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Secret Facebook Groups and the Ethics of Democracy

CASE STUDY: Are Secret Facebook Groups Good for Democracy?

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In an era where increased partisanship is easily palpable through society’s inundated media landscape, social media users are taking advantage of a corner of the internet where they can cultivate a like-minded community— secret Facebook groups. Unlike a “closed” Facebook group, a user can only gain access to a secret or privately hidden group by invitation. The invitation-only caveat for secret groups means these groups are not easy to find through simple searches. Some groups are small in size, composed of only a handful of members, while other groups have accumulated millions of members. Examination of secret groups seemed to take off leading up to and in the aftermath of the 2016 presidential election.

In October 2016, Maine voter Libby Chamberlain founded “Pantsuit Nation,” a secret Facebook group created to celebrate presidential nominee Hillary Clinton. According to The New York Times, the page reached over two million members in just three short weeks. Chamberlain described to the Times the make-up of the Facebook group: “We have lifelong Republicans who are voting for Hillary, lefty liberals and everything in between. People are chiming in from around the world” (Correal, 2016). Users of the group see it as a way for people to escape the possibility of pushback and rush of judgement for their political and social opinions. Unification also plays an important role. According to the Times, the group received a plethora of posts from members posed in pantsuits on Election Day 2016 while casting their vote for who would have been the first woman president.

David Weinberger, a researcher at Harvard University, said private corners of the internet such as secret Facebook groups may have a positive side: “Our ideas, our feelings, our values, develop primarily in the company of people who we trust, where we can speak frankly, where we don’t have to make explicit our assumptions and our values, where we have the freedom to talk in small and big ways about things that really matter,” (Dreyfuss, 2017).

Although these secret groups provide a virtual safe space, in the context of politics critics see them as also raising some red flags. Some may be concerned that these groups go against the democratic ideal of community among individuals who hold diverse views, and that they further contribute to community fragmentation through a retreat to echo chambers. For example, when reporting on the repercussions of secret political Facebook groups, Wired reporter Emily Dreyfuss was added to a secret group formed by pro-Clinton voters during the 2016 Democratic primaries. Clinton supporters formed the group to air their grievances about Bernie Sanders’ supporters. However, even after the 2016 election, when it wasn’t clear if Sanders would run again in 2020, the page continued to direct its ire at Sanders: “The people in the group get each other fired up, egg each other on to disown friends who support Sanders’ initiatives in congress, and largely ignore posts that try to move the conversation away from this now tangential political figure” (Dreyfuss, 2017). One might worry that these secret Facebook groups, foster a sense of community only by shutting out conflicting opinions.

Another side effect of these secret groups is the potential of enabling misinformation. According to The Washington Post, “Misinformation experts have repeatedly pointed out that people in like-minded groups are less likely to flag one another’s content as problematic” (Dwoskin, 2019). Because these groups are hard for the outside world to detect, they are not vulnerable to the same monitoring access as public groups, and they are not readily accessible to the everyday person who could provide facts and counterarguments to negate misinformation.  These concerns are not hypothetical. In August 2019, Facebook announced an update to group privacy settings in conjunction with its Safe Communities Initiative to combat misinformation and secret groups that become “gathering places for racist, offensive activity” (Lee, 2019).

The outward benefits of social media are evident in the fact that they help to generate a sense of connectedness with often-distant others. However, in the context of secret Facebook groups, the question arises: should we find ways to interact with those who share our deepest political commitments, or should we seek out those with whom we strongly disagree?

Discussion Questions: 

  1. What are some of the benefits of secret, or hidden, Facebook groups?
  2. What are the ethical issues that arise from participating in a secret Facebook group?
  3. How might a secret Facebook group be different from a physical in-person organization or club created to support like-minded individuals? Would the same ethical issues arise? Why or why not?
  4. Would Facebook getting rid of the secret Facebook function be good for democracy? Why or why not?

Further Information:

Correal, Annie. “Pantsuit Nation, a ‘Secret’ Facebook Hub, Celebrates Clinton.” The New York Times, November 8, 2016. Available at: https://www.nytimes.com/2016/11/09/us/politics/facebook-pantsuit-nation-clinton.html

Dreyfuss, Emily. “Secret Facebook Groups Are the Trump Era’s Worst, Best Echo Chamber.” Wired, January 20, 2017. Available at: https://www.wired.com/2017/01/secret-facebook-groups-trump-eras-worst-best-echo-chamber/

Dwoskin, Elizabeth. “‘Facebook says private groups are its future. Some are hubs for misinformation and hate.” The Washington Post, July 5, 2019. Available at: https://www.washingtonpost.com/technology/2019/07/05/facebook-says-private-groups-are-its-future-some-are-hubs-misinformation-hate/

Engel, Pamela. “‘People want it to be true’: Inside the growing influence of a mysterious anti-Trump website.” Business Inisider, May 16, 2017. Available at: https://www.businessinsider.com/the-palmer-report-bill-louise-mensch-2017-5

Lee, Dami. “Facebook is simplifying group privacy settings and adding admin tools for safety.” The Verge, August 14, 2019. Available at: https://www.theverge.com/2019/8/14/20805928/facebook-closed-secret-public-private-group-settings

Silverman, C., Lytvynenko, J., & Thuy Vo, L. “How Facebook Groups Are Being Exploited To Spread Misinformation, Plan Harassment, And Radicalize People.” Buzzfeed News, March 19, 2018. Available at: https://www.buzzfeednews.com/article/craigsilverman/how-facebook-groups-are-being-exploited-to-spread

Authors:

Allyson Waller & Scott R. Stroud, Ph.D.
Media Ethics Initiative
Center for Media Engagement
University of Texas at Austin
November 18, 2019

www.mediaengagement.org

Image: Glen Carrie / Unsplash


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 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.

 

Fighting the Amazon Fires with Misinformation

CASE STUDY: The Ethics of Celebrity Activists and Environmental Change

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amazonMany are alarmed by the recent sensationalized news of the Amazon fires in Brazil, demonizing current President Jair Bolsonaro for his destruction of this vital ecological hub (Pecanha et al., 2019). Celebrities are posting and presidents are tweeting: “stop the Amazon fires!” Adding to the social media fires, graphic imagery has the potential to sway perceptions of and provide (mis)information to casual Instagram or Twitter users about the burning Amazon. What they don’t know by looking at these posts, however, is that many may be geographically and factually inaccurate.

“The lungs of the earth are in flames,” exclaims actor Leonardo DiCaprio on his Instagram account to a staggering 35.3 million followers. The striking image he posted, which he frames as a recent photograph of the Amazon, is actually over 20 years old. A self-proclaimed environmentalist, DiCaprio argues these ongoing fires are propagated by one man, President Bolsonaro, and are a direct result of climate change. According to the Washington Post, however, only the forest fringes are on fire, and have been for at least the last decade because of illegal logging and deforestation (Penanha et al., 2019). Humans, not nature, started the fires. Using the age-old technique of slash and burn, economically-motivated farmers are preparing already deforested areas for planting. The high European demand for products like soy drives farmers to burn these forest fringes illegally to expand Brazilian cropland (Symonds, 2019). Brazil’s economy is based on such commodity exports, predominately from agriculture. With Brazilian unemployment at 12%, millions of people are struggling and “the country can ill-afford to back off one of its few thriving sectors” (Pecanha et al., 2019).

While bloggers and other humanitarians are worried about the destruction of the Amazon, some say they neglect the economic issues behind environmental concerns, such as the consumption habits that support illegal deforestation. Meanwhile, more and more people are going to social media for news (Suciu, 2019), finding celebrities like Cristiano Ronaldo, Madonna, and Ellen DeGeneres posting about Bolsonaro’s Brazil. Celebrity engagement can draw vital attention to issues that have long gone unnoticed. However, celebrities rarely study problems in depth, and can scarcely be counted as experts in controversial environmental domains. Many celebrities frame the Amazon forest fires as an environmental catastrophe that is exclusively the result of climate change. Erratic environmental conditions increasing incidences of drought are linked to climate change, and an increase in droughts does lead to more fires; yet the Amazon is not experiencing unusually dry weather (Dunne, 2019). Thus, many say the evidence points to humans as the cause of these fires, and not simply or mostly climate change. The result of this conflict over information and environmental judgment is an angered Brazilian population and a potentially misinformed global social media public.

Ironically, this celebrity focus on the Amazon fires has resulted in increased public interest in both climate justice and land preservation. Despite potential misinformation and oversimplification, the mounting international pressure has led to concrete action in the Amazon. Demonstrators are marching and Europeans are boycotting trade agreements in an effort to effect change in the Amazon and on the global scene (Andreoni et al., 2019). In response, President Bolsonaro has sent an unprecedented number of Brazilian troops to extinguish the fires (Silva de Sousa, 2019).  This seems to be a case where fake news, or at least hasty readings of a situation and its causes, are mobilizing the public and contributing to concrete change. Such pressure may be needed for other battles to save the Amazon, since funding for “Brazil’s main environmental agency fell by 20 percent during the first six months of this year” (Symonds 2019).

At the same time, the continued risk of fires on the fringes of the Amazon is not mitigated by simply putting the current blazes out. The expansion of cropland by slash and burn techniques is at least partially a response to foreign demand, and the economic suffering of the farmers pursing this mode of income. As long as the demand for beef and land-intensive crops such as soy stays high, so will the flames. Social media platforms like Instagram and Twitter allow for the instantaneous dissemination of news, well-sourced or not, to billions of people who may be motivated to solve an important problem without addressing, or even knowing, all of its causes. What happens when popular voices on social media help us address a problem that they seem to be misreading?

Discussion Questions:

  1. Is fake news or misinformation that helps with recovery from or prevention of environmental harm always an ethical ill?
  2. What ethical responsibilities, if any, do celebrities have to their followers when spreading information?
  3. Should social media platforms be more closely monitored for incidences of fake news?
  4. Should social media platforms monitor celebrity accounts and those with large followings differently than those without?

Further Information:

Andreoni, M., Casado, L., & Londoño, E., “With Amazon Rain Forest Ablaze, Brazil Faces Global Backlash.” The New York Times, August 22, 2019. Available at: https://www.nytimes.com/2019/08/22/world/americas/brazil-amazon-fires-bolsonaro.html

Dunne, D., “Media Reaction: Amazon Fires and Climate Change.” Carbon Brief, August 28, 2019. Available at: https://www.carbonbrief.org/media-reaction-amazon-fires-and-climate-change

Silva de Sousa, M., “Bolsonaro Sends Army To Fight Amazon Fires Amid Mounting International Pressure.” The Huffington Post, August 24, 2019. Available at: https://www.huffpost.com/entry/amazon-rainforest-fires-bolsonaro-sends-army_n_5d61677fe4b0dfcbd48e3c96

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

Symonds, A., “Amazon Rainforest Fires: Here’s What’s Really Happening.” The New York Times, August 23, 2019. Available at: https://www.nytimes.com/2019/08/23/world/americas/amazon-fire-brazil-bolsonaro.html

Authors:

Michaela Urban & Dakota Park-Ozee
Media Ethics Initiative
Center for Media Engagement
University of Texas at Austin
December 2, 2019


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.

Matters of Facebook Live or Death

CASE STUDY: The Ethical Challenges of Live Internet Broadcasting

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fblivepic

   Yatko / CC-BY-SA 4.0 / Modified

On March 15, 2019, a mass shooter entered two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, killing 51 people and injuring 49 others. The shooter publicized his murderous actions by streaming parts of the mass shooting on Facebook Live, a feature on the social media app that records and posts live video. The feature allows the user’s Facebook friends to observe and interact with them in real time, as well as like and comment on the live video. As with all content on Facebook, a viewer can report the video if it violates community standards, but this process often takes time. In the case of the Christchurch mosque massacre, the video was up long enough to go viral, coming across possibly thousands of users’ feeds. Facebook has since removed the original video, but because users have screen recorded or downloaded the video, parts of it are still floating around the internet today. Facebook Newsroom, the official Twitter account for Facebook Communications, confirmed in a tweet that within 24 hours of the video ending, over 1.5 million uploaded videos containing parts of the violent livestream were removed from the site, with 1.2 million being stopped at the uploading stage.

 

Within three weeks of the mass shooting, the Australian Parliament passed legislation penalizing Facebook if it does not remove violent content in a timely manner. Failure to do so could see executives facing up to three years in jail, or fines of up to 10% of the platform’s annual turnover (Griffiths, 2019). Some have proposed time delays, effectively limiting the “live” nature of immediate broadcasting promised by Facebook Live. In an op-ed for The Conversation, Jennifer Grygiel argues that installing a time delay can help decrease the spread of violent content or content that does not abide by Facebook’s standards. Time delays are normal in televised news content now, but there are important differences between cable and broadcast content and internet content. On Facebook, there are many live videos being posted, and too few moderators to scan all of them before they are viewed and shared by others. Facebook has challenges controlling regularly posted content, so some might wonder what difference a slight delay in Live broadcasts would make.

Why should anyone want Facebook Live to retain the immediacy of its current broadcast model? For some Facebook users, it’s a way to broadcast messages that are liable to be unreasonably censored by others. In a June 2016 sit-in on the floor of Congress focused on the lack of gun-control reform after the Pulse nightclub shooting, Democrats used Facebook Live and Periscope as ways around the C-SPAN cameras being turned off by Republicans during the protest (Newton, 2019). For others, it’s a way to immediately connect to a mass audience watching from afar. For almost two years, Congressman Beto O’Rourke used Facebook Live almost daily to talk about issues to fellow constituents in Texas who could not make it out to his rallies in every county in Texas (Guynn, 2018). Aside from politics, Facebook Live has been used by educators to help ensure success for their students. Principal Belinda George at Homer Drive Elementary uses Facebook Live for “Tucked in Tuesdays,” where she reads bedtime stories to her students. In a school that is 94% economically disadvantaged, she stated the goal of going on Facebook Live and reading to her students was “to bridge the gap between home and school… to form relationships with my scholars and their families” (Brown, 2019). While George can just record her reading a book and upload later, she couldn’t interact with them the way she can in the Facebook Live connection.

While the exposure to violence on one of the biggest social media platforms has its negative effects, some say it also has the power to bring justice to its victims. Danny Cevallo, CNN’s legal analyst, discussed how because of the sharing nature that Facebook has, it is often the first place detectives look for evidence of criminal behavior: “Sometimes, these cases would be completely unwinnable for the state if not for the defendant providing all the incriminating evidence against himself on social media” (Cevallo, 2017). This op-ed was released in response to the four Chicago teens brutally beating a disabled student while broadcasting this atrocity on Facebook Live. Because they broadcast the event on Facebook Live, they were quickly identified, arrested, and convicted for this crime. While justice was served, however, the disabled student victim was still humiliated in front of the many Facebook users who watched this video before it was removed by Facebook.

Facebook Live’s immediacy and speed, both in broadcasting a message and in others sharing it, has brought people together and has incited or reveled in violence against others. Its availability to everyone—from ordinary citizens to politicians to mass murderers—shows a democratizing force inherent in the technology. But what is the price paid for putting this ability to quickly “go live” in the hands of so many communicators? What ethical problems arise when content can be shared and used in ways that the original poster did not imagine?

Discussion Questions:

  1. What values are in conflict in the controversy over Facebook Live?
  2. How do the worries over Facebook Live relate to debates over free speech? Would eliminating one’s ability to immediately “go live” with content curtail their freedom of expression?
  3. What are the best arguments for eliminating Facebook Live? What compelling reasons are there to keep this technology?
  4. How might you navigate the ethical conflicts brought about by Facebook Live? How would you mitigate or reduce any side-effects to your proposed solutions or changes?

Further Information:

Cevallo, Danny. “Facebook Live is the new key witness to crime.” CNN. January 7, 2017. Available at: https://www.cnn.com/2017/01/06/opinions/facebook-is-key-witness-for-police-cevallos/index.html

Guynn, Jessica et al. “The Facebook candidate: Beto O’Rourke’s social media savvy fuels long-shot Ted Cruz challenge.” USA Today. October 26, 2018. Available at: https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/2018/10/26/facebook-puts-beto-orourke-voters-faces-bid-unseat-ted-cruz/1754371002/

Brown, Genevieve Shaw. “Principal reads bedtime stories to kids over Facebook Live because she loves ‘honoring children’.” ABC News. March 5, 2019. Available at: https://abcnews.go.com/family/story/principal-reads-bedtime-stories-kids-facebook-live-loves-61454447

Griffiths, James. “Australia passes law to stop spread of violent content online after Christchurch massacre”. CNN. April 4, 2019. Available at: https://www.cnn.com/2019/04/04/australia/australia-violent-video-social-media-law-intl/index.html

Grygiel, Jennifer. “Livestreamed massacre means it’s time to shut down Facebook Live.” The Conversation. March 21, 2019. Available at: https://theconversation.com/livestreamed-massacre-means-its-time-to-shut-down-facebook-live-113830

Newton, Casey. “The world is turning against live streaming.” The Verge. April 4, 2019. Available at: https://www.theverge.com/interface/2019/4/4/18294951/australia-live-streaming-law-facebook-twitter-periscope

Authors:

Irie Crenshaw & Justin Pehoski
Media Ethics Initiative
Center for Media Engagement
University of Texas at Austin
May 4, 2019

www.mediaethicsinitiative.org


Cases produced by the Media Ethics Initiative remain the intellectual property of the Media Ethics Initiative and the University of Texas at Austin. They can be used in unmodified PDF form without permission for classroom 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.

Green is the New Color of Money

CASE STUDY: Greenwashing and Advertising Ethics

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Present consumers are caring more and more about the environment. Among 25-34-year-old Americans, 75% rank the environment among their top concerns. Not only are consumers more prone to purchase from brands making a “positive social and environmental impact,” but 72% of Generation Z (ages 15-20) respondents to a Nielsen study are willing to pay a premium price on those products.

The corporate response to this cultural shift has been to churn out product lines or change company values to be more “green.” In order to educate consumers about green initiatives, companies started to heavily market their efforts and actions toward being more environmentally sustainable and friendly. Some companies have gone as far as overstating the positive environmental impact of their products or business practices. This practice misleads consumers into believing that a product is more environmentally friendly than it actually is and is called greenwashing.

The practice of greenwashing often involves companies using buzz words such as “biodegradable,” “natural,” and “organic” to convey the message of greenness, even if that wasn’t the case. When a company exaggerates these claims, it can even run into legal trouble as showing an intent to deceive/mislead consumers. In the 2012 California case of Ayana Hill v. Roll International Corporation and Fiji Water Company LLC, the water bottle company was taken to task for claims that their bottled water was “environmentally friendly and superior.” While the “greenness” of the bottle was not disputed, many felt that this gain was overshadowed by the unemphasized fact that the manufacturing, production, packing, and distribution of the product causes “as much, if not more, of an adverse environmental impact when compared to similar bottled waters,” rendering it less than “green.”

Proponents of the greening—or “greenwashing”—of products would point to the relative gains that controversial marketing strategies might encourage. Many would argue that harsh criticism against companies working toward greener initiatives and products will discourage strides being made in the corporate world toward more eco-sustainable business practices. Slight exaggeration in advertising may be needed to convey the notion of potential impact to the consumer. Supporters could point to the use of green words such as “natural,” “organic,” “eco-friendly,” as encouraging consumers to look for more environmentally friendly products, even if their product is only slightly greener than the non-green alternative. Audrey Holmes of Earth911 goes as far to say “the best way greenwashing is helping our society change over time is by making sustainability a normality” (Holmes, 2017). By arguably over-emphasizing the green-ness of a specific product, companies are at least bringing the environmental dimension of purchases to the foreground of a consumer’s purchasing decisions, and even altering the status-quo. Proponents argue that the shifting ethos to greener living is worth the cost of some hypocrisy. While some of these green products over-sell their environmental benefits, not all do—and such marketing will result in some of these better products being clearly identified and purchased by consumers.

Critics of greenwashing point to this intention of “going green” as a deceptive way to increase business profits rather than as a way of fulfilling any duty to the environment.  When the intention behind the product’s “green-ness” is to increase sales, businesses may be sacrificing the environmentally positive aspects of a product for the marketability or cost-efficiency of producing it. The more money businesses put into marketing their “green-ness,” the less money they put toward environmentally sustainable efforts.  In practice, this leads to businesses putting on a front of being eco-friendly while still practicing environmentally unsustainable practices such as polluting or lobbying against environmentally forward laws. This, in end, places the burden on the consumer to distinguish between authentic environmentally friendly companies and those just putting on a facade. David Mallen, associate director of the National Advertising Division of the Council of Better Business Bureaus, notes that “because green advertising is so ubiquitous now, there’s so much greater potential for confusion, misunderstanding, and uncertainty about what messages mean and how to substantiate them” (Dahl, 2010). The confounding messaging has left a vacuum in the consumer trust in the information they receive from companies. Greenpeace, one of the most prominent groups leading the charge against greenwashing, argues that “the average citizen is finding it more and more difficult to tell the difference between those companies genuinely dedicated to making a difference and those that are using a green curtain to conceal dark motives” (Moss & Scheer).

As more and more companies find that green sells, more products will be touted as helping the environment—or at least as not harming it as much as competing products. But how far can companies go in creatively selling their products without trashing their consumer’s autonomy?

Discussion Questions:

  1. What values are in conflict over the use of greenwashing in this case study?
  2. To what extent should companies be allowed to tout their green marketing efforts?
  3. What does it mean to deceive a company’s consumers? Are companies expected to forgo their exaggerated claims to guarantee transparency for the consumer?
  4. What sort of ethical principles could you create that would guide advertisers in balancing creativity, persuasive messaging, and respect for the consumer’s autonomy? Would these work in subtle cases of spin or exaggeration?

Further Information:

Capital Flows. “Greenwashing”: Deceptive Business Claims of “Eco-Friendliness.” Forbes. March 20, 2012. Available at https://www.forbes.com/sites/realspin/2012/03/20/greenwashing-deceptive-business-claims-of-eco-friendliness/

Clarke, Richard A., Stavins, Robert N., Greeno, J. Ladd, and Schot, Johan. “The Challenge of Going Green.” Harvard Business Review. July 1994. Available at https://hbr.org/1994/07/the-challenge-of-going-green

Dahl, R. “Green Washing.” Environmental Health Perspectives. June 1, 2010. Available at https://doi.org/10.1289/ehp.118-a246

Holmes, A. “Can Greenwashing Ever Be Good?” Earth911. August 9, 2017. Available at https://earth911.com/business-policy/greenwashing-good/

Mintel. “Green Marketing.” Mintel, April 2011. Available at http://academic.mintel.com/display/574850/

Moss, Doug and Scheer, Roddy. “How Can Consumers Find Out If a Corporation Is “Greenwashing” Environmentally Unsavory Practices?” Scientific American, Earth Talk. (n.d.) Available at https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/greenwashing/

Nielson. “Green Generation: Millennials Say Sustainability is a Shopping Priority.” Nielsen, November 5, 2015. Available at https://www.nielsen.com/us/en/insights/news/2015/green-generation-millennials-say-sustainability-is-a-shopping-priority.html

Authors:

Sharmeen Somani & Scott R. Stroud, Ph.D.
Media Ethics Initiative
Center for Media Engagement
University of Texas at Austin
April 30, 2019

www.mediaethicsinitiative.org


Cases produced by the Media Ethics Initiative remain the intellectual property of the Media Ethics Initiative and the University of Texas at Austin. They can be used in unmodified PDF form without permission for classroom 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.

Limiting or Lifesaving?

CASE STUDY: Anti-Vax Censorship on Social Media

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avc

Anti-vaccination advertisement from U.S. Newspaper, 1902

Freedom of speech is arguably the most valued right granted in the American constitution, but how should it be limited in speech that potentially affects the health of communities and individuals? This controversy has recently hit the world of social media in regard to the growing number of “anti-vax” groups, or communities of parents concerned about the supposed dangers of vaccinating their children. As the online presence of anti-vaccine messages continues to increase—and potentially threatens the health of children and communities—the calls for limiting the reach of such messages have grown louder.  Should communication asserting messages that seem to be wrong, unhelpful, or potentially harmful be censored or “deplatformed” by private social media companies?

Many are worried about anti-vax messages and content because they seem to risk undoing the many gains of vaccination programs. With the recent surge of measles cases this year after declared nationally eliminated in 2000 (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2018), the need for widespread vaccination is seemingly more evident than ever.  It is very possible for diseases we thought dead to society to return if vaccination rates decline, and with a strength we would not be equipped to handle without large scale immunity.  Anti-vax groups typically express messages about the supposed danger associated with immunization, and thus contribute to such risks by convincing many to refrain from vaccinating themselves or their children.  To make matters worse, those who choose not to get vaccinated are not only risking hurting themselves, but also those around them. Declining rates of vaccinations decrease what’s called “herd immunity,” an epidemiologic term that refers to the resistance a population, including those who cannot be vaccinated such as those with autoimmune diseases, has to the spread of a certain disease if enough people are protected against it (Young, 2018).

The need for herd immunity, as well as concerns about the lack of scientific support for anti-vax messages, has prompted many social media outlets to restrict anti-vax content. For instance, Pinterest, online hotspot for sharing creative inspiration, has removed search results for the key word “vaccine” because of the influx of anti-vax articles (Thompson, 2019), YouTube has pulled advertisements and recommended videos related to incorporating anti-vax into parenting (Sands, 2019), Amazon has removed anti-vax documentaries and ads from Prime Video (Spangler, 2019), and Facebook is working to place lower priority on anti-vax search results and removing related groups from those recommended to users (Cohen & Bonifield, 2019).  These actions appear justified to many, since the World Health Organization just labeled vaccine hesitancy as one of the top 10 health threats of 2019.  Many believe that censoring or “deplatforming” seems to be the safest option for protecting the public, as erasing the materials will prevent such messages from affecting individuals’ decision-making.

Some might worry that these efforts to suppress the posting and spread of anti-vax content go too far. Shouldn’t people have control of their decision making, a skeptic might ask?  This includes one’s decision to publish, view, and internalize anti-vax information. Social media is a crossroads for opinions on every subject—many of which seem incoherent and harmful to some segments of the population—so prohibiting one side of the vaccine debate might seem unproductive. There is also the concern about how to go about identifying “anti-vaxxer” content. YouTube describes anti-vax videos as content that violates the platform’s guidelines against “dangerous and harmful” content. Yet, the definition of dangerous and harmful can vary, and it is unclear that espousing an unscientific position is immediately dangerous. While some anti-vax materials may be exhibiting false scientific information, others may be simply expressing one’s point of view or skepticism.  Additionally, information may be published regarding a religion or ideology’s reasoning for avoiding immunization that could be educational for followers or outsiders, at least in terms of informing them of why certain groups don’t support vaccination efforts. Social media efforts to censor anti-vax content quickly begin to look like efforts to sort religious or political views out by their alleged consequences. This relates to an abiding concern about censoring or stopping speech that some find objectionable or harmful—who judges these facts, and what errors are they prone to make?  As Marko Mavrovic of the Prindle Post warns, “Once you no longer value free speech, it becomes much easier to justify eliminating speech that you simply disagree with or believe should not exist.” Beyond these worries are the concerns about unintended consequences: by removing or obscuring anti-vax content, social media might only provide anti-vaxxers with more “evidence” that powerful interests are trying to stop their messages about vaccines: “Demonetizing videos is likely to only affirm anti-vaxxer beliefs of being persecuted, making them more difficult to reach” (Sands, 2019).  This could diminish any hope of changing the minds of anti-vaxxers.  Additionally, the anti-vax censorship attempts thus far have been less fruitful than predicted, calling into question whether this movement is worth the effort.  In analyzing the effects of suppression efforts, CNN recently reported that “misinformation about vaccines continues to thrive on Facebook and Instagram weeks after the companies vowed to reduce its distribution on their platforms” (Darcy, 2019).

It seems to be the consensus of scientists and experts that vaccines help many more than they risk harming, and that ensuring only true information about their effectiveness helps to create a healthy society. But how do we proceed down the road of deplatforming, limiting, or banning a certain sort of content without censoring content that is more reasonable or nuanced, stymieing unpopular opinions that might turn out to be right or somewhat correct, or leading to further backlashes by those censored?

Discussion Questions:

  1. What are the central values in conflict over the decision to deplatform or suppress anti-vaccination content on social media?
  2. Is this primarily a legal or ethical controversy? Explain your reasoning.
  3. Do you agree with attempts to deplatform certain speakers and messages from popular social media outlets? If not, would you suggest other courses of action to combat anti-vaxxer content?
  4. How might social media platforms deal with speech that seems to threaten public health while still valuing free speech?

Further Information:

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2018, February 5). “Measles History.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Available at: www.cdc.gov/measles/about/history.html.

Cohen, E. and Bonifield, J. (2019, February 26). “Facebook to Get Tougher on Anti-Vaxers.” CNN, Cable News Network. Available at: www.cnn.com/2019/02/25/health/facebook-anti-vaccine-content/index.html.

Darcy, O. (2019, March 21). “Vaccine misinformation flourishes on Facebook and Instagram weeks after promised crackdown.” CNN. Available at: www.cnn.com/2019/03/21/tech/vaccine-misinformation-facebook-instagram/index.html.

Mavrovik, M. (2018, September 18). “The Dangers and Ethics of Social Media Censorship.” The Prindle Post. Available at: www.prindlepost.org/2018/09/the-dangers-and-ethics-of-social-media-censorship/.

Sands, M. (2019, February 25). “Is YouTube Right to Demonetize Anti-Vax Channels?” Forbes Magazine. Available at: www.forbes.com/sites/masonsands/2019/02/25/is-youtube-right-to-demonetize-anti-vax-channels/#22f30f0014ce.

Spangler, T. (2019, March 2). “Amazon Pulls Anti-Vaccination Documentaries from Prime Video after Congressman’s Inquiry to Jeff Bezos.” Variety. Available at: www.variety.com/2019/digital/news/amazon-pulls-anti-vaccination-documentaries-prime-video-1203153487/.

Thompson, H. (2019, March 8). “Pinterest’s Block on Anti-Vaccination Content.” The Prindle Post. Availabe at: www.prindlepost.org/2019/03/pinterest-block-anti-vaccination-content/.

World Health Organization. (2013, February 19). “Six Common Misconceptions about Immunization.” World Health Organization. Available at: www.who.int/vaccine_safety/initiative/detection/immunization_misconceptions/en/index2.html.

Young, Z. (2018, November 28). “How Anti-Vax Went Viral.” Politico. Available at: www.politico.eu/article/how-anti-vax-went-viral/.

Authors:

Page Trotter & Scott R. Stroud, Ph.D.
Media Ethics Initiative
Center for Media Engagement
University of Texas at Austin
April 9, 2019

www.mediaethicsinitiative.org


Cases produced by the Media Ethics Initiative remain the intellectual property of the Media Ethics Initiative and the University of Texas at Austin. They can be used in unmodified PDF form without permission for classroom 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.

Halloween Hijinks and Internet Shaming

CASE STUDY: The Ethics of Racially Insensitive Costumes

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Stock Photo: Pixabay

Halloween is a holiday that many Americans wait for all year to bring out their creative costumes—funny, crude, or scary.  Inevitably, some of these costumes will be judged by others as insensitive. Recently, the issue made national headlines when fourteen staff members of Middleton Heights Elementary School were criticized for offensive Halloween costumes. Playing off of the controversies surrounding President Trump’s proposed border wall, a group of Middleton staff members held maracas and wore sombreros or ponchos marked with the phrase “Mexican,”, while another group had Trump’s MAGA slogan plastered across a makeshift border wall in reference to his border security plan. Both groups embodied these partisan and offensive labels into costumes they then wore to the elementary school. On October 31, 2018, photos of staff members in these costumes were published on the Middleton School District’s website, which then quickly spread across the nation.

The public, it seemed, was not amused by these Halloween frivolities. By November 3, the participants were placed on paid administrative leave while further investigation took place. Superintendent of the school district Josh Middleton stated that “This type of behavior has no place in education and certainly is not tolerated here at Middleton School District.’’ He admitted that this was “an unfortunate incident of very poor judgement,” but expressed that this is not representative of either the school district or the teachers. Within days, it was revealed that all of the involved staff, except for Principal Kim Atkinson, were reinstated and the investigation only discovered “love and commitment” of the staff members involved. Additionally, the staff involved in the incident released an apology. To clarify the purpose of the after-school event, the superintendent claimed that it was a team-building exercise with a focus on kindness and education regarding other cultures where staff members were divided and named after countries.

Similarly, the intentions of the involved staff members of Middleton Heights were argued to be, at worst, misguided and good in nature. News of the staff members’ consequences and the negative response across the nation spurred the creation of an online petition in favor of the staff members called “Save our Middleton Staff, Teachers, and Principal.” Supporters also left comments on the petition, such as “Unfortunately, the photos were very controversial. However, we believe it’s been blown out of proportion,” and “I support our teachers 100% and know they did not do this as racial hatred! They are amazing individuals and I’m proud to have them teaching my children!” The petition and its supporters argued that the events should not obscure the ability of the involved staff members of Middleton Heights to be loving and supportive of students.

But is the image created by their costumes too much to overcome in regard to what some students might expect of an educator? Despite the intentions of the Middleton staff members, there is concern about their ability to educate and foster inclusive environments for minority students. The 2017 U.S. census reports that Middleton has a Latino population of 9.5 percent, and Idaho Ed Trends reports that the elementary school has a Hispanic demographic of 12.9 percent; these facts could worry those that say these costume antics will displease or exclude significant populations of students. A former public school teacher, Meredith St. Clair, said in a letter to the school board that “I feel that everyone does have a right to free speech and their own beliefs, politically and otherwise, but we cannot bring these into the classroom.” St. Clair argued that “If we’re doing this overtly, what are the covert, the underlying messages that are being sent to these children on a daily basis” (Katz & Moeller, 2018)? Other critics have taken to the internet to raise support, creating a petition called “No Racism in Middleton School District” that highlights a set of demands to approach racism—including “culturally relevant curriculum, policy change, review of hiring practices, and district wide training” (Mondragon, 2018).

The counter-petition involves individuals from across the U.S., and not simply from the school district or Idaho; likewise, its point is integrated into a national conversation over racial sensitivity.  Outrage over this seemingly small instance has grown national in scope. Those thinking more about how much controversy ill-chosen costumes bring up are asking the question: How much do the supposedly good intentions of the staff members wearing the offensive costumes matter?

Discussion Questions:

  1. What values are in conflict over the Halloween costumes at the center of this case?
  2. Are the costumes an instance of speech or expressive conduct? Why or why not?
  3. How should the school district react to those educators that were involved in this party? What principle are you basing this reaction on, and do you think it will be useful for the next instance of controversial Halloween costumes?
  4. Are there conditions under which such culturally insensitive costumes can be worn?

Further Information:

Foy, Nicole. “Frustrations Fly at Middleton School Board Meeting.” Idaho Press, 13 Nov. 2018, www.idahopress.com/news/local/frustrations-fly-at-middleton-school-board-meeting/article_2fdd6358-7ff7-5f07-be14-7411450ab370.html.

Foy, Nicole. “Middleton Costumes Expose Racial Fault Lines in Canyon County.” Idaho Press, 17 Nov. 2018, www.idahopress.com/news/local/middleton-costumes-expose-racial-fault-lines-in-canyon-county/article_82cdc0b5-16a8-596a-afe8-7f78e7fe1bb0.html.

Katz, Michael, and Katy Moeller. “Middleton Heights Staff Placed on Administrative Leave over Controversial Halloween Outfits.” Idahostatesman, Idaho Statesman, 3 Nov. 2018, www.idahostatesman.com/latest-news/article221074560.html.

Mondragon, Estefania. “Sign the Petition: No Racism in Middleton School District.” MoveOn Petitions, 2018, https://petitions.moveon.org/sign/no-racism-in-middleton.

O’Kane, Caitlin. “Thousands Sign Competing Petitions over Teachers Who Wore Border Wall Costumes.” CBS News, CBS Interactive, 6 Nov. 2018, www.cbsnews.com/news/thousands-sign-competing-petitions-over-idaho-teachers-who-wore-border-wall-costume/.

Authors:

Sophia Park & Scott R. Stroud, Ph.D.
Media Ethics Initiative
Center for Media Engagement
University of Texas at Austin
April 3, 2019

www.mediaethicsinitiative.org


Cases produced by the Media Ethics Initiative remain the intellectual property of the Media Ethics Initiative and the University of Texas at Austin. They can be used in unmodified PDF form without permission for classroom 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.

Netflix and Kill

CASE STUDY: The Problem with Romanticizing Serial Killers

Case Study PDF| Additional Case Studies


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Screencapture: Twitter.com

On January 26, the trailer for the new Ted Bundy biopic “Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil, and Vile” was released to major excitement. The film stars popular actor Zac Efron as Bundy, a notorious American serial killer, and model Lily Collins as Bundy‘s girlfriend, Lisa Kloepfer. The serial killer is infamous for committing a series of horrific acts, including murder, involving anywhere between 30 to 100 women in the 1970s. The trailer features the two in love and arguing about if the allegations against Bundy are true; Kloepfer is portrayed as conflicted because of her feelings toward Bundy, but she’s also portrayed as wanting to protect herself and her young daughter from Bundy ‘s lies and violent tendencies.

While some eagerly await the movie‘s release, others worry that the new biopic glamorizes and unjustifiably humanizes the killer Ted Bundy. Making matters complex, some aspects emphasized by the narrative do have traces in the real trial involving Bundy. He was not treated like other serial killers such as Charles Manson or John Wayne Gacy, and there was not the same overwhelming call for the death penalty as with other killers. Some young women, Bundy ‘s targeted victim type, even attended Bundy ‘s trial and showed support for him, perhaps because he seemed mysterious and attractive; such “fans” ignored the fact that he murdered and mutilated the bodies of women their age. With these facts in place, Suzanne Moore explains how romanticizing the egregious serial killer Bundy in the new biopic might be dangerous for women and how it could demean what it means to be a victim; she worries that the film portrays and potentially evokes “Hybristophilia,” which is “the name given to the sexual arousal that comes from a partner who has committed a crime: the fantasy that you are special enough to give the love that would stop such a man doing the things he does.” Bundy, however, never stopped committing his real life crimes, even after he started dating his girlfriends, including Kloepfer. Dramatizing this hope of redemption and attractiveness might only give him more attention, and demean the real suffering of those he hurt.

But such attention is exactly what Bundy would have wanted. In the biopic trailer, Bundy is portrayed as enthralled by the fact he is “bigger than the Disney World.” Discourse that humanizes or compliments Bundy seemed to only inflate Bundy‘s ego, and to continue to add insulted those who were attacked by him. In 1978, Florida University student Kathy Kleiner Rubin was attacked by Bundy in her sorority house. She is the first of Bundy‘s surviving victims to speak up about the troubling realizations the new Netflix movie is causing. But many were shocked by her statement, as she actually encouraged those to see the movie: “It’s not really glorifying him, but it’s showing him and when they (the characters in the film) do say positive and wonderful things about him … that’s what they saw, that’s what Bundy wanted you to see” (Bonner, 2019). She believes that the movie‘s supposedly accurate portrayal will help women “be more aware of their surroundings and be cautious.” Director Joe Berlinger states the biopic does not “romanticize” or “glorify” Bundy‘s actions, but rather focuses on the relationship between him and Kloepfer as the murderer‘s heinous acts are catching up to him. Berlinger defends his work by revealing that the movie assumes the perspective of Kloepfer, so it will naturally foreground the complex thoughts that she is feeling about Bundy leading up to his arrest and trial (Obenson, 2019). Berlinger‘s defense brings up an interesting point about the artistic freedom in the film industry. When making a movie based on true events, filmmakers can change or select different perspectives on an event, emphasizing different points of view and different ways characters are affected. Films that do this can add to the diversity of stories and storylines we are exposed to, showing the complexities in important historical events.

This is precisely the case for the variety of stories being told about Ted Bundy’s crimes. A week prior to the trailer’s release, a four-part documentary series on Bundy was released by Netflix titled “Conversations with a Killer: the Ted Bundy Tapes.” This docuseries was also directed by Berlinger. This series does the complete opposite of “Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil, and Vile”: “This documentary explicitly details the serial killers gruesome attacks, not how his groupies felt about him” (Harvilla, 2019). With both of these films, Berlinger wanted to show different ways of looking back on the serial killer 30 years after his execution, but concerns remain about the ways of telling this story that might seemingly prioritize Bundy‘s looks and charm over his gut-wrenching actions. Some critics might be tempted to observe that Berlinger was able to make “Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil, and Vile” in a light that did not romanticize the mysterious killer like his other film, one that cast popular actors adored for their looks and that used a thrilling plot to drive a movie effectively about murdering and manipulating women.

Perhaps “Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil, and Vile” makes up for the choices made in “Conversations with a Killer: the Ted Bundy Tapes,” but the separation of visions may also do more harm than good for Berlinger in providing separable visions that inform and entertain in different ways on this serial killer. What are the ethical implications of related, but separate, artifacts that make very different choices in dealing with heinous acts and infamous individuals?

Discussion Questions:

  1. What values are in conflict with the controversy over the dramatized Ted Bundy biopic?
  2. Do you believe that casting a popular actor and heartthrob as a serial killer presents any problems? How should the directors have handled the casting and scripting of such a criminal?
  3. Does the existence of the documentary excuse the biopic‘s actions, or simply magnify the worries over those casting and writing choices?
  4. What general principles should directors and writers follow when creating films based upon atrocious criminals such as Ted Bundy?

Further Information:

Bonner, Mehera. “Ted Bundy survivor reacts to upcoming Zac Efron film.” WESH2 NBC News. January 29, 2019. Available at: https://www.wesh.com/article/ted-bundy-survivor-kathy-kleiner-rubin-reacts-zac-efron/26075976

Harvilla, Robert. “‘The Ted Bundy Tapes Can‘t Put You In His Head. Be Grateful.” The Ringer. January 29, 2019. Available at: https://www.theringer.com/tv/2019/1/29/18201482/netflix-conversations-with-a-killer-ted-bundy-tapes-true-crime-documentary

Moore, Suzanne. “Ted Bundy was deeply mediocre – so why are we romanticizing him?” The Guardian, January 28, 2019. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2019/jan/28/ted-bundy-mediocre-why-romanticising-him-serial-killer-played-by-zac-efron-film

Obenson, Tambay. “Ted Bundy Biopic Director Joe Berlinger Says His Film Never Glorifies a Killer.” IndieWire, January 28, 2019. Available at: https://www.indiewire.com/2019/01/extremely-wicked-shockingly-evil-and-vile-criticism-ted-bundy-1202039201/

Authors:

Irie Crenshaw & Scott R. Stroud, Ph.D.
Media Ethics Initiative
Center for Media Engagement
University of Texas at Austin
March 14, 2019

www.mediaethicsinitiative.org


Cases produced by the Media Ethics Initiative remain the intellectual property of the Media Ethics Initiative and the University of Texas at Austin. They can be used in unmodified PDF form without permission for classroom 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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