old Remedy for ‘Bad’ Speech. BYU Law Review, 2, 553–586.

Sillesen, L. B. (2015, July/August). Columbia Journalism Review. Available at:

Stroud, S. R., & Cox, W. (2018). The Varieties of Feminist Counterspeech in the Misogynistic Online World. Mediating Misogyny, Jacqueline Ryan Vickery & Tracy Everbach (eds.) (Palgrave Macmillan, 2018), 293–310.


Sophia Park, Kat Williams, & Scott R. Stroud, Ph.D.
Media Ethics Initiative
Center for Media Engagement
University of Texas at Austin
June 18, 2020

Cases produced by the Media Ethics Initiative remain the intellectual property of the Center for Media Engagement and the case’s author. They can be used in unmodified PDF form without permission for classroom or educational uses. For use in publications such as textbooks, readers, and other works, please contact the case author through the Center for Media Engagement.


Pandemic Prime Time for the Cuomo Brothers

CASE STUDY: Ethics, Objectivity, and Relationships in Journalism

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As panic around the COVID-19 pandemic set in to New York state, the nation’s hardest hit area, Governor Andrew Cuomo, a self-professed “cool dude with a loose mood,” was thrust into the national (and indeed, international) spotlight. His daily appearance in press briefings is characterized by a reliance upon facts, reporting of statistics, and clear, calculated directives. The “New York Tough” attitude, together with his focus on the health of the community (wearing masks is a sign of care for others, and being loving is part of being tough, he suggested) gained approval by not only New Yorkers, but also politicians and citizens around the country.

At the same time, the governor’s “little brother” Christopher, 12 years Andrew’s junior, garnered increased attention when he was diagnosed with COVID-19. He continued to broadcast his nightly CNN show, Cuomo Prime Time, from the basement of his home via Cisco Webex and in casual clothing. The younger Cuomo was quarantined from his wife and three children, and reported experiencing fever and chills so intense that he chipped a tooth. Viewership of his show nearly doubled as the novel coronavirus became the main story in global media.

The brothers’ media appearances came together with increasing frequency in mid-March 2020, when their on-screen interviews were bookended by fraternal banter. While interviewing his brother on his show, “Cuomo Prime Time,” news anchor Chris urged governor Andrew to “call Mom.” Andrew retorted that he already did, and that Mom told me “I’m her favorite.” Before and after more serious discussions about public safety and health protocols in subsequent interviews, the pair bantered about their prowess on the basketball court (Chris claiming superiority), and how much they work (Andrew jesting that Chris only works one hour a day on his popular news broadcast). A collection of the brothers’ on-screen banter on is available online (NowThisNews, April 2, 2020).

When Chris was diagnosed with COVID-19, he became a “canary in the coal mine” and the face of the illness to those who were unfamiliar with its symptoms and challenges. As the public health crisis escalated, Governor Cuomo invited his brother to join his daily press conference via video (CNBC, April 2, 2020). In this meeting with his brother, the governor took on a serious tone, refusing to retort when Chris reported that he had a feverish dream in which his brother was dressed in a ballet outfit, wishing that he could wave a wand and make the virus go away. Rather, Governor Cuomo praised his brother, and said that because he shared his diagnosis and continued to appear on television, “from a journalistic point of view, a public service point of view, you’re answering questions for millions of Americans.” Despite Governor Cuomo’s kindness, the following month brought continued teasing, this time with Chris joking about the size of the nasal swab needed to test the governor for coronavirus (CNN, May 20, 2020).

The brothers’ co-appearances and humour have been met with enthusiasm. The Washington Post collected tweets and accolades from the public, indicating the sense that the Cuomo brothers are “the comedy routine America needs right now” (Chiu, 2020). Comedians Trevor Noah and Ellen DeGeneres have publicly agreed that they are self-declared “Cuomosexuals” (The Ellen Show, April 20, 2020).

Adoration for both of the brothers’ professional work, together with their playful and “bromantic” banter, has arguably been a successful combination of serious news with a lighter side. At times, viewers feel as if they’re in the backseat of a car between two bickering brothers on a long road trip; the sibling rivalry and support feels familiar to many in these trying times. While everything else is scary, confusing, or overwhelming, the expertise and accomplishment of the Cuomo brothers, combined with the entertainment of their rivalries, has potentially brought more attention to news, self-isolation, social distancing, and important public health messages.

However, not everyone is on the Cuomo’s bandwagon. Some news organizations wouldn’t dream of endorsing a government-meets-media relationship on their watch, as CNN apparently did. For example, James Bennett, editorial-page editor at the New York Times, was told that he would be forced to recuse himself from any work at the newspaper related to the presidential election should his brother, Colorado senator Michael Bennett, run for president (Pompeo, 2019). NPR legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg was criticized given her friendship with Supreme Court Justice Scalia (Jensen, 2016). Even if Chris was not intending to show favoritism to his brother, it may have been difficult to be critical or push his brother toward answering difficult questions. Some argue that personal relationships are bound to get in the way of unbiased reporting, and that being “too close” to those involved in news coverage can jeopardize objectivity amongst those who report it.

Indeed, the most recent criticism of Chris and Andrew’s interaction on the news is not their first. In 2013, when a New York train was derailed which left four people dead, Chris interviewed his brother Andrew about the accident. Some journalists argued that although Chris declared his potential conflict of interest, he awkwardly referred to his brother as “Governor,” and slipped in a few accolades into the interview, including that the Governor arrived quickly to the scene. Nevertheless, Chris tweeted that his interview with his brother was no different than others because it was about news, and not about politics (Cuomo, 2013).

The close relationship between the Cuomo brothers is a significant reason why this coverage seems so effective at bringing attention to the story of COVID-19. Some still have concerns, however. Journalism codes of ethics typically advise against becoming too close to sources, given that journalists may have to report unflattering things about people they like or with whom they have forged friendships through being on a long-term assignment. An entertaining interview or on-screen connection can lead to concerns about objectivity. Although the parties may not intend to mislead the audience, Chris may unintentionally treat his brother differently than he would treat another government official serving as a source. Even if Chris’s treatment of his brother is even-handed, there is still the chance that audiences might think that he’s showing favoritism to the New York governor, thereby undermining the credibility they place in either CNN or this particular journalist.

The Cuomo’s on-screen fraternal relationship is a delicate balance between a unique and powerful style of reporting that appeals to viewers and prudence in not crossing an ethical line that could expose journalists to potential biases. The Cuomos both appear to want to “do the right thing” by way of informing the public about their relationship. Yet they must also ensure that the stories and information on air does not erode trust and compromise important messages – in this case, about public health and safety as it pertains to COVID-19. 

Discussion Questions: 

  1. By continuing to broadcast “Cuomo Prime Time” from his home, was Chris, as Andrew suggested, doing a service to the American people by answering their questions about the effects of COVID-19?
  2. Is it acceptable and appropriate that Governor Cuomo was interviewed by his brother Chris during his appearance on CNN? Should these interviews have been passed to another anchor? Would it matter if the fraternal banter that audiences have loved and appreciated was lost?
  3. Chris Cuomo appeared on his brother’s government press conference wearing a baseball cap featuring branding from his own news program, “Cuomo Prime Time.” He claimed that he was wearing the cap because he needed a haircut and couldn’t get one because he was in quarantine. Is wearing this cap advertising his show? Is it advertising the news network at which he is employed? If so, is that problematic?
  4. In 2013, Chris claimed (via twitter) that he would not interview his brother Andrew about politics. Did he break this commitment by asking his brother, in a COVID-related interview on CNN, if he was going to run for President? Did he break this commitment by asking him about how the novel coronavirus has affected New York state?
  5. Is disclosing the relationship between journalist and interviewee enough to mitigate potential conflicts of interest? If the audience is aware of a relationship, does this adequately equip them to evaluate the reporting? 

Further Information:

Baldwin, B. (2020, April 20). “How fighting coronavirus taught me about the gift of connection.” CNN. Retrieved from

Chiu, A. (2020, March 24). “‘The comedy routine America needs right now’: The Cuomo brothers return to prime time.” The Washington Post. Retrieved from

CNBC. (2020, April 2). “New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo holds a press conference on the coronavirus outbreak.” Retrieved from

CNN. (2020, May 20). “Chris Cuomo teases brother Andrew with giant test swab.” Retrieved from

Cuomo, C. [@ChrisCuomo). (2013, December 2). [Twitter moment]. Retrieved from

Jensen, E. (2016, February 26), “When is a friendship a conflict of interest?” NPR Public Editor. Retrieved from

NowThisNews. (2020, April 2). Best of the Cuomo brothers: America’s favorite TV family during Coronavirus. Retrieved from

Pompeo, J. (2019, February 21). “James Bennett will recuse himself”: If Senator Michael Bennett runs for president, his brother, the New York Times Opinion editor, will stand down. Vanity Fair. Retrieved from

The Ellen Show. (2020, April 20). “Trevor Noah is a Cuomosexual.” Retrieved from


Sharon Lauricella, Ph.D.
Associate Professor and Program Director
Faculty of Social Science and Humanities
Ontario Tech University

May 26, 2020

Cases produced by the Media Ethics Initiative remain the intellectual property of the Center for Media Engagement and the case’s author. They can be used in unmodified PDF form without permission for classroom or educational uses. For use in publications such as textbooks, readers, and other works, please contact the case author through the Center for Media Engagement.


Politics in the Age of Digital Information Overload

CASE STUDY: Facebook’s Policy to Allow Misleading Political Ads

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On September 24, 2019 Facebook’s Vice President of Global Affairs and Communications, Nick Clegg, announced during his speech at the Atlantic Festival in Washington DC that Facebook would not fact-check or censor political advertising on the social media platform. Speaking on behalf of the tech company, he noted: “We don’t believe that it’s an appropriate role for us to referee political debates and prevent a politician’s speech from reaching its audience and being subject to public debate and scrutiny” (Clegg, 2019).


With the 2020 presidential election in the United States approaching, Facebook immediately faced criticism for this decision, especially since it closely followed other controversial decisions involving the tech company’s refusal to remove misleading content – namely, a doctored video which made House Speaker Nancy Pelosi appear drunk and a Donald Trump ad which accused candidate Joe Biden of bribing the Ukrainian government to fire a prosecutor investigating the former Vice President’s son. Despite the Pelosi video’s misleading editing techniques and the Biden-focused ad’s lack of evidence to back it up its serious claims, Facebook stood firm in their decision (Stewart, 2019). There is the probability that more misinformation campaigns will be run by a range of parties in the next election, causing worries about the hopes of achieving a free and informed election. For example, Roose recounts a Facebook ad “run by [the group] North Dakota Democrats [which] warned North Dakotans that they could lose their out-of-state hunting licenses if they voted in the midterm elections” – an assertion that was utterly false (Roose, 2018).

On October 17, 2019 founder and CEO of Facebook Mark Zuckerberg spoke publicly at Georgetown University explaining his reasoning for the policy to not fact-check political advertisements, using his 3-minute speech to appeal to the First Amendment. Zuckerberg emphasized that he is concerned about misinformation, but ultimately believes it is dangerous to give a private entity the power to determine which forms of non-truthful speech are deserving of censorship. Instead, he stressed the importance of the credibility of the individual behind a post, rather than the post itself. Zuckerberg hopes to accomplish this through the introduction of another policy in which Facebook requires users to provide a government ID and prove their location in order to purchase and run political ads on the site (Zuckerberg, 2019).

Zuckerberg maintains that through the transparency of identity, accountability will be achieved and “people [can] decide what’s credible, not tech companies” (Zuckerberg, 2019). Appealing to John Stuart Mill’s ideas of free speech, Zuckerberg believes that the truth is always bound to come out. The unfiltered speech of politicians provides an opportunity for claims to be publicly evaluated and contested. If deception is revealed, then an opportunity for correction is provided through the refutation of the false speech of others. If a non-popular source turns out to be right about an unpopular point, others have the opportunity to learn from that truth. In either case, the hope is that the political community can use the identity of candidates or speakers in making judgments concerning who they deem credible and what arguments are worthy of belief. Censoring political information, the argument goes, only deprives people of the ability to see who their representatives really are.

Many find Zuckerberg’s free-speech defense of Facebook’s stance too idealized and not realistic enough. Of particular importance is the evolving role that social media has to play in society. Social media platforms were once only utilized for catching up with friends; now many Americans catch their news from social media sites rather than traditional print or televised news (Suciu, 2019). Additionally, as Facebook’s algorithm “gets to know our interests better, it also gets better at serving up the content that reinforces those interests, while also filtering out those things we generally don’t like” (Pariser, 2016). Based on user data such as what we “like” or what our friends share, Facebook may facilitate the creation of an “echo chamber” by providing news to our feeds that is increasingly one-sided or identifiably partisan. Such arrangements where people only engage with those who share like-minded views contribute heavily to confirmation bias – a logical error that occurs when people “stop gathering information when the evidence gathered so far confirms the views or prejudices one would like to be true” Heshmat, 2015). If politicians are able to mislead in their purchased advertising, they could use such a platform to encourage individuals to engage in confirmation bias by feeding them information tailored to match their data without critically looking into it – or opposing information – any further (Heshmat, 2015). Furthermore, those hoping that Facebook will crack down on paid political advertising are disheartened by the conflict of interest surrounding this issue. Political advertisers pay top dollar to advertise on social media sites. In fact, the Trump campaign alone has already spent more than $27 million on Facebook’s platform and the Wall Street Journal predicts that “in 2020, digital political ad spending [will] increase to about $2.8 billion” (Isaac & Kang, 2020 and Bruell, 2019). The economics of political advertising revenue make Facebook’s decision about curtailing it even harder to swallow.

The larger question of whether platforms like Facebook should become the arbiters of truthful and informative political speech on their sites presents one of the most pressing ethical dilemmas of the information age. On one hand, it is a dangerous and possibly slippery slope to place private tech companies into the position of deciding what counts as untruthful speech deserving of censorship. Some might worry that the distinction between truthful and untruthful political speech isn’t one that could be enforced – political ads often make questionable inferences from cherry-picked evidence, or purposefully extract specific phrases, images, or statements out of their context to render their opponents especially undesirable among audience members. How could anyone – including Zuckerberg – be tasked with evaluating anything but blatant falsehoods among the sea of claims that are questionable or badly reasoned to only some on the political spectrum? Given the challenging nature of determining what a lie is (as opposed to strategic presentation, lies of omission, or simple mistakes), the issue of eliminating purposefully untruthful speech becomes that much more challenging. Many would believe that political actors, just like everyday voters, should be able to express opinions and arguments that don’t seem particularly well-reasoned to all. On the other hand, the classic conception of free expression and the marketplace of ideas that grounds this reluctance to eliminate untruthful speech on social media may not be so realistic in our age of technology and self-selecting groups and political communities.

Between information overload and confirmation bias, it may be unreasonable to assume everyone can and will look into every news story they see on Facebook. And, as some critics would point out, many of the most vulnerable in our society, such as women and minorities, suffer the brunt of harassment online when absolute expression is valued. With so much at stake on both sides it is worthwhile to consider what has the most potential to enhance or inhibit the democratic process: reducing interference in personal expression or reducing misinformation in political advertising?

Discussion Questions: 

  1. What are the central values in conflict in Facebook’s decision to not fact-check political advertisements?
  2. Has the evolution of technology and the overload of information in our era mitigated John Stuart Mill’s arguments for unrestrained free speech?
  3. Do social media companies like Facebook owe the public fact-checking services? Why or why not?
  4. Who is responsible for accurate political information: Producers, consumers, or disseminators of advertisements? 

Further Information:

Bruell, A. (2019, June 4). “Political Ad Spending Will Approach $10 Billion in 2020, New Forecast Predicts.” Available at:

Clegg, Nick. (2019, November 13). “Facebook: Elections and Political Speech.” Available at:

Heshmat, S. (2015, April 23). “What Is Confirmation Bias?” Available at:

Isaac, M., & Kang, C. (2020, January 9). “Facebook Says It Won’t Back Down from Allowing Lies in Political Ads.” Available at:

Pariser, Eli. (2016, July 24). “The Reason Your Feed Became An Echo Chamber — And What To Do About It.” Available at:

Roose, K. (2018, November 4). “We Asked for Examples of Election Misinformation. You Delivered.” Available at:

Stewart, E. (2019, October 9). “Facebook is refusing to take down a Trump ad making false claims about Joe Biden.” Available at:

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

Zuckerberg, Mark. (2019, October 17). Washington Post. “Watch live: Facebook CEO Zuckerberg speaks at Georgetown University.” Available at:


Kat Williams & Scott R. Stroud, Ph.D.
Media Ethics Initiative
Center for Media Engagement
University of Texas at Austin

May 21, 2020

This case study is supported by funding from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. It was produced as part of a cooperative endeavor by the Media Ethics Initiative and the Project on Ethics in Political Communication. This case can be used in unmodified PDF form for classroom or educational uses. For use in publications such as textbooks, readers, and other works, please contact the Center for Media Engagement.


Paying Your Way to the Top

CASE STUDY: The Ethics of Microtransactions in Video Games

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Over the span of a few decades, the gaming industry has evolved into a multi-billion-dollar industry titan. This growth can be attributed to the increasing growth of internet speeds that allow for players to connect seamlessly to multiplayer games. As broadband speeds have improved and next-gen consoles have become equipped with better hardware to take advantage of such speeds, downloading new content during video game play onto PCs and video game consoles have become increasingly common. These are often referred to as “microtransactions,” or “anything you pay extra for in a video game outside of the initial purchase” (Makuch, 2017). These extra payments within the game may grant players cosmetic items to equip their character with, new maps to play on, or in one of the most controversial cases, game-altering boosts for players when playing online with others.

As microtransactions began to seep into mainstream video games, developers and publishers immediately saw a new opportunity to generate more revenue from an untapped player base that wasn’t done throwing money into the game. New forms of microtransactions started to take shape in later years in the form of DLC (Downloadable Content) packages, in-game season passes to new content, and “loot boxes” or “loot crates.” The latter in particular has sparked increasing controversy after its implementation in games such as Star Wars Battlefront II in 2017. The developers of Battlefront II assured the fan base that all future content for the game would be free for everyone; they didn’t mention, however, that the game would include a loot crate system that could heavily influence the gameplay when playing online against other players. Players who choose not to spend additional money in the game to buy loot crates may find themselves putting in hours upon hours into the game in hopes that they can “level up” various aspects of their character to equal the accomplishments and abilities of other players. Some worry that others who choose to spend additional money in-game on loot crates are “quite literally pay[ing] money for statistical advantages (Alexandra, 2017).

As a result, the game faced mass criticism and backlash claiming that the game at its very core was driven by an exploitive system that made the game “pay-to-win.” As one gamer said on behalf of the community: “We don’t like missing out, we want things we paid for to be complete, we especially don’t like to think that someone with more cash/naivety could skip the hard work we put in” (Meer, 2017). Essentially, players are concerned with ethical issues of fairness and equality. As many view video games as a way to unwind and escape the pressures of the real world, worries over whether one’s playing skill can ever equal those with more expendable income may start affecting gamers’ “real” lives. Furthermore, the controversy of loot crates became more complex for another reason: “When you buy one, you don’t know what you’ll get. Sometimes you get something good. Sometimes it’s bad,” which means that some players end up spending large sums of money in the hopes of receiving something good without receiving proportionate pay-off (Takahashi, 2017). Hawaiian State Representative Chris Lee even addressed this issue of uncertain payoff in a Reddit post stating, “these kinds of loot boxes and microtransactions are explicitly designed to prey upon and exploit human psychology in the same way casino games are so designed” (Lee, 2017). The association between microtransactions and the troublesome addiction that could come from gambling in a competitive environment only adds fuel to the fire in the debate for loot crates and microtransactions in general.

Proponents for microtransactions claim that some good can come out from these types of systems placed within video games. For example, some DLCs that are released during a game’s life cycle may be available at no cost to players because it is subsidized by microtransactions. Such surprise purchases is claimed by some defenders as a feature that “has kept the active community interested, and with more players than ever it keeps things interesting for new and old players alike” (Daniel, 2017). Furthermore, it could also be argued that by including game-altering items in for-purchase loot crates, players that simply do not have enough time to play are able to catch up and be on a level playing field with players that have seemingly endless time to devote to the game. This not only gives them a fighting chance against other gamers when playing online, allowing for the enjoyable experience they bought the game for in the first place, but it is also useful for teams – if one member has less time for progression-based rewards, all they need to go is make a quick purchase and they don’t have to worry about dragging the whole team of gamers down.

Developers who place loot box systems within their games have pointed out that they do not require players to purchase microtransactions. For example, loot boxes that can be purchased with real cash can also be acquired by playing the game for extended periods of time. The methods that players could use to unlock or gain loot boxes vary by game, with some requiring earning a set amount of in-game currency to unlock a loot box and others giving out loot boxes as a random reward for completing multiplayer matches or certain challenges. Overall, these developers insinuate that there is no real controversy at all since it is a matter of individual players’ free choice of how to go about acquiring game advantages. Furthermore, the inclusion of loot crates is legitimated by basic economic principles: if there was no demand and no one was buying them, they wouldn’t bother supplying them in their game design.

Many video games today have a microtransaction system in place to take advantage of an additional revenue stream. Future game releases will surely continue this trend of enticing players to make additional purchases in pursuit of the thrills and accomplishment they seek in gameplay. Can game designers find a way to incentivize players to make meaningful in-game purchases without compromising the ethical values of fairness in competitive games?

Discussion Questions: 

  1. What are the purposes of multiplayer online video games? What ethical values underwrite multiplayer game play?
  2. What are the central values in conflict when it comes to the controversy over incorporate microtransactions, especially loot crates, into multiplayer online video games?
  3. Do you think the responsibility for resolving the microtransaction controversy lies with game developers or game players? What kind of solutions would you suggest for either side?
  4. Alternatively, is this a dilemma that can be solved in the private sphere or is there a point in which the government should regulate the gaming industry, perhaps like it might regulate gambling? What might this look like? 

Further Information:

Alexandra, H. (2017, November 11). “Star Wars Battlefront II Lets You Pay Real Money For Multiplayer Advantages.” Available at:

Daniel. (2017, November 1). “In Defense of Micro-transactions and Loot Boxes.” Available at:

Lee, C. (2017) “R/gaming – The State of Hawaii announces action to address predatory practices at Electronic Arts and other companies.” Available at:

Makuch, E. (2017, November 14). “Microtransactions, Explained: Here’s What You Need To Know.” Available at:

Meer, Alec. (2017, November 15). “How Loot Crates and Unlocks Really Work in Star Wars Battlefront 2.” Available at:

Takahashi, Dean. (2017, December 22). “The DeanBeat: The Tragedy of the Star Wars: Battlefront II Loot Crates.” Available at:

Williams, M. (2017, October 11). “The Harsh History Of Gaming Microtransactions: From Horse Armor to Loot Boxes.” Available at:


William Cuellar, Kat Williams, & Scott R. Stroud, Ph.D.
Media Ethics Initiative
Center for Media Engagement
University of Texas at Austin

May 18, 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.


Written In Only to Be Excluded?

CASE STUDY: The Ethics of Screenwriting and Diversity in Game of Thrones

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asoiaf-daenerys-targaryen-dothraki-game-of-thronesHBO’s Game of Thrones was one of the most popular fantasy shows in recent memory, with the finale to its last season boasting tens of millions of viewers. While dedicated fans had some things to complain about concerning the series, such as the careless accidental inclusion of a Starbucks coffee cup in a dinner scene, there was a more serious ethical issue that stood out for many. In the third episode of the season, the show depicts a long-awaited battle between an army of undead zombies and the collective forces of the living, officially led by Queen Daenerys, who are defending a major northern city in the show, Winterfell. At the beginning of this epochal night battle, all of the surviving warriors from the nomadic group known as the “Dothraki” bravely charged in the first wave against the approaching army of the undead. As might be predicted, this first wave was wiped out. This frontal assault of the Dothraki occurred without any real support, even though the writers had given the human coalition some of the best air support available in the fictional world of Westeros: two giant fire breathing dragons. After the battle for the north turned south, the army of mostly white-presenting human warriors retreated while the “Unsullied,” a mechanized and efficient group of slave-soldiers played by black actors, covered the retreat with almost-total decimation of their numbers.

Amidst all this drama, many viewers attentive to issues of race and media were not amused. As Native American Dr. Adrienne Keene tweeted after the episode aired, “I’ve always felt like the Dothraki were portrayed like the … indigenous people in [Game of Thrones] and damn did they prove me right tonight. Just got rid of them. All. In the first 10 minutes. Totally disposable.” Another Twitter user, R. O. Kwon, exclaimed, “Did they…really…just…kill off almost all of the POCish [People of Color-ish] people in the front lines of this battle, then turn them into zombies, then kill them all over again?” Godzilla Thee Stallion tweeted “Can we just take a moment to talk about how Dany’s Brown Coalition was placed at the front of the formation? The expectation for them to not only die first but then hold the line for the northern wypipo to retreat was f[—-] up given the fact that they are the ‘outsiders.’” Airea D. Matthews put the lesson succinctly in a post-episode tweet: “Please know I noticed that all the brown and black soldiers died first (Dothraki and Unsullied). Lesson? Don’t march North to fight in wight wars under any circumstance” (Rodriguez, 2019).

Regardless of the narrative steps and missteps in Game of Thrones, a significant ethical issue was raised by this episode. While there are fewer all-white casts in films about all-white characters, Hollywood still faces an “epidemic of invisibility” when it comes to the inclusion of diverse groups and ethnicities in films (Deggans, 2016). Some films, however, strive to live up to ideals of diversity and inclusion by involving more people of color as characters and as actors in their fictional worlds. But they face a new challenge: how should the characters played by actors of color, or closely resembling living people of color through their narrative details, be treated by writers, directors, and film makers? Are these characters to be major or minor, virtuous or viceful, pure or evil? Each choice brings with it potential objection given the cultural complexity of race and film.

One potential problem that has happened time and time again is portraying people of color in film, when they are included at all, through disabling “simpleton narratives.” Zahra Mohamed describes this sort of use of characters of color: “an example is that these characters and their stories that are often told through a Eurocentric lens, where they are ‘assisting’ or ‘tagging along’ with a white character.” In the case of Game of Thrones, this worry seems relevant, considering that the Dothraki (and the Unsullied) followed one of the main characters, the white-skinned and blond-haired Queen Daenerys, acting as her bodyguards and her loyal subjects until the gruesome end. To some, it seems like careless or even pernicious writing when these longtime characters are killed off so quickly to advance the story and to give more screen time to the main—and mainly white—characters. However, some might hold that it does not make sense to devote much time in an episode to secondary characters, those of color or not, and instead to focus on the main characters that the viewers watch the show for; perhaps the larger fault was the casting of so many main characters as white or as played by white actors, instead of how characters of color were treated in this specific battle scene. Another common problem with film is that they too often portray minorities or people of color as evil or as the narrative’s villains. The Dothraki and Unsullied were not portrayed as villainous in Game of Thrones, but instead they seemed characterized as brave and loyal warriors. Was it a fitting move to have them bravely—and perhaps foolishly—charge into an epic battle they could not win? Or should the writers have stayed away from a situation that seemed to render the non-white characters as disposable pawns in a one-sided battle between equally-pale living and undead nobility?

Diversity in characters, and in actors, meets a new level of ethical complexity when we begin to consider how these characters are used or abused. Artists should have the freedom to create their art however they see best, but viewers and critics are also free to attend to the racial dynamics their works create, maintain, or seemingly promote to rapt viewers. Should characters of color always be good or powerful? Under what circumstances is virtuous conduct that erases them from a narrative—like the Dothraki and Unsullied—an ethically good feature of a film or series? As more diverse actors and characters are written into our cherished films and stories, questions about how they are to be treated and written into complex storylines will only proliferate.

Discussion Questions: 

  1. What values were at conflict in the reaction to the Game of Thrones battle scene and the actions of its characters of color? Do you agree with one side in this controversy?
  2. What ethical standards or limits should filmmakers and writers be attentive to when writing characters of color into their works?
  3. Should writers and filmmakers be limited to positive portrayals when incorporating people or groups traditionally left out of major cultural narratives?
  4. Are there any circumstances where it is allowable to use actors of color or characters of color in roles that might cause offense to some viewers?
  5. Why should writers and filmmakers consider real world implications for works of fiction like Game of Thrones?

Further Information:

Deggans, Eric “Hollywood Has A Major Diversity Problem, USC Study Finds” NPR, February 22, 2016, Available at:

Makarechi, Kia, “Hollywood’s ‘Race Problem’ Is Worse Than You Think” Huff Post, Updated December 6, 2017. Available at:

Mohamed, Zahra “Indigenous Representation in Media”, December 15, 2019. Available at:

Rodriguez, Angeline “The biggest casualties at the Battle of Winterfell were people of color” The Daily Dot, April 30, 2019. Available at:


Aiden Kanuck and Scott R. Stroud, Ph.D.
Media Ethics Initiative
Center for Media Engagement
University of Texas at Austin
May 11, 2020

Image: Queen Daenerys Leads the Dothraki / Game of Thrones / HBO / Modified

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.


Campaigning for Your Enemies

CASE STUDY: Deceptive Motives in Political Advertising

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akin2In 2012, Democratic Missouri Senator Claire McCaskill purchased $1.7 million in television advertisements focusing on one of her Republican rivals, Rep. Todd Akin. Instead of tearing him down, the ad surprisingly made claims that would endear him to Republican voters. One of McCaskill’s purchased television commercials called Akin a “crusader against bigger government” and referenced his “pro-family agenda,” finally concluding that “Akin alone says President Obama is ‘a complete menace to our civilization’” (McCaskill for Missouri 2012, 2012a).

McCaskill also ran advertisements meant to question the integrity and conservative credentials of Akin’s Republican rivals. Her advertisements attacked businessman John Brunner for an inconsistent history of voting in elections, and saying he “can’t even say where he would cut the federal budget.” Another ad called former state Treasurer Sarah Steelman “more pay-to-play,” and “just more of the same” (McCaskill for Missouri 2012, 2012b). Steelman’s campaign said the ad “further shows that Sarah Steelman is the candidate that the status quo fears the most,” while the Senate Conservatives fund (which opposed Akin but had not yet chosen one of the other candidates) said “Akin isn’t weak because he’s too conservative. He’s weak because he’s too liberal on spending and earmarks.” The Akin campaign also declined to comment on whether the ad was meant to help them: “While there is much speculation about Claire McCaskill’s strategy, what is clear is that Todd Akin has honestly and directly answered questions and unabashedly articulates a vision for the path ahead. McCaskill and other Democrats may see this as a liability; voters see this as integrity” (Catanese, 2012).

McCaskill later stated that her campaign’s goal in running these commercials for a possible opponent was to boost Akin among his Republican opponents running for the nomination: “Running for reelection to the U.S. Senate as a Democrat from Missouri, I had successfully manipulated the Republican primary so that in the general election I would face the candidate I was most likely to beat” (McCaskill, 2015). NPR matter-of-factly referred to Akin as “the Republican [McCaskill] preferred to face.” (Frank, 2012). POLITICO reported that “If there was any doubt which Republican Sen. Claire McCaskill wants to run against this fall, a trio of ads she released Thursday put it to rest.” (Catanese, 2012). There are few critiques of the strategy, and they focus on the strategy’s savviness (or lack thereof). For example, Roll Call wrote “Missouri political insiders saw the McCaskill tactic as too-cute-by-half, unless it worked, and it did.”

Debate about this strategy’s ethical dimensions was hard to come by, though the effort to aid Akin led to a campaign finance complaint: in 2015, a watchdog group filed a complaint against McCaskill for spending $40,000 polling Republican voters in Missouri and sharing findings with the Akin campaign, in excess of the $2,500 limit for an in-kind (non-monetary) campaign contribution (Scott, 2015). While the complaint was dismissed, it underscores that there were some who found McCaskill’s treatment of the Akin campaign in the Republican primary questionable (Hunter et al, 2015).

McCaskill acknowledged that this tactic of helping weaker political opponents succeed brought with it political worries: “I was fully aware of the risk and would have felt terrible if Todd Akin had become a United States senator. On the other hand, if you went down the list of issues, there was not a dime’s worth of difference among the three primary candidates on how they would have voted if they had become senators.” Yet McCaskill’s campaign team thought there was something different about Akin, something that they could exploit to win the election for the senate seat. McCaskill went on to defeat him in the general election after he made comments about “legitimate rape” rarely resulting in pregnancy, bolstering the extreme image McCaskill’s campaign had set out to create (Cohen, 2012).

Some are not convinced that this is an ethical strategy for a political candidate to utilize. Even if the ads were factually accurate, the motivations behind the ads were not as transparent as most political advertisements are (“I’m candidate X, I approve this message because I want to defeat this person I am attacking”). If democracy is concerned with placing the best leaders in positions of power through advocacy and votes, McCaskill could be indirectly helping to elect someone that might be less qualified than his rivals. Even if the gamble paid off with her victory, some would worry that the tactic involved deception about her true motives—her ads were not really meant to echo her or her campaign’s views of Akin’s liabilities (such as abortion, on which she later campaigned aggressively and effectively against Akin), but instead used appeals targeted to Republican primary voters so that they would pick a candidate against their electoral interests. By pressing the right Republican “buttons” with her praise, critics could worry that McCaskill’s ads represent the kind of manipulative communication that we want to discourage in political discourse. In the eyes of skeptics, this sort of strategic communication was an ethical risk that might reduce voter trust in any message from McCaskill’s campaign.

Beyond this particular election, McCaskill’s strategy of bolstering her most beatable opponent raises larger ethical issues in political communication. Candidates are free to produce persuasive ads, including ones that are emotionally powerful in their provocative wording, claims, and imagery. But advocating for someone one believes would be a disastrous Senator, should they win, seems deceptive. Even if the information in the advertisement was accurate, running an advertisement subtly encouraging voters to vote for Todd Akin for a purpose other than electing Todd Akin to the U.S. Senate could undermine voters’ faith in both the information they’ve been given and in the political process itself. If voters knew that the McCaskill campaign’s motivation for attacking Akin was to help Akin win a Republican primary, would they receive the message the same way, and would this tactic feed into cynicism about the political process?

Are political advertisements best thought of as a reflection of what a candidate believes, and what they want us to believe about them or their opponents? Or are they simply tools to motivate or demotivate certain behaviors by voters? With our enhanced ability to distance messages from one speaker (through real or fake organizations, super PACs, and so forth), and with our technological ability to crunch data to target specific messages to specific groups, what are the ethical limits on the creative and strategic messaging a campaign uses? 

Discussion Questions: 

  1. Should campaigns devote resources to advancing or helping prospective opponents who hold views they truly believe are dangerous or extreme?
  2. If you were a campaign manager, could you live with the prospect (however unexpected) of this candidate being elected?
  3. What is your threshold for your opponent where you could not entertain the possibility of “helping” them?
  4. There is always the possibility that your decision will become publicly known. In the event “your” candidate is successful and you face them in a general election, are your attacks against them less credible if it becomes known that you helped put them closer to elected office?
  5. If you were in a competitive primary and one of your opponents was helped by the opposing party, would you have the same reaction to the ethics of the situation?

Further Information:

Catanese, David. 2012, July 19. “McCaskill meddles in GOP primary.” POLITICO. Available at:

Cohen, David. 2012, August 19. “Earlier: Akin: ‘Legitimate rape’ rarely leads to pregnancy .” POLITICO. Available at:

Hunter, Caroline C., Lee E. Goodman, and Matthew S. Petersen. 2017. Statement of Reasons of Vice Chair Caroline C. Hunter and Commissioners Lee E. Goodman And Matthew S. Petersen. Washington, DC: Federal Election Commission,

James, Frank. 2012, August 8. “Missouri’s Claire McCaskill Gets Clarity On Her Opponent, If Not Her Future.” National Public Radio. Available at:

McCaskill, Claire. 2015, August 11. “How I Helped Todd Akin Win — So I Could Beat Him Later.” POLITICO. Available at:

McCaskill for Missouri 2012. 2012a, July 19. “Three of a kind, one and the same: Todd Akin.” YouTube. Available at:

—. 2012b, July 19. “Three of a kind, one and the same: Sarah Steelman.” YouTube. Available at:

Miller, Jonathan. 2012, August 7. “Missouri: Todd Akin Wins GOP Nod to Face Claire McCaskill.” Roll Call. Available at:

Murphy, Kevin. 2012, November 6. “Missouri Republican Akin loses after comments on rape.” Reuters. Available at:

Scott, Eugene. 2015, August 14. “Group accuses McCaskill of violating federal campaign finance laws.” CNN. Available at:


Conor Kilgore & Scott R. Stroud, Ph.D.
Project on Ethics in Political Communication / Center for Media Engagement
George Washington University / University of Texas at Austin

May 7, 2020

This case study was produced by the Media Ethics Initiative and the Project on Ethics in Political Communication. It remains the intellectual property of these two organizations. It is supported by funding from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. This case can be used in unmodified PDF form for classroom or educational uses. For use in publications such as textbooks, readers, and other works, please contact the Center for Media Engagement.


Producing Fear for the Greater Good?

CASE STUDY: The Ethics of Truth and Public Safety during the COVID-19 Pandemic

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Manny PachecoUnsplash

 Manny Pacheco / Unsplash / Modified

On December 31, 2019, the World Health Organization (WHO) received reports of several cases of pneumonia of unknown origin from Wuhan in the Hubei Province of China. The causal agent would soon come to be known as COVID-19, a novel coronavirus previously undetected in humans, and spread around the world within a matter of weeks causing ailments such as fever, cough, breathing difficulties, and “in more severe cases pneumonia, severe acute respiratory syndrome, kidney failure, [or] even death” (Mayo Clinic, 2020). By March 11, 2020, WHO officially classified the outbreak as a pandemic with 126,214 confirmed cases and 4,628 deaths.

Due to COVID-19’s rapidly developing nature and our limited knowledge of it, medical communities around the globe quickly issued recommendations for social distancing practices. Measures such as keeping 6 feet away from others, the closure of non-essential businesses, and self-quarantine at home have been urged as effective ways to “flatten the curve,” or to “slow the spread of the virus so there’s not a huge spike in illness all at once” (Godoy, 2020). In an interview with National Public Radio, Drew Harris, a population health researcher at Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia, explained: “If you think of our health care system as a subway car and it’s rush hour and everybody wants to get on the car at once, they start piling up at the door. They pile up on the platform. There’s just not enough room in the car to take care of everybody, to accommodate everybody. That’s the system that is overwhelmed. It just can’t handle it, and people wind up not getting services that they need” (Godoy, 2020).

However, in the face of the alarm raised many young and healthy Americans have been relatively unbothered. Since news of the virus has thus far been primarily focused on the dangers to the elderly and immunocompromised, many young adults have ignored the calls for social distancing and gone about life as usual. Regardless of the recommendations to stay home, there was still a surge in travelling during mid-to-late March 2020 as university students went on their regularly scheduled holiday trips. In fact, CBC News spoke with a number of young vacationers in Florida who appeared to be more upset about business closures than about the virus: “If I get corona, I get corona. At the end of the day I’m not gonna let it stop me from partying… We’ve been waiting for Miami spring break for a while. The bars and restaurants are closed but we’ll find ways to have fun” (CBC News, 2020). In one high-profile case, over 200 college students in from the University of Texas at Austin travelled to Cabo for spring break and 49 of them returned testing positive for the virus (Sullivan, 2020).

Despite the focus and assumptions of the virus’ effects on older adults, on March 18, 2020 the Center for Disease Control (CDC) COVID-19 Response Team released a Morbidity and Mortality Report which contained the claim that about 40% of patients known to have been hospitalized from the virus were between the ages of 20 and 54. This is a distressing statistic for all adults, but particularly for those young adults who may have previously believed they were not vulnerable. Many were tempted to use this statistic to persuade or scare youth into staying away from public places and gatherings. Two days after this report was issued, WHO director Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus issued a grave warning urging young adults to stay home: “Data from many countries clearly show that people under 50 make up a significant portion of patients requiring hospitalization. I have a message for young people: You’re not invincible, this virus could put you in the hospital for weeks or even kill you” (WHO, 2020). For young adults who may have thought they were not in danger from the coronavirus, this information is unsettling. Not only have a significant number of severe cases come from their age group after all, but if the curve isn’t flattened and the health care system becomes overwhelmed, they might wonder: would they be able to receive medical attention if they get sick? As the situation appears more dire, young adults may become more fearful and anxious – perhaps even to an apocalyptic extreme.

While the virus is a serious concern for all ages, it is still important to consider the claims about youth risk in context: though the 40% figure does map accurately according to the data reported from the COVID-19 Tracking Project at the time, there is very limited testing among the general public, especially for younger adults. Taking this into account, there are probably significantly more people in this age group who have the virus than have been tested for it, relative to older adults. The few who have been tested are likely those who have shown symptoms, but it is still possible for people to contract the virus and never know it – due to an absence of serious symptoms, they never seek testing or medical care. Thus, the 40% of hospitalized COVID-19 cases who are 20-54 may very well over-represent the total number of people in that age range with COVID-19 who currently or will need hospitalization.

Should health authorities use this part of the report to persuade young adults to act in a way that promotes public safety even if they aren’t as much at risk as one way of interpreting this data suggests? Even if 20 to 54-year olds are severely underrepresented in the testing system and their risk of hospitalization is lower than other age groups, there’s still the chance that young asymptomatic carriers may unknowingly spread the virus to those older adults who are more at risk and likely to need hospitalization. On one hand, using not-entirely-baseless but nonetheless misleading statistics in fear appeals could lead 20-54-year olds to do the beneficial thing regarding public health. For example, rather than go about life as usual, such a use of statistics might scare them into taking seriously the recommended social distancing practices to help flatten the curve of COVID-19 and save more lives in the long run. On the other hand, causing undue fear could take a toll on individuals’ mental health which can lead to other social problems, as paranoia can result in behaviors like panic-buying and hoarding – leading to effects where others can’t get the care or supplies they need. And critics could even worry that spinning fearful statistics as actually indicating a special risk that young adults face is tantamount to lying—even if for a benefit social purpose. With lives on the line in a global pandemic, how much detail and nuance should persuasive health campaigns insist upon in promoting public health? 

Discussion Questions: 

  1. What are the central values in conflict in the decision to use de/contextualized or “spun” statistics?
  2. Is there, or should there be, a prioritization of health? For older or younger adults, or physical vs. mental health?
  3. Is there a creative way to communicate in a contextualized, truthful way so that young people will take seriously the calls for social distancing without causing undue fear?
  4. How much nuance or complexity should communication about important scientific issues contain, especially if it decreases the message’s persuasive value?

Further Information:

Center for Disease Control. (2020, March 20). “Severe Outcomes Among Patients with Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) – United States, February 12–March 16, 2020.” Center for Disease Control. Available at:

Coronavirus Cases: (n.d.). Available at:

The COVID Tracking Project. (n.d.). Available at:

Godoy, Maria. (2020, March 13). “Flattening A Pandemic’s Curve: Why Staying Home Now Can Save Lives.” National Public Radio. Available at:

Sullivan, Beth. (2020, April 8). “More Than 200 UT Students Traveled to Cabo San Lucas for Spring Break. Guess How Many Now Have Coronavirus.” Austin Chronicle. Available at:

World Health Organization. (2020, January 5). “Pneumonia of Unknown Cause – China.” World Health Organization. Available at:

World Health Organization. (2020, March 20). Live from WHO Headquarters – COVID-19 Daily Press Briefing 20 March 2020. [Video File]. Available at:


Kat Williams and Scott R. Stroud, Ph.D.
Media Ethics Initiative
Center for Media Engagement
University of Texas at Austin
May 5, 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.


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