Social Media, Censorship, Fake News, and Sacha Baron Cohen

Before I begin, I’d like to fully acknowledge that you have likely read the buzzwords (besides Sacha Baron Cohen) in the title at least a million times. And for that, I apologize. But here it goes.

The other night during a debate between British PM Boris Johnson and Jeremy Corbyn, his opponent from the Labour Party, the Conservative Party re-branded their news account as “factcheckUK”, pretending to be an organization who fact checks the debate. During the debate the account published pro-conservative “fact checking”, with the general public having no idea that the organization would be misleading them. After the debate the organization reverted the title of the website and their logo to normal.

But why is this a big deal? Well, besides the obvious fraudulent behavior, it is exploiting the very real concern surrounding lies and fake news. With lies being spread so readily nowadays in political debates, our own president has lied over thirteen thousand times according to an actual fact checker, people have come to rely on fact checkers to clear the air when it comes objective truth. Pretending to be a service that so many have come to rely on an insidious political tactic.

I’m sure that most everyone is familiar with the controversy surrounding FaceBook, fake news, Russian bots, and that whole mess. But more recently there has been discussion about requiring FaceBook to censor fake news or provide fact checking. Now, with fact checkers even having to be fact checked, it may be time to talk about regulation. Sacha Baron Cohen, a famous satirist, has received the Anti-Defamation League’s “ADL International Leadership Award”. In his acceptance speech, he calls for the regulation of FaceBook in order to fight bigotry, lies, and hate. (It is well-worth the 24 minute watch, but for anyone reading those who is short on time, click here for an abridged version). Cohen draws the analogy that a restaurant owner would not be required to serve a Neo-Nazi who is screaming hate speech in their dining room. That restaurant owner would be morally obligated to remove them. He says that FaceBook, similarly, is required to remove Neo-Nazis from their website that spread lies like “The Great Replacement” or a “Latino Invasion of the US”, or Holocaust denial. As these are, needless to say, complete lunacy.

When fact checkers are not enough, the integrity of elections are at stake, and the moral fiber of our society is in jeopardy, it is time to take a stand. Social media needs to be regulated, because the fundamental accepted truths of our world cannot be tampered with any longer. We cannot allow the era of evidence and reason to end.

Anti-Vaxx and Climate Change: Why Are We Still Debating?

In an article by Lena H. Sun of the Washington post, it is revealed that the majority of anti-vaccination ads are funded by just two organizations. I’m not writing this post to rail against the dangers of anti-vaxxers. The scientific community has been very clear, vaccines do not cause autism. So you don’t need to hear it from me.

What I am here to rail against is advertisers and conspiracy theorists who use the internet to create a false narrative surrounding important issues like vaccines or climate change. Consensus has been reached: climate change is real, vaccines do not cause autism (and who would care even if they did?). So why are there still climate change deniers in the EPA? Why why do we have an anti-vaxxer as a president? Why does “that uncle” still bring up conspiracy theories about the government using vaccines to make our children sick while everyone is trying to enjoy Thanksgiving dinner?

Organizations use the Internet to promote their ridiculous ideas and make it seem like the consensus is not clear. Even though 99% of climate scientists are in agreement that climate change is real, caused by humans and puts our future in danger, you will still hear from the 1% of scientists that have their doubts. Organizations with political incentive (such as fossil fuel companies) will give platform to fringe “scientists” who rail against climate change and make it seem like the consensus is not clear. This keeps the “debate” going as long as possible, which means that we as a society have not been able to fully move on to taking action.

Unfortunately, I do not have a solution to this problem. There is no law against disagreeing with scientific consensus. There is no law against buying advertisements to support anti-climate change or anti-vaxx ideas. But I would caution anyone who uses the internet to be careful about what you read, research the facts, and maybe call out your crazy uncle for spreading misinformation.

Reading Response 11/13

Vartan Gregorian, in their article “Colleges Should Reconstruct the Unity of Knowledge” argues that colleges have become too much like a job-readiness program. They train too much in specialized, narrow fields that don’t serve as real education inquiry but instead as job readiness programs. They argue that students are being fed knowledge but are not being allowed to ask questions and find answers, or to find their role in the world. These hyper-specialized fields are too restrictive on students. There is no problem that is one-dimensional or just fixed by using one field of knowledge.

In our interdisciplinary studies program we are allowed to break that trend. If we identify a problem then we are allowed to draw from many different fields in order to answer it. Because we are allowed to create our own program, we can answer questions that other people in their hyper-focused fields may not be able to. It also allows you to see how truly inter-connected many fields are. Hyper-focusing on one field may narrow your view and make you think about problems in one-dimension.

It does seem that being interdisciplinary is the future. Given the vastness of the knowledge available to modern-day college students it seems difficult to imagine that we would continue narrowing fields of study rather than broadening them.

Is The International Criminal Court Serving Its Purpose?

Today the International Criminal Court found the Congolese general Bosco Ntaganda guilty on eighteen counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity. As a result, he was sentenced to thirty years in prison. Ida Sawyer, the deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Africa division, is quoted as saying “Bosco Ntaganda’s 30-year sentence sends a strong message that even people considered untouchable may one day be held to account”.

While I completely agree with the sentencing of Ntaganda, I would like to take a closer look at Ida Sawyer’s statement.

The ICC was established in 2002 in The Hague, Netherlands. The intention of the court is to hold accountable those who have committed especially heinous crimes including war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide. Their website reads “The Court is participating in a global fight to end impunity, and through international criminal justice, the Court aims to hold those responsible accountable for their crimes and to help prevent these crimes from happening again”. And since 2002 they have indicted 44 individuals found guilty. The problem? All 44 indictments have been Africans.

But how could this be? Given the poor human rights records of Israel, China, and Russia, how could there not even be a single investigation into these states?

photo courtesy of:

In green are the states that have signed and ratified the Rome Statute, the UN bill that establishes the ICC. In orange are states that signed the Rome Statute but did not ratify, and in gray are states that neither signed nor ratified. What does this mean? All the states in orange and gray cannot be investigated by the ICC. Notable signatories who did not ratify include: The US, Russia, and Israel.

In 2016 Gambia joined other African states in leaving the ICC. Stating that the ICC was unfairly persecuting Africans while ignoring crimes of the Western world.

While the intentions of the ICC are pure, its repeated persecution of African nations while being unable or unwilling to even investigate crimes taking place elsewhere threatens its legitimacy. It cannot be trusted to treat each nation equally and with dignity and respect while revealing such obvious bias. Treating everyone equally in the eyes of the law is one of the most important aspects of any justice system, and without that the ICC cannot “send a strong message” to anyone.

The Case Against Boycotts

As a student of International Relations one of the topics I have discussed in class more than once is social movements; people who band together and peacefully protest in order to create political or societal change. I, like most Americans, enthusiastically support everyone’s right to protest and participate in social movements. However, it seems that in some cases we may may be a little bit too enthusiastic about protesting.

In May of this year the governor of Georgia signed a controversial law that would restrict abortion rights all across the state. In response, there were many who called on film and TV creators to pull out of the state (the most popular filming destination in the US. While many advocates for women’s reproductive rights were supportive of the movement, Georgia locals claimed that it would do more harm than good. Boycotting the film industry in Georgia would lead to the loss of jobs for women who were working to create change. A group of advocates created a petition to counter the boycott. The petition says: “We now share the burden of condemnation for actions we fought from the beginning. Please know this: Georgia’s hardworking women and many men in this industry will continue to be the resistance from the inside”. Protesters for women’s rights were so quick to protest that they neglected to ask the women of Georgia what they needed. Rather than being allies, these protesters hamstrung Georgian advocates who needed their support.

This situation mirrored concerns over EU sanctions of Bangladeshi products in 2013 following the Rana Plaza factory collapse. On the surface it seems that taking action against a country with poor working conditions would be nothing but positive, but there are two sides to every story. While the collapse of Rana Plaza was a tragedy, the last thing the people of Bangladesh needed was economic sanctions at a time when their country was making so much progress. Though working conditions were poor, their country was becoming more developed as a result of industrialization and local industry. But if it suddenly became more expensive for companies to operate there, what would happen to the jobs? The answer is that the jobs would disappear and the people of Bangladesh would be worse off than they were to begin with.

On the surface it seems like protests of regressive laws on women’s reproductive rights and sanctions fighting against poor working conditions are an objective moral win. But if I have learned anything from studying politics in my college career thus far, things are rarely that simple. It is important to think about the people who you are trying to protect and ask them what they need from you. Taking part in a boycott can feel righteous, but sometimes it is just a self-serving facade. I encourage everyone to think critically before they take action in order to avoid causing more harm than good. Research the cause before you take part, interview the people that you are boycotting on behalf of and ask what they need. Protests are a tool that, when used properly, can be very effective. But when used improperly, or thoughtlessly, they can be harmful.

My Personal Learning Network

What did your research tell you about how people share ideas in your fields?

I’ve found that there are good academic accounts to follow on Twitter. People will Tweet out the links to their articles and that is a good place to start learning about new ideas in my field.

What tools will best allow you to connect with scholars and professionals in your fields?

I’m hoping to connect through Twitter, but I also made a LinkedIn account just in case it doesn’t work out that way. If Twitter isn’t a good medium for connecting and communicating with professionals, then I know that LinkedIn will be.

What tools will best allow you to share your own knowledge, experiences, and ideas with other people in your fields?

I hope to use a combination of Twitter and my ePort to share my ideas. Because Twitter is limited by the 280 character format, it’s likely that anything I want to say will be too much for Twitter. But I will be able to write a piece and then link to it on Twitter to communicate it to others.

How public do you want to be? Why?

I don’t see any problem with being 100% public. I don’t foresee many problems arising since I only intend to interact with professional and academic profiles and websites. If I was venturing into the more social side of Twitter than I could see problems cropping up, but not on the academic side of Twitter.

How will you engage at least once a week with your Personal Learning Network?

I’ll go on my professional Twitter at least a few minutes a day and try to find more academic profiles to follow. I’ll read a few academic articles per week and if I find something that I find particularly interesting, I’ll either Retweet it or write a full response on my ePort.

How will you know if your PLN is serving you well or not?

If I’m regularly finding info worthy of a full blog-post response or that I just find interesting, then I know I’m doing it right. If I am not finding any new or interesting ideas and I feel no desire to interact with anything on my PLN, then I’ll look to start from square one and see if I can revamp it to better suit my needs.

Some Thoughts On Student Domains

In Audrey Watters’ article “The Web We Give To Students” she discusses the potential benefits of giving students their own website domain to upload work to. I happen to agree with her on pretty much all of her points. By allowing a student to have a website they can post their work to as a showcase, it encourages them to take pride in their work. It also allows them to control what they show off without any need for physical records. This is important because, as Watters says, “a student’s work exists only inside a learning management system and cannot be accessed once the semester is over” at most schools. I intend to maintain my domain and upload the work I am most proud of while I’m here at PSU.

But there are potential downsides to this as well. In Matthew Cheney’s article “How Public? Why Public?” he warns of the potential dangers of existing in an online space. Anybody who has spent 10 seconds reading YouTube comments knows that people on the internet are not nice. As he says “the internet allows a kind of anonymity that can be empowering for some people, problem for others, and both for man. Trolls thrive on anonymity”. It’s true that anonymity can be a shield, for good or for bad. But, in my opinion, it can also inhibit you. If I want to show people that I’m proud of my work, and unafraid for my opinions to be known and up for critique, I ought to attach my name to my work. This holds me accountable to only upload things I would be comfortable with someone associating with me, and it shows that the work I upload on my site is I am proud of. For that reason I made my website domain my full name.

A reflection on interdisciplinary so far, websites, and so on

Since the first reflection we have covered Hypothesis, a tool for annotating online resources, two articles about using website domains as a part of academia, the introduction to Eports, and Creative Commons licensing. The Hypothesis tool is nifty but I do not see myself using it over just handwriting notes, even though my handwriting is atrocious and slow, I still just feel that handwriting notes in general will be more effective for me in the majority of my classes. I thought the articles about the student-websites were pretty interesting. I can see how having an online portfolio of my work, especially my college work, could be useful in a professional setting. All of my previous digital work has been erased because it was stored using infrastructure from school and they deleted it after I graduated. Physical records of my works (transcripts, projects, etc.) may still exist but they are almost prohibitively difficult to access at this point. For that reason I am glad that we are making the Eports in class and I do think that I will upload work from other classes onto my domain in the future so I can showcase some of my work and keep track of it. That could be useful throughout my time in college but could also be useful to show prospective employers as well. However that means that the work I create for school has to be up to a certain standard that I would be willing to show it to a potential employer. So in that way it does hold me to a higher standard for my academics. Luckily I will be able to apply my newly-gained expertise on Creative Commons images and possibly use some to spruce up the website and make it look professional. Since it is a professional setting it is extra important that every image is used correctly and legally which is why it was useful to learn about it in class. The last thing you need is to be working on an important professional or academic project and watch the whole thing be ruined because you used an image illegally and somebody noticed. That also relates to the question of whether or not to attach my real name to the domain or not. It seems to me that in order to really use the website in a professional setting I should attach my actual, full name to the website. That way I can show that I want the work on the website to be directly connected to me. It shows that I want people to google my name and find that work. So, if it is available (I know that Erik Nelson is not exactly an uncommon name) I will be using it as a part of my website’s name. I do not have a backup plan as of yet for what I will do if Erik Nelson is taken but I am sure I will be able to think of something on the spot if that is the case.