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May 3, 2017

The George Washington Institute of Living Ethics and the Robert C. Byrd Center for Congressional History and Education presented a panel entitled “Ethics, Power, and the Public Sphere in the Age of Twitter.” The panel took place Wednesday, 3 May 2017 in the auditorium of the Robert C. Byrd Center on the campus of Shepherd University.
The panel featured Dr. Ray Smock, Director of the Robert C. Byrd Center for Congressional History and Education; Dr. Keith Alexander, Assistant Professor in the History Department at Shepherd University; and Dr. Matthew Kushin, Associate Professor in Shepherd’s Department of Communications. Dr. Julia Sandy, Associate Professor of History at Shepherd, moderated the discussion.
Dr. Smock opened with a historical perspective on the revolutionary changes in how humans communicate, beginning with the invention of the moveable type printing press in the 15th Century. The printed word, especially the book, altered human civilization forever and the printed word freed access to information and ideas previously controlled by King and Church. Science could challenge religious dogma. Ideas of freedom could challenge the authority of the State. Learning to read, being a writer, gave new powers to masses that never had it before. Human knowledge expanded. Ages of invention and the burst of encyclopedic knowledge all came from the printing press and the book.
While the book is still the number one transmitter of information and ideas worldwide, new forms of mass communications developed rapidly in the twentieth century. Radio, television, motion pictures, and in the last quarter century the advent of the Internet and online social media represent the latest in a string of revolutionary developments in communication.
Smock raised questions about how we can identify accurate information in the new social media, which often creates states of unreality and alternative views of what is fact, verifiable truth, or totally fabricated fiction designed to be propaganda or for other purposes of deception. How can we bring ethical behavior and veracity to the new social media?
He also mentioned several critical thinkers who have influenced his thinking about mass media communication, starting with a leading critic of television in the 1960s, Marshall McLuhan, whose famous phrase “The Medium is the Message” suggested that the medium in which we receive our information and news actually shapes how we perceive what we are seeing and hearing. As an example of the medium being the message, Smock cited President Trump, who saw video clips of Syrian children dying from a gas attack. He launched 56 missiles against Syria because of his strong emotional reaction to a video. Would the president have launched such an attack if the information on the gas attacks had come in the form of a bland, printed intelligence report? How much did the medium that delivered the message affect his response?
Smock recommended the book by Christopher Hedges The Empire of Illusion (2009). Hedges is a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist, a Princeton Professor, a Presbyterian minister and a leading social activist. His book, Smock said, is an incredible critique of how much our new social media make it possible for us to live in various states of unreality. “The Culture of Illusion,” Hedges wrote, “thrives by robbing us of the intellectual and linguistic tools to separate illusion from truth.”
Dr. Keith Alexander began his panel presentation by defining the public sphere. Made famous by Juergen Habermas in his 1962 book The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere, this term refers to “private people gathered together as a public and articulating the needs of society with the state” (176). A public sphere began to emerge in the eighteenth century through the growth of things like coffee houses, literary societies, voluntary associations, and the growth of the press. Basically, these were places where people got together and debated. In the process, they generated opinions and attitudes that helped to guide the affairs of state. According to Habermas, the success of the public sphere depended on rational-critical debate, where everyone participated on an equal footing and the best argument won.
This public sphere of civil society depended first and foremost on the principle of universal access. In reality though, in the eighteenth century, the public sphere was comprised of the bourgeois reading public, with two criteria for admission: education and property ownership. That, by the way, de facto largely excluded women. Nevertheless, for a time, as long as it at least appeared that everyone had the chance to become a “citizen,” then the more narrow definition of public sphere could survive. However, as more people were brought into the public sphere over the course of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the public sphere became deformed. Habermas identified several causes of this deformation, including the advance of social welfare, the growth of culture industries, the evolution of large private interests, and, particularly, large newspapers devoted to profit.
Dr. Alexander noted the fundamental importance of the public sphere for democracy. He noted that, at least for a while, it looked like the internet would make it possible to have a more vibrant democracy with increased participation and thus with a broader public sphere. Blogs, Twitter, Facebook, and so on in many ways can be viewed as “bigger megaphones” that are able to reach far larger audience numbers than conventional media. They clearly circumvent the conventional news media: Anyone can instantly communicate with anyone, with very reasonably priced devices getting closer to universal access, amounting to a vast expansion of the public sphere.
Instead of leading to greater democratization, however, Alexander argued that this potential has been hijacked. He singled out two new developments that he found particularly disturbing: bots and big data. Twitter bots are accounts programmed to follow instructions, such as automatically replying to tweets from other accounts. Some of these are obviously mindless bots, while others are very good at mimicking real people. Still others are better termed cyborgs because they mix the efficiency of a computer with the creativity and perhaps malicious intent of a human. These have tremendous potential to be used for nefarious purposes, including, perhaps, to sway public opinion in a close election. Big data harvested from social media also has dangerous implications for the survival of the public sphere. Using the data people provide voluntarily online every day when they “like” something on Facebook, experts have created computer algorithms able to predict and perhaps influence human behavior.
Dr. Alexander identified several possible strategies to combat these tendencies. First, we may respond with more speech, either human, bot, or cyborg. Second, we may break or at least confuse the system by intentionally misleading it through “liking” things that we actually don’t. Third, we may decide to ban bots altogether, through policies adopted by social media companies or through technology or both. Finally, it should be possible to detect and delete fake news on Twitter and Facebook. Unfortunately, there are problems with all of these approaches. How much of will this have to be automated? By automating the process, are we again ceding control? Are we destroying the public sphere in order to save it?
Dr. Alexander closed his portion of the panel by calling for more education. Democracy depends on training citizens how to recognize fake news, but also how to evaluate the filters that our social media providers impose on us. Also, we must begin educating citizens in responsible online behavior.
Dr. Matthew Kushin, associate professor in the Department of Communication, discussed Facebook, the 2016 presidential election and the theory of the spiral of silence. The spiral of silence states that when people perceive their opinion is in the majority, they are more likely to share it. Because people fear social isolation, when people perceive their opinion is in the minority, they are less likely to share it for fear of being outcast.
Kushin’s presentation centered on why, prior to the election, some people were willing to express their support their preferred candidate while others were not. The 2016 election was highly contentious and both candidates were controversial with low approval ratings. Kushin discussed the relationship between a voter’s willingness to express support for a candidate and the perception that a voter has that others support their opinion.
Given the increasingly important role that sites like Facebook play in political expression today, whether voters express their support for a candidate on Facebook or face-to-face is an important issue. Are people more willing to express their opinion on Facebook versus offline among the general population? If a voter perceives that the opinion climate is favorable on Facebook and not favorable offline, how does that affect the voter’s willingness to express their opinion? As online relationships become more divided along political and ideological lines, it is important to consider the effect this may have on our perceptions of the opinion climate surrounding controversial issues and how this might impact our willingness to speak our mind.
The lively and thoughtful audience discussion session following the panel presentations made it clear that the panel raised more questions than it answered. Commentators expressed their hopes that this would be the first of many such programs on ethics and contemporary political and social problems. For their part, the conference organizers hope that those reading this will continue to address the themes raised here, and welcome emails further pursuing this topic.

April 8-9, 2016

Symposium on the History and Preservation of Happy Retreat. Fishermen’s Hall and Happy Retreat, Charles Town, WV. Event co-sponsored by Phi Alpha Theta and the George Washington Institute for Living Ethics. More information here.

March 30, 2016

“Getting High-Tech”: The Rise of Technology Addiction. Robert C. Byrd Center for Congressional History and Education auditorium, 7:00 PM. Shepherd University Common Reading panel co-sponsored by Shepherd University and the George Washington Institute for Living Ethics.

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