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The Center for Media Engagement and Media Ethics Initiative Present:
Cloak of Invisibility:
Perceived Privacy and the Ethical Study of Digital Fan Culture
Dr. Suzanne Scott
Assistant Professor of Radio-Television-Film
University of Texas at Austin
March 26 (Tuesday) ¦ 3:30-4:30PM ¦ CMA 5.136
What ethical challenges arise when scholars research the passionate fan communities that surround popular films, games, or books? Because many academics studying fan culture self-identify as fans and also participate in the fan communities they study, there has long been an unspoken “fans first” policy governing approaches to ethics in the field. But what happens when we ethically feel we owe our research subjects more protections than those required by our Internal Review Boards (IRB), and if so, what motivates this and would these protections meaningfully look like? This presentation will contextualize ongoing ethical debates around whether fan discourse and forms of textual production (like fanfiction or fanart) should be conceptually approached as “texts” or “people.” Through a survey of these histories and core ethical debates, we will explore several interrelated issues ranging from the perceived privacy of fan communities to the ethical best practices of researching industry/fan interactions through contemporary case studies.
Dr. Suzanne Scott is an assistant professor in the Department of Radio-TV-Film at the University of Texas at Austin. Her research and teaching interests include fan studies, media convergence, digital and participatory culture, social media, transmedia storytelling, comic book culture, and gender studies. Dr. Scott’s current book project, Fake Geek Girls: Fandom, Gender, and the Convergence Culture Industry (NYU Press, April 2019), considers the gendered tensions underpinning the media industry’s embrace of fans as demographic tastemakers, professionals, and promotional partners within convergence culture.
The Media Ethics Initiative is part of the Center for Media Engagement at the University of Texas at Austin. Follow MEI and CME on Facebook for more information. Media Ethics Initiative events are free and open to the public.
The Center for Media Engagement and Media Ethics Initiative Present:
Media Freedom and the Middle East: Pursuing a Self-Regulatory Approach in Qatar
Associate Professor of Journalism
University of Texas at Austin
February 19 (Tuesday) ¦ 3:30-4:30PM ¦ BMC 5.208
Laws throughout the Middle East and North Africa dramatically limit freedom of expression by prohibiting journalists from engaging in basic newsgathering functions, including taking video and photos in public. Historically, journalists and the general public alike have faced potential criminal punishment for violation of these laws, which also often prohibit the publication of information deemed offensive, embarrassing or sensitive. Recently, however, Qatar has begun to explore ways to promote media freedom and Western investment in media through the initiation of the Qatar Media Hub. Organizations operating through the QMH would ascribe to a code of professional ethics as a means of regulation, potentially taking them outside the scope of traditional criminal law. During a recent consulting trip to the country, I urged government leaders to adopt this self-regulatory approach in lieu of traditional government regulation as a means of advancing free expression. My current work explores the benefits of ethical self-regulation as well as global approaches to media self-regulation in the hope of drafting a workable model for Qatar’s new initiative.
Dr. Amy Kristin Sanders is an award-winning former journalist, licensed attorney and associate professor. Before joining the faculty of The University of Texas at Austin, she taught for more than four years at Northwestern University’s campus in Doha, Qatar. Her research focuses on the intersection of law and new technology as it relates to media freedom. Specifically, she focuses on international and comparative media law and policy issues, including media freedom, Internet governance, social media and digital literacy. She has authored more than 20 scholarly articles in numerous law reviews and mass communication journals, and she is a co-author of the widely recognized casebook “First Amendment and the Fourth Estate: The Law of Mass Media.”
The Media Ethics Initiative is part of the Center for Media Engagement at the University of Texas at Austin. Follow MEI and CME on Facebook for more information. Media Ethics Initiative events are open and free to the public.
CASE STUDY: The Ethics of Internet Memes
Most people could never predict that they would become a viral internet sensation overnight. Canadian teenager Ghyslain Raza never thought about this possibility of digital fame until one day he found that a video he created of himself fighting imaginary enemies with a golf-ball retriever had been uploaded on Kazaa, a collective file-sharing network. According to BBC, classmates discovered this video on a school computer and shared it, reaching around 900 million views. It was labeled as the most viral video in 2006 (Tunison, 2017). The “Star Wars Kid” video continued to be shared, sometimes remixed and edited with funny music and visual effects. Ghyslain Raza had unintentionally become a meme.
There are many internet personalities who would relish in the digital limelight that Raza inadvertently stepped into, but he did not. The sudden popularity of his video caused a severe psychological effect on Raza. He immediately faced aggressive bullying at school. “In the common room, students climbed onto tabletops to insult me,” he shared in an interview with L’Actualite. “People made fun of my physical appearance and my weight. I was labeled the ‘Star Wars Kid’… [they] were telling me to commit suicide.” Raza eventually dropped out of school before spending time in a psychiatric institution for severe depression. His parents sued the classmates who uploaded the video without permission, which led to further bullying after some in the media claimed that the family was “greedy” (Zimmerman, 2013). Raza eventually overcame the negative repercussions of his unwanted celebrity. He went on to obtain a law degree from McGill University and has been a public supporter for victims of cyberbullying.
Raza’s experience with becoming a meme sparked debate over the ethical concerns of meme creation and sharing, especially when they use images or videos that depict identifiable individuals. Many memes originate from video or pictures being “repurposed” for the goals of the meme creator, including political commentary, satire, and “lulz.” Whitney Phillips and Ryan M. Milner, co-authors of The Ambivalent Internet, emphasize that memes are never “just” memes: “The problem is that the ‘just’ framing (just joking, just a meme on the internet, just a new kind of hazing ritual) posits what we describe… as a fetishized gaze, one that obscures everything but the joke itself” (Phillips & Milner, 2017). They argue that regardless of the medium, real people are almost always affected by a meme, whether directly (as in Raza’s case) or indirectly (in the case of a general racist meme).
However, it is the age of the Internet, and who knows how all the videos or images that we post or comment on will be taken by others. Screenshots and online archives simply continue the permanence and ability of others to comment on this content, often in ways we can’t anticipate. The consequences of being immortalized in a popular meme are difficult to predict, given the ever-evolving use of the meme. Sometimes, these unintended uses of images, videos, or other content seems to be a boon to the unsuspecting person depicted in the meme. Kyle Craven, better known as the subject of the “Bad Luck Brian” meme, has made “between $15,000 and $20,000 in [three years] between licensing deals and T-shirts” (Garsd, 2015). “Overly Attached Girlfriend,” a.k.a. Laina Morris, used her meme fame to launch her comedic acting career. Memes can even be considered a part of modern language, signaling a way of communicating among a technological in-group using digital discourse. Above all, memes strive to be clever, creative, and humorous in their appropriation of content and images that most likely where not intended to be comedic in that specific way.
As with many internet phenomena, meme creation often foregrounds a conflict between the freedom of expression of creative meme makes and the privacy concerns of those that may find themselves featured in the meme. How much control should we have over our images and videos, and at what cost to the creativity of the digital world?
- What are the ethical issues with taking a picture or video and making it into a humorous meme?
- What concerns about consent are implicated in making image-based memes? Are these concerns with consent present in our other commentary or use of public images?
- Does the intention of the meme maker matter? Does it matter if they do not know (or care) about the subject depicted in the image or video content that the meme is based upon?
- What ethical guidelines would you propose for those creating image-based memes? How might these avoid harmful consequences or ethical transgressions—foreseen or unforeseen?
Garsd, Jasmine. “Internet Memes and ‘The Right To Be Forgotten.’” NPR, March 3, 2015. Available at: https://www.npr.org/sections/alltechconsidered/2015/03/03/390463119/internet-memes-and-the-right-to-be-forgotten
Phillips, Whitney and Milner, Ryan. “The Harvard Case Shows a Meme Is Never ‘Just’ A Meme.” Motherboard, June 6, 2017. Available at: https://motherboard.vice.com/en_us/article/zmen4y/the-harvard-case-shows-a-meme-is-never-just-a-meme
Phillips, Whitney and Milner, Ryan. “The Complex Ethics of Online Memes.” The Ethics Centre, October 26, 2016. Available at: http://www.ethics.org.au/on-ethics/blog/october-2016/the-complex-ethics-of-online-memes
Tunison, Mike. “The incredibly sad saga of Star Wars Kid.” The Daily Dot, August 6, 2017. Available at: https://www.dailydot.com/unclick/star-wars-kid-meme/
Weisblott, Marc. “‘Star Wars Kid’ goes on media blitz 10 years later.” Canada.com, May 9, 2013. Available at: https://o.canada.com/entertainment/celebrity/star-wars-kid-goes-on-a-media-blitz-10-years-later
Zimmerman, Neetzan. “‘Star Wars Kid’ Breaks Silence, Says Online Fame Made Him Suicidal.” Gawker, May 10, 2013. Available at: https://gawker.com/star-wars-kid-breaks-silence-says-online-fame-made-h-499800192
Alex Purcell & Scott R. Stroud, Ph.D.
Media Ethics Initiative
Center for Media Engagement
University of Texas at Austin
January 14, 2018
Cases produced by the Media Ethics Initiative remain the intellectual property of the Media Ethics Initiative and the University of Texas at Austin. They can be used in unmodified PDF form without permission for classroom or educational uses. Please email us and let us know if you found them useful! For use in publications such as textbooks, readers, and other works, please contact the Media Ethics Initiative.
CASE STUDY: The Ethics of Powerful Images in the Immigration Debate
Sharon Lauricella, Ph.D., University of Ontario Institute of Technology
In June 2018, discourse around immigration to the U.S. came to a peak when award-winning Getty Images photographer John Moore captured an image of a distraught, crying, two-year-old Honduran child beside her mother and a U.S. border agent. The image of the toddler, with her shoelaces removed and mouth agape in a wail, came to represent Trump’s “zero tolerance” policy toward undocumented immigrants; thousands of children, parents, and family members were separated at the U.S. border as a form of punishment for attempting to cross illegally.
The photo galvanized the public to contact both Republican and Democratic representatives with their objections, and also inspired people to donate to legal defense services for refugees. The emotional photograph had such a significant public impact that shortly after its publication, Trump issued an unusual retreat and ended the hardline policy of separating families.
Just over a week after the photo was taken, and subsequent to its viral spread, Time magazine’s cover of June 21, 2018 featured a photo illustration of the child, without her mother or the border agent, opposite an image of a menacing Trump staring down at her. The caption read, “Welcome to America.”
When Moore took the photo, it was unknown whether the mother, Sandra Sanchez, and her daughter, Yanela, would be separated during the immigration process. Subsequent to the publication of the original photo, it was discovered that the child and her mother were detained without being separated. Carlos Ruiz, the border patrol agent whose legs are in the original photo, told CBS news that upon Sanchez’s illegal crossing, he detained her and her daughter for a formal search, which took “less than two minutes.” Ruiz reported that as soon as the brief search was completed, Sanchez picked up her daughter, who immediately stopped crying.
The Trump administration harshly criticized Time, accusing it of running “fake news” given that the child in the photo illustration and her mother were not separated at the time that the photograph was taken, nor were they separated afterward. Former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich called for Time to apologize to Trump, and Press Secretary Sarah Sanders tweeted that Democrats and the media were guilty of exploiting the little girl to “push their agenda” to revise Trump’s hardline approach to immigration. Trump also weighed in, tweeting that the Democrats have no intentions of resolving this “decades old problem,” and that “we can pass great legislation [on immigration] after the Red Wave,” referring to the then upcoming elections in November 2018. Other news media outlets argued that printing the photo was a blunder on the part of Time, and that the intended effect of the image “oversold” the problem of families detained and separated at the border.
Time issued a correction which made clear that the child was not taken away from her mother by border agents. However, Time defended its decision to run the cover’s photo illustration, indicating that the image of the distraught child is representative of the thousands of immigrant children separated from their parents and of whom there are not any photographs. Time’s editor-in-chief, Edward Felsenthal, issued a statement arguing that the photo captured the terror of what was indeed happening at the border and in detainee centers:
The June 12 photograph of the 2-year-old Honduran girl became the most visible symbol of the ongoing immigration debate in America for a reason: Under the policy enforced by the administration, prior to its reversal this week, those who crossed the border illegally were criminally prosecuted, which in turn resulted in the separation of children and parents. Our cover and our reporting capture the stakes of this moment.
Felsenthal and those supporting publication of the cover argue that the image of the toddler on its cover was representative of immigration-related political discourse, and that the photo illustration conveyed contemporary treatment of undocumented immigrants. Alongside government-issued photographs of children in cage-like pens in detainee centers, the photo on the cover of Time served as a poignant representation of the difficulties experienced by undocumented immigrants.
Moore is an experienced photojournalist and had covered immigration issues previously. He expressed that he captured a raw and honest image that did much to publicize the terror experienced by many undocumented immigrants. He said he believes that his job as a photojournalist is to inform and report what is happening, and that when he took the photo, he feared that the child and her mother would be separated in the detainment process. Moore also argues that in his work, “it is important to humanize an issue that is often reported in statistics.” He issued no objections to the use of his photograph as it appeared on the Time cover.
- Moore’s photo served to educate and galvanize the public in relation to immigration issues. Does the fact that the toddler was not separated from her mother matter, given that thousands of other children were?
- Viewers of the Time cover could assume that the toddler was separated from her mother while being detained at the U.S. border. Given that this was not the case, should Time have run the cover with the photo illustration featuring this child?
- What ethical values serve as the basis for photojournalism? What interests are often in conflict in photojournalism?
- What values are in conflict in the use of Moore’s photo? How might you best balance the conflicting interests if you were an editor?
Kirby, J. (2018, June 22). “Time’s crying girl photo controversy, explained.” Vox. Retrieved from https://www.vox.com/policy-and-politics/2018/6/22/17494688/time-magazine-cover-crying-girl-photo-controversy-family-separation
Blake, A. (2018, June 22). “Time magazine’s major mistake on the crying-girl cover.” The Washington Post. Retrieved from https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/the-fix/wp/2018/06/22/time-magazines-major-screw-up-on-the-crying-girl-cover/
CBS News. (2018, June 22). “Crying girl in iconic image was never separated from mother, ICE says.” https://www.cbsnews.com/news/border-patrol-agent-involved-dramatic-photo-girl-crying-at-border-speaks-out/
Dwyer, C. (2018, June 22). “Crying toddler on widely shared Time cover was not separated from mother.” NPR. Retrieved from https://www.npr.org/2018/06/22/622611182/crying-toddler-on-widely-shared-time-cover-was-not-separated-from-mother
Holson, L. M. & Garcia, S. E. (2018, June 22). “She became a face of family separation at the border. But she’s still with her mother.” The New York Times. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2018/06/22/us/immigration-toddler-trump-media.html
Time Staff. (21 June 2018). “The story behind Time’s Trump ‘Welcome to America’ cover.” Time. Retrieved from: http://time.com/5317522/donald-trump-border-cover/
Schmidt, S. & Phillips, K. (2018, June 22). “The crying Honduran girl on the cover of Time was not separated from her mother.” The Washington Post. Retrieved from https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/morning-mix/wp/2018/06/22/the-crying-honduran-girl-on-the-cover-of-time-was-not-separated-from-her-mother-father-says/
Cases produced in cooperation with the Media Ethics Initiative remain the intellectual property of the Media Ethics Initiative, the author, and the University of Texas at Austin. They are produced for educational uses only. They can be used in unmodified PDF form without permission or cost for classroom or educational uses. For use in publications such as textbooks, readers, and other works, please contact the Media Ethics Initiative.
CASE STUDY: The Ethics of First-Person Shooter Video Games
Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold slaughtered thirteen people at Columbine High School with two shotguns, a semi-automatic pistol, and a Hi-Point carbine in 1999. Adam Lanza murdered twenty children and six adult staff members at Sandy Hook Elementary School with a rifle and two handguns in 2012. Nikolas Cruz killed seventeen students and staff members at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School with a semi-automatic rifle in 2018. Several qualities connect these killers with each other, but for some, one fact sticks out: they were all avid video gamers.
Many of the games that these individuals enjoyed are called “first-person” shooters, or games in which the player assumes a first-person perspective making it appear as if the player is, in fact, using the character’s weapon themselves. In an article exploring concerns with such games, Emma Lindsay says that it is “hard to find a mass shooter who didn’t play violent video games.” After a shooting resulted in two deaths at a high school, Kentucky governor Matt Bevin claimed that “we can’t celebrate death in video games… and then expect that things like this are not going to happen” (Ray & Schreiner, 2018). Charles N. Cox, a former video game developer at Microsoft and Sierra Studios, wrote a blog post explaining that he would never work on a first-person shooter again, stating that “money isn’t an acceptable stand-in for ethical behavior… just as legality doesn’t equal morality.”
Others disagree that violent video games share much of the blame in actual violence. Christopher J. Ferguson argues that any scientific evidence asserting violence in video games as a precedent to real-world violence is usually “methodologically messy and often contradictory.” His personal research focuses on finding biases in scholarly journals, which led to his discovery that research articles finding a relationship between video games and violence were “more likely to be published than studies that had found none” (Ferguson, 2018). A meta-analysis done by Johannes Breuer found that any statistical relationship between violent video games and real-life aggression was at a level that could be “considered trivial” (Breuer, 2015). Emma Lindsay, however, says that “people who debate the question ‘do violent video games make people violent?’ are missing the mark… the question is, ‘why do we want to play violent video games?’… What is appealing about performing 83,000 virtual murders?” 83,000 is the total number of kills Adam Lanza, the Sandy Hook shooter, racked up on his favorite first-person shooter game, Combat Arms.
Some first-person shooter games have gained extra notoriety, despite sharing similar aesthetics to other shooter games. One such game is Active Shooter, an independent game created by Ata Berdiyev, who has now been deemed a “troll.” The game is billed as a “dynamic SWAT simulator” and allows the player to play the role of either “a SWAT team attempting to disarm the shooter, or the shooter themselves” (Molina, 2018). Steam, a video game marketplace where independent game developers can test their game designs on a real audience, was scheduled to release Active Shooter on its platform, but they quickly pulled the game after lawmakers and families of shooting victims expressed their outrage.
While the ethical battle goes on, some video game companies are taking it upon themselves to create something of a middle ground. 2K Games has developed a game called Spec Ops, what initially looks like your typical warzone first-person shooter. However, it serves as an exploration into the player’s own moral limits. Brian Crecente writes that “there was a moment in the game when I was asked to decide the fate of two men… instead, I opened fire on the people asking me to make the decision and it didn’t punish me.” The game offers a wide range of options for the player, and not all of them include killing someone. The lead game designer Cory Davis says, “Our goal is to invite you to have a deeper emotional reaction.” Each decision comes with a different consequence, some that affect your fellow soldiers’ impressions of you, allowing you to choose your rewards and punishments. “The unspoken choice here,” Walt Williams, lead writer for 2K Games, says, “is ‘are you going to obey the video game? Are you going to do what you’re told to do?’” But the deeper ethical worry with any of these games is this: are we giving these games too much power by placing ourselves into the role of a “shooter” in the first place?
- Is it ethically problematic to play (or to enjoy) first-person shooter video games? Why or why not?
- Is establishing a link between actual violence and enjoyment of these shooter games important to their ethical evaluation? Might it still be problematic to enjoy something that doesn’t have many real world effects?
- What is particularly worrisome about the Active Shooter game? How is it different from other violent first-person shooter games?
- Is there a way to design and enjoy first-person shooter games in an ethical fashion? Explain where you think the moral lines should be drawn.
Cox, Charles N. “Why I’ll Never Work on First-Person Shooters Again.” Charles N. Cox- On the 1’s and 2’s, December 26, 2012. Available at https://www.charlesncox.com/blog/2012/12/why-ill-never-work-on-first-person-shooters-again/
Crecente, Brian. “What If a War Game Made You Question the Morality of Killing?” Rotaku, November 22, 2011. Available at https://kotaku.com/5861762/what-if-a-video-game-made-you-question-the-morality-of-killing
Ferguson, Christopher J. “It’s time to end the debate about video games and violence.” The Conversation, February 16, 2018. Available at https://theconversation.com/its-time-to-end-the-debate-about-video-games-and-violence-91607
Lindsay, Emma. “The Trouble with First Person Shooters is Deeper than First Person Shooting.” Medium, March 5, 2018. Available at https://medium.com/@emmalindsay/the-trouble-with-first-person-shooters-is-deeper-than-first-person-shooting-157888e66807
Molina, Bret. “’Active Shooter’ video game simulating school shootings developed by ‘a troll,’ pulled from platform.” USA Today, May 30, 2018. Available at https://www.usatoday.com/story/tech/talkingtech/2018/05/30/active-shooter-video-game-simulating-school-shootings-pulled/654697002/
Ray, Robert & Schreiner, Bruce. “Kentucky governor says school shootings are a ‘cultural problem,’ declares day of prayer.” Chicago Tribune, January 26, 2018. Available at https://www.chicagotribune.com/news/nationworld/ct-kentucky-governor-shootings-culture-20180126-story.html
Wenner Moyer, Melinda. “Yes, Violent Video Games Trigger Aggression, but Debate Lingers.” Scientific American, October 2, 2018. Available at https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/yes-violent-video-games-trigger-aggression-but-debate-lingers/
Alex Purcell & Scott R. Stroud, Ph.D.
Media Ethics Initiative
Center for Media Engagement
University of Texas at Austin
December 1, 2018
Cases produced by the Media Ethics Initiative remain the intellectual property of the Media Ethics Initiative and the University of Texas at Austin. They can be used in unmodified PDF form without permission for classroom or educational 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.