Tag Archives: activism

Freedom of Expression in The Age Of Powerful Technology Corporations

The following paper was turned in last night for my Media Organization Regulations class at Webster University. It is not graded yet. Enjoy!

Carolyn Hasenfratz Winkelmann
Geri L. Dreiling, J.D.
MEDC 5350: Media Organization Regulations
1 November 2020

Freedom of Expression in The Age Of Powerful Technology Corporations

Freedom of expression is the right to disagree, to assemble in protest of laws and to publish and disseminate opinions, ideas and beliefs (Baran and Davis, 64-65).  Freedom of expression is considered central to democratic self-government and is therefore described, though not in those exact words (“Bill of Rights…”), in the Bill of Rights (Baran and Davis, 64-65).  In 1927, the Supreme Court found against the plaintiff in the case Whitney v. California, a ruling that was overturned in 1969 (Belpedio).  This case was heard to decide whether or not the arrest and conviction of a Communist political activist in 1919 was in violation of the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution (Legal Information Institute).  Part of the written opinion of Justice Louis Brandeis caused some to question why he voted against the plaintiff in Whitney v. California since his defense of freedom of expression was eloquent and widely influential (Belpedio).  Justice Brandeis’ words have been interpreted as a “virtual declaration of absolute free speech” (Belpedio).

A present-day issue that Justice Brandeis illuminated in his prescient comments from 1927 is the regulation of speech by corporations that are popularly known as “Big Tech” (“Does Section 230’s…”). On October 28, 2020, the United States Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation held a hearing on current internet law and whether or not it is sufficient in the present day to ensure the free exchange of ideas in the online environment controlled by Google, Twitter and Facebook (“Does Section 230’s…”).

A study by the Pew Research Center found that as of 2018, social media had surpassed print newspapers as a source of news, accounting for 20% of the news audience (Shearer).  The study also reports that 33% of adults in the U.S. consume news content from online web sites (Shearer).  Since Google is the largest provider of internet search results, with a nearly 88% market share in the United States (StatCounter), having influence over potentially nearly 43% of all news content puts these three big tech companies in powerful positions.  In a 2016 TED talk, referring to the platforms Twitter, Facebook and YouTube, internet freedom activist Rebecca MacKinnon stated “… we do know that journalism, activism and public debate are being silenced in the effort to stamp out extremist speech.  So with these companies having so much power over the public discourse, they need to be held accountable” (MacKinnon). YouTube is owned by Google LLC (YouTube).

Concerns about the freedom of expression in search results and within social media platforms in the face of this power have been growing in recent history.  On its web page “Digital Bill of Rights”, the stance of Adbusters, a nonprofit network of artists and activists declare that “It is high time that digital citizens, in the face of rampant techno-tyranny, openly mount a resistance to take back our mental space by force” (Adbusters “Digital Bill of Rights”).  73% of U.S. adults now suspect that social media companies intentionally block political content that they don’t want users to see (Vogels et al).

The Big Tech companies that the Senate investigated on October 28, 2020 are not legally required to allow their users rights as described in the First Amendment, which restrains government action only (Rosen).  The law that the recent Senate hearing choose to focus on is Section 230 of Communications Decency Act (DCA) of 1996 (“Does Section 230’s…”).  Section 230 does not address whether or not the platforms can legally restrict political opinions – it addresses immunity from lawsuits on other matters such as libel, because the platforms claim they do not influence content (Trager 210).  It appears that it could be argued Section 230 immunity should not be applied to Facebook, Google and Twitter because they do “interact directly with content” in an attempt to cultivate attitudes to make the culture of the United States more like Europe (Rosen, Trager 210).  In Europe, safety and propriety are valued more than freedom (Rosen) while the culture of the United States accepts more risks.  In the words of Justice Brandeis, “Those who won our independence believed that the final end of the State was to make men free to develop their faculties; and that in its government the deliberative forces should prevail over the arbitrary.  They valued liberty both as an end and as a means.  They believed liberty to be the secret of happiness and courage to be the secret of liberty” (Baran and Davis 65).

Users who are attracted by the promise of free speech have been turning to alternative platforms that are perceived to be less restrictive than the three tech companies that the Senate Hearing examined.  Parler appeals to unhappy Twitter users by claiming to offer an environment with more freedom and corporate accountability (Parler).  Articles suggesting alternatives to Google and Facebook describe platforms that users concerned about data mining and privacy issues can try out (Broida, Taylor).

The movie industry’s voluntary Hays Code, which was in effect from 1934-1965 was intended to reduce public outrage and stave off possible future government regulation of motion picture content (Hays Code).  The power of the medium of television and its effect on violence in children led to the threat of possible increased government regulation and in turn self-regulation by the industry in the late 1960s and early 1970s (Baran and Davis 166-167).  The Big Tech companies might choose in the future to follow the lead of the movie and television industries that proceeded them and do more self-policing in order to better align their European-inspired standards to the expectations of the American public.

Works Cited

Adbusters. “Digital Bill of Rights”. 1989-2020, www.adbusters.org/articles-coded/digital-bill-of-rights, Accessed 1 November 2020.

—. “Mind Journey #11”. 1989-2020, featured.adbusters.org/mindjourney/011/, Accessed 1 November 2020.

—. “‘The Social Dilemma’ director hopes to spark a movement” 1989-2020, www.adbusters.org/the-pulse/the-social-dilemma-director-hopes-to-spark-a-movement, Accessed 1 November 2020.

Baran, Stanley J. and Dennis K. Davis. Mass Communication Theory: Foundations, Ferment, and Future. Seventh Edition. CENGAGE Learning, 2015.

Belpedio, James. “Whitney v. California (1927)”. The First Amendment Encyclopedia, 2009, mtsu.edu/first-amendment/article/263/whitney-v-california, Accessed 1 November 2020.

“Bill of Rights of the United States of America (1791).” Bill of Rights Institute, 2020, billofrightsinstitute.org/founding-documents/bill-of-rights/. Accessed 26 October 2020.

Broida, Rick. “Social-media alternatives to Facebook.” CNET, 2018, www.cnet.com/how-to/social-media-alternatives-to-facebook/. Accessed 1 November 2020.

“Does Section 230’s Sweeping Immunity Enable Big Tech Bad Behavior?”. U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science & Transportation, 2020, www.commerce.senate.gov/2020/10/does-section-230-s-sweeping-immunity-enable-big-tech-bad-behavior, Accessed 1 November 2020.

Greenwald, Glenn. “Article on Joe and Hunter Biden Censored By The Intercept”. Glenn Greenwald, 2020, greenwald.substack.com/p/article-on-joe-and-hunter-biden-censored, Accessed 1 November 2020.

“Hays code.” Siteseen Limited, 2017-2018, www.american-historama.org/1929-1945-depression-ww2-era/hays-code.htm. Accessed 14 September 2019.

Legal Information Institute. “WHITNEY v. PEOPLE OF STATE OF CALIFORNIA”. Cornell Law School, 2020, www.law.cornell.edu/supremecourt/text/274/357, Accessed 1 November 2020.

MacKinnon, Rebecca. “We can fight terror without sacrificing our rights.” TED Conferences, LLC., June 2016, www.ted.com/talks/rebecca_mackinnon_we_can_fight_terror_without_sacrificing_our_rights/transcript. Accessed 1 November 2020.

“Parler”. Parler, Inc., 2020, www.parler.com/auth/access. Accessed 1 November 2020.

Rosen, Jeffrey. “The Deciders: The Future of Free Speech in a Digital World”. Harvard Kennedy School Shorestien Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy. 2016, shorensteincenter.org/jeffrey-rosen-future-of-free-speech-in-a-digital-world/, Accessed 1 November 2020.

Shearer, Elisa. “Social media outpaces print newspapers in the U.S. as a news source”. Pew Research Center, 2018, www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2018/12/10/social-media-outpaces-print-newspapers-in-the-u-s-as-a-news-source/, Accessed 1 November 2020.

StatCounter. “Search Engine Market Share in United States Of America Sept 2019 – Sept 2020”. October 2020, gs.statcounter.com/search-engine-market-share/all/united-states-of-america, Accessed 1 November 2020.

Taylor, Sven. “Alternatives to Google Products”. Restore Privacy, LLC, 2019, restoreprivacy.com/google-alternatives/. Accessed 1 November 2020.

Trager, Robert Susan Dente Ross and Amy Reynolds. The law of journalism and mass communication. Sixth Edition. SAGE Publications, Inc. 2018.

Vogels, Emily A., Andrew Perrin and Monica Anderson. “Most Americans Think Social Media Sites Censor Political Viewpoints”. Pew Research Center, 2020, www.pewresearch.org/internet/2020/08/19/most-americans-think-social-media-sites-censor-political-viewpoints/, Accessed 1 November 2020.

YouTube, 2020, www.youtube.com/. Accessed 1 November 2020.


If you want to delve deeper into this and related topics, I have links to a lot more resources on a Pinterest Board: Media Analysis: Communications and the Law

Mass Society Theory Still Influences Media Use in the Contemporary United States

Here is my first paper for my Media Communication class, MEDC: 5000-01, with Professor Robert Dixon at Webster University.

The reason I chose this topic for my first paper is the authors of our textbook, Mass Communication Theory: Foundations, Ferment, and Future by Stanley J. Baran and
Dennis K. Davis said that Mass Society Theory does not hold up to scientific studies but it does resurface again and again during turbulent times. I will define Mass Society
Theory toward the beginning of the paper. This information is very interesting to me because I can think of many times in my life that I have behaved as though I believe in it even though I was not familiar with the name of the theory. My parents also behaved as though they fully accepted it. I did an informal un-scientific poll while I was working this paper by asking people in my life if they think the media has a major influence on our society. Some said they believed the effects varied depending on how you react to it but all I talked to agreed it had some influence and some thought it was a major influence. In the class I’m taking now we are not going to be doing our own data collecting, we are going to be using data already collected, but if data collecting and polls were part of this class I know some I’d like to do! I certainly know how to do online polls technically but I don’t have any training in how to do them scientifically (yet).

This paper was difficult to wrap up because I kept finding more and more fascinating pieces of information and I couldn’t fit them all in because it would take me off topic and make the paper too long for the assignment. After the paper, I’m including links to some of the interesting tidbits I found but did not use at this time in case you want to do some more reading. Some of these sources or ideas might be things I come back to in the future but either way they are interesting and I think anyone who enjoys the topic enough to keep reading after my paper might find them useful.

DISCLAIMER: The following is graduate student work. I’m uploading it after grading and corrections from the Professor. He had three formatting/citation changes he wanted me to do but the content was not changed before uploading. One of the main objectives of this class is to learn how to write at the graduate level in an academic style. I made a couple of minor formatting changes for online viewing, the printed version attempts to conform to MLA style. Comments on any of my blog posts are encouraged at any time and if you have any critiques that would help me write better I especially would welcome those.

Mass Society Theory Still Influences Media Use in the Contemporary United States

When mass communication products and ready audiences were first brought together by industrialization in the Western world, the changes that occurred were examined by social theorists of the day. Some were optimistic about the potential for information to improve the human condition while others warned of resulting unrest and moral degeneracy. Many believed that people at the lower end of the socio-economic spectrum were particularly vulnerable to manipulation by the popular media of the day, which included advertising and sensational journalism (Baran and Davis 20-21).

As the halfway point of the 20th Century approached, some researchers attempted to test mass society theory using scientific methods. Many of these researchers concluded that the data did not support mass society theory media after all. Their interpretation came to be known as limited-effects theory (Baran and Davis 22).

Postpositivist researchers, that is researchers who use scientific methods to gather data, left mass society theory behind as the century progressed in favor of newer media theories or other research fields entirely (Baran and Davis 14, 23). In addition, mass society theories lost favor in academic circles because they were associated with the Red Scare of the 1950s headed by Senator Joseph McCarthy in his attempt to prevent Americans from being influenced by Communist ideas (Baran and Davis 22).

Baran and Davis believe that mass society theory is not valid but acknowledge that it keeps popping up again and again as technology and society go through unsettling changes (Baran and Davis 20). Are there examples we can see in the recent history of the United States that show that many mass media consumers and creators still accept mass society theory as credible?

Baran and Davis compared the early 21st century to the late 19th century as times when new technologies spurred the creation of new media institutions (Baran and Davis 27). The technological revolution brought about by rapid adoption of the World Wide Web in the 1990s and the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 occurred close together in history. Either of these injections of instability would by themselves be presumed by Baran and Davis to bring about the re-examination of media theories (Baran and Davis xvi).

A 2002 article by Robin R. Means Coleman, “Prospects for Locating Racial Democracy in Media: The NAACP Network Television Boycott” illustrates at that time some media users still accepted mass society theory enough to take some kind of action against the “old media” while others were examining how the “new media” might be more effective. Included in the article is an account of the early 2000s NAACP boycott of major television networks motivated partially on the grounds that under-representative or negative portrayals of African Americans in entertainment have a detrimental effect on the real-life conditions of African Americans (Coleman 25). The author includes quotes from members of the public obtained from a 2001 poll on the NAACP web site about whether such a boycott is worthwhile. Three individuals quoted are skeptical about whether it makes any difference while another is supportive but wants to explore ways to make the effort more effective (Coleman 26-27). It’s not stated whether skepticism is the dominant opinion in the totality of the public’s responses that were not highlighted. As the author points out in the footnotes, the comments were not obtained under controlled conditions (Coleman 30).

Does the NAACP still consider portrayals of African Americans in mass entertainment as significant? The NAACP current web site contains eight categories of issues of current interest. Media Diversity is one of the categories. On the Media Diversity page, the NAACP reminds readers that the organization has been fighting racial stereotypes since the notorious 1915 film “Birth of a Nation” (Media Diversity). In 1915 the mass society theory would have been the dominant theory as the limited-effects trend in mass communication theory did not start to take hold until the late 1930s (Baran and Davis 20-21). The mass society theory still seems to have some traction with the NAACP in 2019 as they maintain a Hollywood Bureau which promotes economic opportunities for African Americans as well as encouraging and showcasing positive images (Media Diversity).

The NAACP is not alone. There are many other instances of behavior that indicate activist media users are working hard to combat what they see as the detrimental effects of mass communication. Elites who incline toward mass society theory but have diverse political views have the following in common – they believe they know better than the average person what ideas are ok for public consumption (Baran and Davis 21). According to the article “The Business of Boycotting: Having Your Chicken and Eating It Too”, boycotts can be used to coerce behavior by inflicting economic damage (Tomhave and Vopat 126). That is not the only motivation for boycotting. The aim behind some boycotts is to silence certain views (Tomhave and Vopat 125).

Searches for “right wing boycott list” and “left wing boycott list” on the search engine Bing performed on August 31, 2019 produced examples of lists of organizations that consumers are urged to boycott for political reasons.

Regardless of whether the proposed boycotts bring about the desired outcome, the advocacy of such boycotts in recent history demonstrates that mass society theory still has traction among a non-scientific sampling of activists.

The consumer side of information also appears to still give some credence to mass society theory. Most Americans report that they have encountered fake or made up news and have modified their own information consumption habits to compensate (Pew Research Center 3, 21). 50% believe false news and information is a bigger problem for the United States than violent crime, racism, illegal immigration, terrorism and sexism (Pew Research Center 11). Americans consistently rate themselves as better than most other Americans at detecting misinformation in several categories (Pew Research Center 25).

It appears as though mass society theories are still considered useful to some consumers and those attempting to influence the masses. According to Baran and Davis this condition is to be expected when society and technology are changing at a rapid pace (20).

Works Cited

Baran, Stanley J. and Dennis K. Davis. Mass Communication Theory: Foundations, Ferment, and Future. Seventh Edition. CENGAGE Learning, 2015.

Coleman, Robin R. Means. “Prospects for Locating Racial Democracy in Media: The NAACP Network Television Boycott.” Qualitative Research Reports in Communication, vol. 3, no. 2, Spring 2002, pp. 25-31. EBSCOhost, search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=a9h&AN=10512976&site=ehost-live. Accessed 31 August 2019.

“Media Diversity.” NAACP, 2019, www.naacp.org/issues/media-diversity/. Accessed 31 August 2019.

Official Boycott List For Conservatives, 2018, www.boycottleftwingers.com/. Accessed 31 August 2019.

Pew Research Center. “Many Americans Say Made-Up News Is a Critical Problem That Needs To Be Fixed”, 2019, www.journalism.org/wp-content/uploads/sites/8/2019/06/PJ_2019.06.05_Misinformation_FINAL-1.pdf. Accessed 31 August 2019.

Tomhave, Alan, and Mark Vopat. “The Business of Boycotting: Having Your Chicken and Eating It Too.” Journal of Business Ethics, vol. 152, no. 1, Sept. 2018, pp. 123-132. EBSCOhost, doi:10.1007/s10551-016-3336-y. Accessed 31 August 2019.

Warde, Samuel. “List of Companies Supporting Right-Wing Causes To Boycott.” Liberals Unite, 2016, samuel-warde.com/2016/05/list-companies-supporting-right-wing-causes/. Accessed 31 August 2019.

Unused interesting links: – food for thought, no promises made about objectivity or veracity.

Bad News – a game that lets you play media manipulator. Challenge your friends! Can’t wait to try this!!!!

Republicans fear prejudice on campus – an experiment was done to test the political climate at the University where I am studying. This article was published on the campus newspaper web site.

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Teaching Media Literacy: Its Importance and 10 Engaging Activities [+ Downloadable List]

The “Nasty Effect:” Online Incivility and Risk Perceptions of Emerging Technologies

Law & Liberty


Flash Cards: Baran and Davis, Chapter 1


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