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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 https://www.cnn.com/2020/04/19/health/coronavirus-diary-sickness-brooke-baldwin/index.html

Chiu, A. (2020, March 24). “‘The comedy routine America needs right now’: The Cuomo brothers return to prime time.” The Washington Post. Retrieved from https://www.washingtonpost.com/nation/2020/03/24/tv-cnn-cuomo/

CNBC. (2020, April 2). “New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo holds a press conference on the coronavirus outbreak.” Retrieved from https://www.cnbc.com/2020/04/02/watch-live-ny-gov-andrew-cuomo-holds-a-press-conference-on-the-coronavirus.html

CNN. (2020, May 20). “Chris Cuomo teases brother Andrew with giant test swab.” Retrieved from https://www.cnn.com/videos/politics/2020/05/21/chris-andrew-cuomo-swabs-test-joke-cpt-vpx.cnn

Cuomo, C. [@ChrisCuomo). (2013, December 2). [Twitter moment]. Retrieved from https://twitter.com/ChrisCuomo/status/407532380518248448

Jensen, E. (2016, February 26), “When is a friendship a conflict of interest?” NPR Public Editor. Retrieved from https://www.npr.org/sections/publiceditor/2016/02/26/467813499/when-is-a-friendship-a-conflict-of-interest

NowThisNews. (2020, April 2). Best of the Cuomo brothers: America’s favorite TV family during Coronavirus. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vHGhAIEqJcg

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 https://www.vanityfair.com/news/2019/02/james-bennet-will-recuse-himself-if-senator-michael-bennet-runs-for-president

The Ellen Show. (2020, April 20). “Trevor Noah is a Cuomosexual.” Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=O93vQQamzAw

Author:

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

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: https://www.wsj.com/articles/political-ad-spending-will-approach-10-billion-in-2020-new-forecast-predicts-11559642400

Clegg, Nick. (2019, November 13). “Facebook: Elections and Political Speech.” Available at: https://about.fb.com/news/2019/09/elections-and-political-speech/

Heshmat, S. (2015, April 23). “What Is Confirmation Bias?” Available at: https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/science-choice/201504/what-is-confirmation-bias

Isaac, M., & Kang, C. (2020, January 9). “Facebook Says It Won’t Back Down from Allowing Lies in Political Ads.” Available at: https://www.nytimes.com/2020/01/09/technology/facebook-political-ads-lies.html

Pariser, Eli. (2016, July 24). “The Reason Your Feed Became An Echo Chamber — And What To Do About It.” Available at: https://www.npr.org/sections/alltechconsidered/2016/07/24/486941582/the-reason-your-feed-became-an-echo-chamber-and-what-to-do-about-it

Roose, K. (2018, November 4). “We Asked for Examples of Election Misinformation. You Delivered.” Available at: https://www.nytimes.com/2018/11/04/us/politics/election-misinformation-facebook.html

Stewart, E. (2019, October 9). “Facebook is refusing to take down a Trump ad making false claims about Joe Biden.” Available at: https://www.vox.com/policy-and-politics/2019/10/9/20906612/trump-campaign-ad-joe-biden-ukraine-facebook

Suciu, P. (2019, October 11). “More Americans Are Getting Their News from Social Media.” Available at: https://www.forbes.com/sites/petersuciu/2019/10/11/more-americans-are-getting-their-news-from-social-media/#6bc8516f3e17

Zuckerberg, Mark. (2019, October 17). Washington Post. “Watch live: Facebook CEO Zuckerberg speaks at Georgetown University.” Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2MTpd7YOnyU

Authors:

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.

 

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: https://www.politico.com/story/2012/07/mccaskill-meddles-in-gop-primary-078737

Cohen, David. 2012, August 19. “Earlier: Akin: ‘Legitimate rape’ rarely leads to pregnancy .” POLITICO. Available at: https://www.politico.com/story/2012/08/akin-legitimate-rape-victims-dont-get-pregnant-079864

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, https://eqs.fec.gov/eqsdocsMUR/17044406199.pdf

James, Frank. 2012, August 8. “Missouri’s Claire McCaskill Gets Clarity On Her Opponent, If Not Her Future.” National Public Radio. Available at: https://www.npr.org/sections/itsallpolitics/2012/08/08/158413422/missouris-claire-mccaskill-gets-clarity-on-opponent-if-not-her-future

McCaskill, Claire. 2015, August 11. “How I Helped Todd Akin Win — So I Could Beat Him Later.” POLITICO. Available at: https://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2015/08/todd-akin-missouri-claire-mccaskill-2012-121262

McCaskill for Missouri 2012. 2012a, July 19. “Three of a kind, one and the same: Todd Akin.” YouTube. Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ec4t_3vaBMc

—. 2012b, July 19. “Three of a kind, one and the same: Sarah Steelman.” YouTube. Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JwPWqg_z4EQ

Miller, Jonathan. 2012, August 7. “Missouri: Todd Akin Wins GOP Nod to Face Claire McCaskill.” Roll Call. Available at: https://www.rollcall.com/2012/08/07/missouri-todd-akin-wins-gop-nod-to-face-claire-mccaskill

Murphy, Kevin. 2012, November 6. “Missouri Republican Akin loses after comments on rape.” Reuters. Available at: https://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-campaign-senate-missouri/missouri-republican-akin-loses-after-comments-on-rape-idUSBRE8A60HJ20121107

Scott, Eugene. 2015, August 14. “Group accuses McCaskill of violating federal campaign finance laws.” CNN. Available at: https://www.cnn.com/2015/08/13/politics/claire-mccaskill-todd-akin/index.html

Authors:

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.

 

Misinformation, Social Media, and the Price of Political Persuasion

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

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tw

Kon Karampelas / Unsplash / Modified

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

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

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

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

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

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

Discussion Questions:

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

 Further Information:

Chiu, A. “‘The world is laughing at President Trump’: Joe Biden highlights viral NATO video in campaign ad.” The Washington Post, December 5, 2019. Available at: https://www.washingtonpost.com/nation/2019/12/05/joe-biden-campaign-ad-laughing-trump-trudeau-macron-nato/

Conger, K. “Twitter Will Ban All Political Ads, C.E.O. Jack Dorsey Says.” The New York Times, October 30, 2019. Available at: https://www.nytimes.com/2019/10/30/technology/twitter-political-ads-ban.html

Entous, A., Timberg, C., & Dwoskin, E. “Russian operatives used Facebook ads to exploit America’s racial and religious divisions.” The Washington Post, September 25, 2017. Available at: https://www.washingtonpost.com/business/technology/russian-operatives-used-facebook-ads-to-exploit-divisions-over-black-political-activism-and-muslims/2017/09/25/4a011242-a21b-11e7-ade1-76d061d56efa_story.html

Guilbeault, D. & Wolley, S. “How Twitter Bots Are Shaping the Election.” The Atlantic, November 1, 2019. Available at: https://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2016/11/election-bots/506072/

Halpern, S. “The Problem of Political Advertising on Social Media.” The New Yorker, October 24, 2019. Available at: https://www.newyorker.com/tech/annals-of-technology/the-problem-of-political-advertising-on-social-media

Hudson, D. “In the Age of Social Media, Expand the Reach of the First Amendment.” Human Rights Magazine, October 20, 2018. Available at: https://www.americanbar.org/groups/crsj/publications/human_rights_magazine_home/the-ongoing-challenge-to-define-free-speech/in-the-age-of-socia-media-first-amendment/

O’Sullivan, D. & Fung, B. “Google’s updated ad policy will still allow politicians to run false ads.” CNN, November 20, 2019. Available at: https://www.cnn.com/2019/11/20/tech/google-political-ads-update/index.html

Roose, K. “Digital Hype Aside, Report Says Political Campaigns Are Mostly Analog Affairs.” The New York Times, March 21, 2019. Available at: https://www.nytimes.com/2019/03/21/business/political-campaigns-digital-advertising.html

Wagner, K. “Twitter’s Political Ad Ban Will Exempt Some ‘Issue’ Ads.” Bloomberg, November 15, 2019. Available at: https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2019-11-15/twitter-s-political-ad-ban-will-exempt-some-issue-ads

Authors:

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


This case study is supported by funding from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. Cases produced by the Media Ethics Initiative remain the intellectual property of the Media Ethics Initiative and the Center for Media Engagement. They can be used in unmodified PDF form for classroom or educational settings. For use in publications such as textbooks, readers, and other works, please contact the Center for Media Engagement at sstroud (at) austin.utexas.edu.

 

How Vigilant Should Cable News Be About Political Messages?

CASE STUDY: CNN’s Rejection of Trump’s Political Advertisements

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bidenad

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In October 2019, CNN declined to air two 30-second paid advertisements from President Donald Trump’s re-election campaign. The two advertisements, titled “Biden Corruption” and “Coup,” came in the aftermath of Nancy Pelosi, Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, announcing the launch of a formal impeachment inquiry against Trump.

The inquiry was the result of revelations of a reported phone call President Donald Trump had with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky in July 2019 in which Trump insinuated the Ukranian government should investigate former Vice President Joe Biden and his son Hunter Biden. Hunter Biden worked for a Ukranian energy company whose owner was being investigated by Ukranian prosecutor general Viktor Shokin (Vogel, 2019). In 2016, Shokin was ousted as prosecutor general in light of accusations of corruption (Kramer, 2016). Trump and his supporters argue that Biden used his power as vice president to protect his son’s employer and influence the dismissal of Shokin. The New York Times reports, however, that “no evidence has surfaced that the former vice president intentionally tried to help his son by pressing for the prosecutor’s dismissal” (Vogel, 2019).

It was revealed that days before Trump and Zelensky’s July 2019 phone call that Trump directed his chief of staff “to place a hold on about $400 million in military aid for Ukraine,” (Pryzbyla & Edelman, 2019), leading some to believe the president issued a quid pro quo in order to tarnish a political rival. The pro-Trump advertisements that CNN refused to air attack network journalists such as Don Lemon and Chris Cuomo, calling them “media lapdogs,” label the House impeachment inquiry as a “coup,” and accuse Joe Biden of promising $1 billion to the Ukraine if Shokin was ousted (Grynbaum, 2019). CNN rejected the advertisements on the grounds they “contained inaccuracies and unfairly attacked the network’s journalists” and stated one ad in particular made “assertions that have been proven demonstrably false” (Grynbaum & Hsu, 2019).

Despite partisan pushback, the network’s move is not an unusual one. Unlike broadcast channels such as NBC, CBS, and ABC, cable networks are not obliged to follow regulations from the Federal Communications Commission pertaining to political advertisements. Because cable networks do not broadcast over “public” airwaves (Tompkins, 2019), they have more power to choose what political advertisements they showcase. Alternatively, broadcast channels are required “to air ads that come from legally qualified political candidates, according to the FCC” (Vranica & Horwitz, 2019), even if they may be laden with what the channel might consider spin, inaccuracies, and fabrications.

CNN wasn’t the only network that decided not to air the two Trump advertisements. NBCUniversal made the decision to pull the “Biden Corruption” ad after it aired once on the company’s cable network channels MSNBC and Bravo (Vranica & Horwitz, 2019). The controversy over these advertisements leads many to ask the question: Should national cable news networks have the power to pick and choose the political advertisements their viewers are exposed to? For those who agree that news networks should have the capability to reject political ads, an argument could be that rejecting ads with false information protects voters from believing and spreading misinformation. Despite the rise of social media, television has remained the main source of election news for a majority of people in the United States. A Pew Research survey found that during the 2016 presidential election, 24% of respondents said they learned information about the presidential election through cable news, followed by 14% receiving information from social media and local television (Gottfired et al., 2019). CNN’s decision could be seen as a way to protect the public from an ad that entangles political persuasion and unconfirmed accusations.

Those opposing CNN’s decision boiled down to two points: partisanship and free speech. Trump has been known to denounce CNN on multiple occasions labeling them as the “fake news media,” and accusing them of partisan bias in favor of Democrats (Samuels, 2019). Tim Murtaugh, communications director for the Trump campaign, argued that the campaign’s “Biden corruption” ad was “entirely accurate and was reviewed by counsel” and that CNN was “protecting Joe Biden in their programming” (Grynbaum & Hsu, 2019). The notion that CNN’s rejection is a partisan ploy also connects to the fear of a suppression of political speech. Facebook’s decision to allow the “Biden Corruption” ad on its social media platform was based on a “fundamental belief in free expression, respect for the democratic process, and the belief that, in mature democracies with a free press, political speech is already arguably the most scrutinized speech there is” (Lima, 2019). Those supporting enabling access to this advertisement seem concerned that when political advertisements are censored and viewers are not equitably presented with arguments across multiple media platforms, democracy consequently suffers.

As the 2020 presidential election increasingly dominates news media, more controversial advertisements are likely to be released to the public for mass consumption on radio, print, social media, and television. Some might perceive an advertisement as well-argued and appropriately passionate, whereas others might accuse the same message of containing spin, emotional manipulation, or downright falsehoods. Outlets like CNN will continue to be faced with a choice: should they allow any kind of political advertisements on their channel —and leave conclusions and judgments of their veracity to viewers— or should they reject advertisements they believe contain some amount of misinformation in an effort to shield viewers’ political opinions from what they judge as abuse? How much power should a cable network wield in influencing, directly or indirectly, their audience’s exposure to a candidate’s message?

Discussion Questions:

  1. What are the ethical implications of CNN rejecting to air Trump’s two advertisements on its network? What values are in conflict?
  2. How could CNN have alternatively handled the situation other than rejecting to air the advertisements?
  3. Facebook said its decision to keep Trump’s two advertisements on its platform was based on the “belief in free expression” and “respect for the democratic process.” In what ways, if any, did CNN’s decision corroborate or contradict these beliefs?
  4. How does partisanship play a role in this scenario? Does partisanship affect the ways audience members consume media?
  5. Should news outlets be in the habit of fact-checking advertisements before they accept them? What is workable or problematic about this proposal?

 Further Information:

Gottfried, J., Barthel, M., Shearer, E., and Mitchell, A. “The 2016 Presidential Campaign – a News Event That’s Hard to Miss.” Pew Research Center, February 4, 2016. Available at: https://www.journalism.org/2016/02/04/the-2016-presidential-campaign-a-news-event-thats-hard-to-miss/

Grynbaum, M. & Hsu, T. “CNN Rejects 2 Trump Campaign Ads, Citing Inaccuracies.” The New York Times, Oct. 3, 2019. Available at: https://www.nytimes.com/2019/10/03/business/media/cnn-trump-campaign-ad.html

Kramer, A. “Ukraine Ousts Viktor Shokin, Top Prosecutor, and Political Stability Hangs in the Balance.” The New York Times, March, 29, 2016. Available at: https://www.nytimes.com/2016/03/30/world/europe/political-stability-in-the-balance-as-ukraine-ousts-top-prosecutor.html

Lima, C. “How Trump is winning the fight on ‘baseless’ ads.” POLITICO, Oct. 11, 2019. Available at: https://www.politico.com/news/2019/10/11/trump-joe-biden-ad-social-media-misinformation-044267

Przybyla, H. & Edelman, A. “Nancy Pelosi announces formal impeachment inquiry of Trump.” NBC News, September 24, 2019. Available at: https://www.nbcnews.com/politics/trump-impeachment-inquiry/pelosi-announce-formal-impeachment-inquiry-trump-n1058251

Samuels, B. “Trump campaign threatens to sue CNN, citing Project Veritas videos.” The Hill, October 18, 2019. Available at: https://thehill.com/homenews/campaign/466473-trump-campaign-threatens-to-sue-cnn-citing-project-veritas-videos

Tompkins, A. “Do the networks have to give equal time? In a word, no.” Poynter, January 8, 2019. Available at: https://www.poynter.org/ethics-trust/2019/do-the-networks-have-to-give-equal-time-in-a-word-no/

Vogel, K. “Trump, Biden and Ukraine: Sorting Out the Accusations.” The New York Times, September 22, 2019. Available at: https://www.nytimes.com/2019/09/22/us/politics/biden-ukraine-trump.html

Vranica, S. & Horwitz, J. “NBCU Cable Networks Refuse to Air Trump Campaign Ad Aimed at Joe Biden.” The Wall Street Journal, Oct. 10, 2019. Available at: https://www.wsj.com/articles/nbcu-refuses-to-air-trump-campaign-ad-aimed-at-joe-biden-11570746377

Authors:

Allyson Waller & Scott R. Stroud, Ph.D.
Media Ethics Initiative
Center for Media Engagement
University of Texas at Austin
February 3, 2020


Cases produced by the Media Ethics Initiative remain the intellectual property of the Media Ethics Initiative and the Center for Media Engagement. They can be used in unmodified PDF form without permission for classroom or educational uses. Please email us at sstroud (at) austin.utexas.edu 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.

 

Greta Thunberg and Her Harsh Critics

CASE STUDY: The Ethics of Criticizing Children in the Public Sphere

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  Screen capture: Twitter.com

Young people are increasingly active politically at a time when we are entering a new era of heated political discourse: one where not even children are immune to vitriolic verbal abuse (Natanson, 2019). At age 16, Greta Thunberg took the world by storm with her passionate words against climate change, accusing world politicians of complacency regarding the environment. In her Swedish hometown of Stockholm, Thunberg started “Fridays for Future,” a movement of students skipping school and demanding political action regarding climate change (Woodward 2019). Former President Barack Obama called her “one of our planet’s greatest advocates,” but the teenager has not been immune to attacks from conservative commentators, far-right politicians and “online haters” who also target her family (Weise 2019). In response to Thunberg’s blunt criticisms during a speech to the United Nations, President Donald Trump sarcastically tweeted that Thunberg is “a very happy young girl looking forward to a bright and wonderful future” (Rupar, 2019). Meanwhile, a Fox News commentator called her a “mentally ill Swedish child” (Gabbatt 2019).

According to political discourse scholar Lawrence Prelli, “There used to be a constraint upon criticizing children, generally” (Natanson, 2019). Others argue that when teenagers like Thunberg come into the public eye, they sacrifice their privacy and, in a sense, their childhood. “If she wants to participate as an adult citizen, she should be criticized as one,” claims Robinson Meyer from The Atlantic. But it’s not just verbal criticism. In a tweet by Dinesh D’Souza, Thunberg is likened to a Nazi child, using a vintage Nazi image of a Nordic child and comparing it to a picture of Thunberg. And in response to Thunberg’s surprise appearance at an Iowa school, a teacher posted “don’t have my sniper rifle” on Facebook, a possibly threatening message that built upon fake internet memes supposedly showing Thunberg shooting a rifle (Opsahl 2019). Facebook posts originating in Brazil claim Thunberg’s mother is a satanic lesbian who teaches abortion classes; others assert that her father lives in Germany with his boyfriend and that Thunberg collaborates with members of the Islamic State (Weise 2019).

As a teenager who is publically active in political movements for climate change, Thunberg is making strides in environmental action. But some might ask: are these gains worth the cost to her personal privacy and the well-being of her family? On the other hand, from the climate activist perspective, Thunberg has sparked a young generation’s climate action and mobilized millions of people to lead climate strikes in 150 countries. The September 20, 2019, Global Climate strike—organized and inspired by Thunberg—was the largest environmental protest in history. She was even nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize (Woodward et al. 2019).

In the face of intense public admiration and criticism from various quarters, Thunberg has apparently shrugged off the personal attacks and even clapped back at some, changing her Twitter bio to read “A very happy young girl looking forward to a bright and wonderful future.” This case raises questions about the role of youth in political activism as well as the limits of criticism from others. Is Thunberg too old to expect to be free of harsh criticism, or too young to quarrel with those currently in positions of power? Or should the supposed adults listen to this passionate but relatively inexperienced newcomer in the rough and tumble world of climate policy?

Discussion Questions:

  1. Is it a good thing that a teenager is taking such a prominent role in the complex politics of climate change?
  2. How free should adults be to speak critically of children in public? Does being a public figure change how a child should be treated?
  3. Should children be entitled to the same rights to free speech that adults have? Would you argue differently between the cases of a 16-year-old and a 10-year-old? Why?
  4. When hate speech or threats of violence are involved, should adults moderate or restrict children’s speech for their own protection?
  5. Should critics treat young activists like Thunberg differently than they might treat adult activists?

 Further Information:

Gabbatt, A. (2019, September 24). Fox News apologises to Greta Thunberg for pundit’s ‘disgraceful’ remark. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/media/2019/sep/24/fox-news-greta-thunberg-michael-knowles

Natanson, H. (2019, September 24). Politicians and pundits used to refrain from publicly attacking kids. Not anymore. Retrieved from https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/2019/09/24/politicians-pundits-used-refrain-publicly-attacking-kids-not-anymore/

Novak, J. (2019, September 24). How 16-year-old Greta Thunberg’s rise could backfire on environmentalists. Retrieved from https://www.cnbc.com/2019/09/24/how-greta-thunbergs-rise-could-backfire-on-environmentalists.html

Opsahl, R. (2019, October 7). Iowa teacher on leave after ‘sniper rifle’ comment about Greta Thunberg visit. Retrieved from https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2019/10/06/teacher-leave-sniper-rifle-comment-greta-thunberg/3893160002/

Rupar, A. (2019, September 24). Trump’s tweet about Greta Thunberg is one of his ugliest yet. Retrieved from https://www.vox.com/policy-and-politics/2019/9/24/20881541/trump-greta-thumberg-tweet-un

Weise, E. (2019, October 2). Online haters are targeting Greta Thunberg with conspiracy theories and fake photos. Retrieved from https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2019/10/02/climate-change-activist-greta-thunberg-targeted-online-trolls/3843196002/

Woodward, A. (2019, September 24). How 16-year-old Greta Thunberg became the face of climate-change activism. Retrieved from https://www.businessinsider.com/greta-thunberg-bio-climate-change-activist-2019-9

Authors:

Michaela Urban, Justin Pehoski, & Scott R. Stroud, Ph.D.
Media Ethics Initiative
Center for Media Engagement
University of Texas at Austin
January 30, 2020


Cases produced by the Media Ethics Initiative remain the intellectual property of the Media Ethics Initiative and the Center for Media Engagement. They can be used in unmodified PDF form without permission for classroom or educational uses. Please email us at sstroud (at) austin.utexas.edu 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.

 

Fake News and Real Tensions

CASE STUDY: The Impacts of Misinformation in South Asia

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India and Pakistan are two nuclear powers locked in a decades-long border conflict with spurts of cross-national violence ranging from terrorist operations to full-blown war. In February 2019, a suicide bombing by a Pakistan-based terrorist organization killed 40 paramilitary police officers in Kashmir. Two weeks after the attack, India launched retaliatory action against what it claimed was a terrorist camp within the rival state’s borders. Pakistan then shot down an Indian fighter plane and captured the pilot in response. The pilot was later returned to India.

Throughout the rising tensions and violence reflected in this episode was a relatively new element of the contemporary Indo-Pakistani conflict: fake news. Both national governments, news media in both countries, and social media accounts operated by citizens and trolls alike engaged in widespread and unchecked dissemination of misinformation. The fake news included inflated body counts, mislabeled photographs from previous conflicts, and manufactured gore like an image of a “bucked filled with mutilated body parts, mislabeled as the remains of a dead Indian soldier” (Bagri, 2019).

According to Govindraj Ethiraj, journalist for the fact-checking site Boom, “the wave of misinformation after the Pulwama attack was driven by inflamed emotions, overanxious media on all sides, [and] the desire to use this as a political weapon” (Bagri, 2019). The influx of fake news was made worse because “unfortunately mainstream media organizations both in India and Pakistan have failed to play their roles responsibly,” said Ashok Swain of Uppsala University while describing the back and forth between state agencies and media organizations  (Thaker, 2019). Speaking to their role in the explosion of fake news, a Twitter spokesperson advised that “everyone has a role to play in ensuring misinformation doesn’t spread on the internet” (Phartiyal, 2019). Regardless of who is responsible for the misinformation, Pratic Sinha, co-founder of Alt News, argues, “during such a time, when people’s sensitivities are involved, people are more vulnerable and gullible” (Bagri, 2019).

However, this gullibility may be advantageous in preventing the two nations from going to war. Sadanand Dhume of the American Enterprise Institute explains that “the fact that both governments have effectively been able to create these information bubbles” where “everybody’s willing to believe their own version … means that both sides can declare victory to their people and go home” (Bagri, 2019). Of course, this is all taking place in a climate where misinformation has “led to mass beating and mob lynchings” among communities in South Asia (Phartiyal, 2019). It is then unsurprising that a spokesperson for the Central Reserve Police Force said fake news during such a situation “had the potential to create communal tension and lead to violence” (Bagri, 2019).

At the same time, the identification of fake news is a war in and of itself. Those fighting fake news in South Asia have even been described as “a line of defense for this fifth generation warfare” by Shahzad Ahmed of “Bytes for All,” a Pakistani digital rights group (Jorgic & Pal, 2019). But the best outcome of that war on the Indian subcontinent remains unclear. Despite the risks of misinformation, Dhume holds firm on the positive side effects of certain kinds of fake news. He says, “paradoxically, the over-zealous Indian media and cowed Pakistani media may help prevent escalation of conflict” because “Indian TV is happy to run giddy stories about ‘hundreds’ of terrorists killed” and “Pakistani journalists won’t question their army’s claim that nothing much was hit,” meaning that “everyone gets to save face, and in south Asia face matters—a lot” (Thaker, 2019). If fake news involves illusion, might there be some illusions that are helpful in South Asia’s dreams for peace—or do they all eventually lead India and Pakistan to wake up at war? 

Discussion Questions: 

  1. What are the challenges of defining “fake news?” What values are in conflict in this case?
  2. Is it ever ethically acceptable to spread misinformation? What if one spreads it unknowingly?
  3. Who is responsible for ensuring the information environment is as accurate as possible? To what lengths must they go to do this?
  4. What are the conflicts that may arise if social media or government attempts to control the spread of fake news on social media?

Further Information:

Drazen Jorgic and Alasdair Pal, “Facebook, Twitter sucking into India-Pakistan information war.” Reuters, April 2, 2019. Available at: https://www.reuters.com/article/us-india-pakistan-socialmedia/facebook-twitter-sucked-into-india-pakistan-information-war-idUSKCN1RE18N

Sankalp Phartiyal, “Social media fake news fans tension between India and Pakistan.” Reuters, February 28, 2019. Available at: https://www.reuters.com/article/us-india-kashmir-socialmedia/social-media-fake-news-fans-tension-between-india-and-pakistan-idUSKCN1QH1NY

Aria Thaker, “Indian media trumpeting about Pakistani fake news should look in the mirror first.” Quartz India, February 27, 2019. Available at: https://qz.com/india/1561178/media-in-india-and-pakistan-share-fake-news-amid-border-conflict/

Neha Thirani Bargi, “When India and Pakistan clashed, fake news won.” Los Angeles Times, March 15, 2019. Available at: https://www.latimes.com/world/la-fg-india-pakistan-fake-news-20190315-story.html

Authors:

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


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

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