Welcome to the blog of the Internet Ethics program at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics, Santa Clara University. Program Director Irina Raicu will be joined by various guests in discussing the ethical issues that arise continuously on the Internet; we hope to host a robust conversation about them, and we look forward to your comments.
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Christine Cate is a recent graduate of Santa Clara University, where she majored in Public Health Science with a minor in Biology. She has worked at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics as the Character Education intern for the Character Based Literacy Program since October 2012. A version of this piece first appeared in November 2014 in the blog of the Ignatian Solidarity Network. Christine is a member of the Network’s social media team, focusing on contemporary issues of social justice and spirituality.
Sometimes, reading the news makes my stomach turn. Every day, headlines about sexual assault, racism, immigration, poverty, or infectious disease are intermingled with stories on Kim Kardashian’s newest racy cover, snow storms on the East Coast, and political speculations. The media is constantly bombarding us with stories ranging in importance from superficial fluff to deeply divisive topics.
The never-ending availability of news is positive in one sense, as the public is becoming more “informed,” but it also has its consequences. The media is desensitizing us to critical social issues like violence, racism, and sexism, while simultaneously flooding our feeds with stories of naked celebrities trying to break the internet or the most expensive Starbucks drink ever. Inane news stories focusing on things like which celebrity unfollowed whom on Instagram this week distract us from being able to critically observe and understand the world in which we live. Even political news stories can contain sensational levels of bias that make getting an objective comprehension of situations nearly impossible. And it’s nearly impossible to escape; anyone active on social media knows how often links to news articles show up among personal updates and advertisements. Individuals who aren’t constantly connected to social media, rare as they may be, are still saturated with current events from radio, print, and advertising outlets. It takes real effort to not know about what is going on in the world in our current society, and ignorance may be just as harmful as news-intoxication.
Both the lack of current event literacy and the over-saturation of news are serious problems in our world, as media is one of the most powerful influences in society today. After returning from the Ignatian Family Teach-In that took place in November 2014 in Virginia and Washington, D.C., I found myself reflecting on the role that news and social media play in our lives, and how that impacts both our spirituality and capacity to enact social justice.
At the Teach-in, in the rare moments between keynote speakers and breakout sessions, large projection screens and television monitors displayed live updates of tweets with the #IFTJ14 hashtag. Multiple photographers scurried around the crowded conference room, and cameras recorded every speaker for the online live stream. The slogan for this year’s Teach-In was “Uprooting Injustice, Sowing Truth, Witnessing Transformation.” The issues of immigration reform, divestment from fossil fuels, and Central American legislation were highlighted, as well as special recognition for the 25th anniversary of the UCA martyrs. Over the course of Saturday and Sunday, conference attendees were challenged to view these issues, as well as other powerful issues like the criminal justice system and racism in society, through a lens of spirituality and social justice. During presentations, audience members tweeted out perspectives or quotes that they felt were especially eye-opening or striking, with their tweets flying out into cyberspace and appearing shortly after on the illuminated screens.
The reach of the Teach-In is hard to fathom. With an estimated 1,500 attendees, and the majority of them active on social media, it wouldn’t be a far stretch to say that tens of thousands of people were indirectly exposed to the messages of the Teach-In through media sources. The goal of the Teach-In was to give voice to the voiceless, to highlight areas in our collective history and present realities that need change, and I think that goal was accomplished spectacularly. Social media amplified the messages spoken at the Teach-In, and expanded the audience beyond just physical attendees.
But amid the masses of news stories already flooding the eyes and minds of people today, is social media enough to make a change? How many news readers are intentional in what and how they read news stories? How many social media users are intentionally aware of their influence, and use their accounts as platforms to share morally important or challenging new stories? How many people are harnessing the power of social media to identify injustice, spread truth, and incite action for transformation?
There are plenty of examples of social media bringing faith into daily rhetoric. The hashtag #blessed is popular on Instagram and Twitter, and there are hundreds of accounts that exist solely to post encouraging scripture passages, quotes, or otherwise spirituality related content. Spirituality and faith have become trendy in certain spheres, with social media users around the world able to share prayers and encourage and inspire from afar. But rarely do faithful social media users (in both senses of the word) connect their spirituality, social media reach, and social justice.
What would it look like if the culture of mainstream news and social media changed to include the combination of spirituality and social justice? Would the voices of the oppressed and marginalized be heard more? Would people be more willing to confront the uncomfortable problems in our societies and work for positive change? Or would we just become desensitized to it, as we have to news coverage of war and violence? Can the integration of spirituality and social media be a powerful tool to expose injustices, spread truth, and document change?
I don’t have answers to these questions, not yet. I am far more aware of my social media presence and interaction with news outlets, and would like to be more intentional in how I read news stories and pass them along to my sphere of influence. I think by critically analyzing new stories, and calling out the biases that we have been so accustomed to, we can change the way information is transmitted in society. I think that by integrating spirituality and social justice on a conscious level with how we use social media platforms we will be able to uproot injustice, sow truth, and witness transformation.
This fall, Internet users have had the opportunity to view naked photographs of celebrities (which were obtained without approval, from private iCloud accounts, and then—again without consent—distributed widely). They were also able to watch journalists and an aid worker being beheaded by a member of a terrorist organization that then uploaded the videos of the killings to various social media channels. And they were also invited to watch a woman being rendered unconscious by a punch from a football player who was her fiancé at the time; the video of that incident was obtained from a surveillance camera inside a hotel elevator.
These cases have been accompanied by heated debates around the issues of journalism ethics and the responsibilities of social media platforms. Increasingly, though, a question is arising about the responsibility of the Internet users themselves—the consumers of online content. The question is, should they watch?
Many commentators have argued that to watch those videos or look at those pictures is a violation of the privacy of the victims depicted in them; that not watching is a sign of respect; or that the act of watching might cause new harm to the victims or to people associated with them (friends, family members, etc.). Others have argued that watching the beheading videos is necessary “if the depravity of war is to be understood and, hopefully, dealt with,” or that watching the videos of Ray Rice hitting his fiancé will help change people’s attitudes toward domestic violence.
What do you think?
Would it be unethical to watch the videos discussed above? Why?
Would it be unethical to look at the photos discussed above? Why?
Are the three cases addressed above so distinct from each other that one can’t give a single answer about them all? If so, which of them would you watch, or refuse to watch, and why?
Do we need more editorial control on the Web? In this brief clip, the Chairman, President, and Chief Executive Officer of Seagate Technology, Stephen Luczo, argues that we do. He also cautions that digital media channels sometimes unwittingly lend a gloss of credibility to some stories that don't deserve it (as was recently demonstrated in the coverage of the Boston bombing). Luczo views this as a symptom of a broader breakdown among responsibility, accountability, and consequences in the online world. Is the much-vaunted freedom of the Internet diminishing the amount of substantive feedback that we get for doing something positive--or negative--for society?
Chad Raphael, Chair of the Communication Department and Associate Professor at Santa Clara University, responds to Luczo's comments:
"It's true that the scope and speed of news circulation on the Internet worsens longstanding problems of countering misinformation and holding the sources that generate it accountable. But journalism's traditional gatekeepers were never able to do these jobs alone, as Senator Joseph McCarthy knew all too well. News organizations make their job harder with each new round of layoffs of experienced journalists.
There are new entities emerging online that can help fulfill these traditional journalistic functions, but we need to do more to connect, augment, and enshrine them in online news spaces. Some of these organizations, such as News Trust, crowdsource the problem of misinformation by enlisting many minds to review news stories and alert the public to inaccuracy and manipulation. Their greatest value may be as watchdogs who can sound the alarm on suspicious material. Other web sites, such as FactCheck.org, rely on trained professionals to evaluate political actors' claims. They can pick up tips from multiple watchdogs, some of them more partisan than others, and evaluate those tips as fair-minded judges. We need them to expand their scope beyond checking politicians to include other public actors. The judges could also use some more robust programs for tracking the spread of info-viruses back to their sources, so they can be identified and exposed quickly. We also need better ways to publicize the online judges' verdicts.
If search engines and other news aggregators aim to organize the world's information for us, it seems within their mission to let us know what sources, stories, and news organizations have been more and less accurate over time. Even more importantly, aggregators might start ranking better performing sources higher in their search results, creating a powerful economic incentive to get the story right rather than getting it first.
Does that raise First Amendment concerns? Sure. But we already balance the right to free speech against other important rights, including reputation, privacy, and public safety. And the Internet is likely to remain the Wild West until Google, Yahoo!, Digg, and other news aggregators start separating the good, the bad, and the ugly by organizing information according to its credibility, not just its popularity."