Social media is a major driver in how the world’s citizens access information. As such, it has an ethical responsibility to accuracy and, broadly, accountability for its role in the world. The social media landscape’s rapid change in the sheer scale, content, and vulnerability of the information it hosts has created unprecedented potential for disruption to the billions of people who interact daily on these platforms.
And, as unscrupulous content providers wage war on the psyches of social media users through campaigns of misinformation, social media companies are struggling to recognize the extent to which they are amplifying dangerous content, promoting disinformation and polarizing views. As a result of feasting on a daily diet of dangerously inaccurate information, one of the pillars of our democracy—an informed electorate—is now under considerable risk.
For these reasons, the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics, with the generous support of Craig Newmark Philanthropies, has worked diligently in the last year to educate our stakeholders and constituents and to provide resources on the ethics of content moderation designed to promote and inform trustworthy journalism and civic engagement among social media users.
During the period of summer 2019 through May 2020, Irina Raicu, Subbu Vincent, Anita Varma, and other Ethics Center staff have advanced outcomes focused on three primary constituencies:
Corporations and Organizations—Ethics Center staff members have worked with various corporations and organizations through participation in panels, task forces, and working groups to craft frameworks for content moderation and data privacy decisions.
Individuals—The Center’s efforts at highlighting the public ethical issues related to social media and civic responsibility include the publishing of articles and case studies and participation in media interviews. In February, for example, the directors of both the Internet Ethics and Journalism and Media Ethics programs participated in a KQED panel discussion on disinformation and democracy, which was held in front of a live audience and subsequently aired on C-SPAN. Additionally, some of the articles by Center staff and affiliated SCU faculty scholars were collected in December as part of a “Spotlight” compendium titled “Social Media and Democracy.”
Educators—Markkula Center staff have employed a variety of approaches to connect with educators both in K-12 and higher education during the last year. Among their efforts are appearances as guest lecturers, participation in on-campus panel discussions, and the development of case studies and other resources for in-classroom use (such as a reading list titled “Disinformation and Democracy.”)
Lessons and Takeaways:
A variety of issues related to social media and civic responsibility continue to be extremely important, and, while numerous individuals and organizations focus on these issues, many users and educators remain ill-informed. As the country is struggling with shifting information and disinformation about a pandemic, activism, and upcoming elections, we will continue our efforts in these areas.
On the journalism front, the Ethics Center’s Journalism & Media Ethics program has strengthened and added to the voices that seek to rewrite the older, legacy codes of journalism ethics. Nearly all of our writing, training, and applied research projects in this area center around a new vision for journalism ethics. This grant has helped us plant seeds along this path.
On the internet ethics front, the center’s Internet Ethics program will continue to provide resources that invite social media users, social media companies, and educators to engage in thoughtful analysis and conversations about the ethical issues sparked by the powerful communications platforms that so many of us use.
We appreciate the support that Craig Newmark Philanthropies has provided to the Ethics Center for this important work. We will continue to develop content and resources for our stakeholders, particularly through this key election cycle and the ongoing challenges of the pandemic and protests calling for social reform.