I just turned this in as an assignment for my Social Engineering class. It has not been graded yet. Enjoy!
For the last several years, it has been alleged and believed by some that President Trump would not have been elected in 2016 if the Russians had not bought ads on Facebook on behalf of fake clients. Understandably these allegations caused a lot of Facebook users to reconsider whether or not they should continue to support Facebook. In order to safely use Facebook or any social media platform, it is important to develop skills to help determine the credibility and reputation of any individual or organization.
As a Facebook user of many years duration, to help me decide the truth of the 2016 election influence claims, I sought answers to the following questions.
Are there examples of who made the allegations?
Here are a couple. Donald Trump’s opponent Hilary Clinton, named Facebook as one of the causes of her loss and declared that CEO Mark Zuckerberg should “pay a price” (Cadwalladr). It’s interesting that Mark Elias, counsel for Hilary Clinton’s campaign, helped Facebook to avoid putting disclaimers on ads back in 2011 (O’Sullivan).
In October 2020, Senator Mark Warner (D., Va.) wrote to Jack Dorsey, the CEO of Twitter, to urge Twitter to allow political ads after Twitter had banned them (Warner), even though in 2018 he had criticized Facebook for selling ads to what he identified only as “Russians” (Crookston). He also criticized YouTube for allowing radicalizing content by “Chinese, Iranian and others”. In Warner’s 2020 letter, he decries “Russians” use of ads even as he tries to persuade Twitter to accept ads. Referring to 2016, the 2020 letter states: “Russia took advantage of our openness and communications technologies, including exploiting American-bred social media platforms to spread disinformation, divide the public, and undermine our democracy.”
Has anyone attempted to refute the allegations against Facebook?
Here is the opinion of Facebook executive Andrew Bosworth. “So was Facebook responsible for Donald Trump getting elected? I think the answer is yes, but not for the reasons anyone thinks. He didn’t get elected because of Russia or misinformation or Cambridge Analytica. He got elected because he ran the single best digital ad campaign I’ve ever seen from any advertiser. Period.” (“Lord of the Rings…”). This opinion by Bosworth and subsequent opinions I attribute to him are taken from text purported to be from an internal memo that was published on the New York Times web site. I accessed what claims to be this memo on the web site TechyLawyer because the NYT article is behind a paywall and the Webster University online library doesn’t have the article. Since I’ve seen quotes from this memo on other web sites that match the TechyLawyer site, unless I come across information that the content been misrepresented, I’m accepting for now that this is what the memo actually did say.
It was reported by the Washington Free Beacon in the context of the 2018 midterm elections, that Senator Mark Warner was of the opinion that while Facebook is a concern, YouTube and Google hosted far more misinformation than Facebook and were less transparent and less cooperative than Facebook was in trying to fight the trend (Crookston). There was a video accompanying this article, formerly hosted by YouTube, which has since been taken down, I don’t know by whom. The senator’s remarks were quoted on many other web sites that I looked at so barring information to the contrary I find the reporting credible.
Did Russians in fact buy ads?
Bosworth weighs in. “Russian Interference was real but it was mostly not done through advertising. Instead, the Russians worked to exploit existing divisions in the American public for example by hosting Black Lives Matter and Blue Lives Matter protest events in the same city on the same day” (“Lord of the Rings…”).
What is meant by “Russians”? Do they mean the Russian government, Russian citizens, Russian-Americans, who exactly?
NPR reported that 3,000 Facebook ads were purchased on behalf of a Russian agency (Folkenflik). NPR did not say what kind of agency. An ad agency? A spy agency? That was not made clear. CNN referred to the ad buyers in question as a “Russian troll farm” (O’Sullivan). I kept clicking links to see what the actual identity of the “Russian troll farm”/”agency” is and ultimately came up against the New York Times paywall.
The Baltimore Sun alleges that the ads were placed by a Kremlin-influenced agency but the article includes no citation or source for Kremlin involvement (Fritze). The Politico article names the agency in question as “Internet Research Agency” and says it is Kremlin-linked but attributes no source for this information other than unnamed members of the House Intelligence Panel and provides no quotes or links to help verify (Politico Staff). The Washington Post refers to them as “Russian Operatives” without clarifying what that means (Keating, et al).
What are some examples of the fake Facebook clients?
According to NPR, the Russian ads were turned over to Congress by Facebook (Folkenflik). Names of the alleged fake organizations that I was able to find include “Black Matters”, “Native Americans United”, “LGBT United”, “Being Patriotic”, “Army of Jesus”, “United Muslims of America”, “Secured Borders”, “BM (does this stand for Black Matters, Bowel Movement, or something else?)”, “Born Liberal”, “_american.made”, “Heart of Texas” and “american.veterans”.
What was the content of the fake ads?
I think it’s interesting that Bosworth claimed in his memo that this Russian agency bought ads pitting Black Lives Matter against Blue Lives matter, but NPR reported that Russia was trying to inflame divisions between Muslims and Black Lives Matter (Folkenflik). Is it the position of NPR that Blue Lives Matter and Muslims are allies? That is unclear. It was also disclosed in the article that there is a financial relationship between NPR and Facebook.
In order to see which candidate the ads seem to favor, and to see whether the Russians desired Blue Lives Matter vs Black Lives Matter, or Muslims vs Black Lives Matter, I tried to find out what the ad content was. Despite hearing about the Russians and their ads for years, I could not recall seeing any images of the alleged ads so I did an image search and found alleged samples published by The Baltimore Sun, Politico and the Washington Post.
Here is a survey of the messages in the ads I could find: Pro Black Lives Matter Pro Native American rights Pro Bernie Sanders Anti Hillary Clinton Anti Islamaphobia Pro secure borders Pro Blue Lives Matter Anti Black Lives Matter Anti Donald Trump Pro 2nd Amendment Pro Texas secession Pro military veterans
How much was spent on fake ads?
Facebook vice president Andrew Bosworth stated that “$100,000 in ads on Facebook can be a powerful tool but it can’t buy you an American election, especially when the candidates themselves are putting up several orders of magnitude more money on the same platform (not to mention other platforms) (“Lord of the Rings…”). I’ve heard the $100,000 figure quoted on many other web sites so for now I find the amount credible.
How does the amount of money spent by the Russian fake clients compare to real clients?
As of December 31, 2016, Hilary Clinton had raised 1.4 Billion and spent 98% of it, and Donald Trump had raised 957.6 million and had spent 99% of it (“Election 2016…”).
With the above questions answered to the best of my ability, how credible do I find the claims that Russian ads by fake clients determined the results of the 2016 election?
I find myself agreeing with Bosworth that $100,000 isn’t going to buy an election when the opponent has spent nearly 1.4 billion. There would be no need to spend nearly 1.4 billion if that was the case, they would have just spent $100,000. That sounds like a better deal to me!
If you only have $100,000 to spend on ads to try to win the U.S. Presidency, I think it’s reasonable to assume your message has to be better targeted than these examples in order to be effective.
I do find accusations credible that an ad agency in Russia created fake organizations for the purpose of running fake ads to run marketing tests, and I agree that the ads are examples of trolling. Trolling has been used in ads and ad tests before. I’ve done it. I wrote about my experiment and the Elizabeth Warren campaign running such a test on Facebook in an assignment for Media and Culture class in 2019 (Winkelmann).
The subject matter of the Russian ads is bizarre and inconsistent. Their overall effect seems more like it would be confusion rather than favoring any one party or issue. Actually, if I hadn’t researched these ads and just looked at them with no background, I would probably have assumed they were part of a Dadaist or Fluxus influenced performance art project. If these are indeed the same ads everyone has been talking about, I don’t think the controversy they generated is justified.
I have this Pinterest board to help me keep track of sources. I started it when I started this degree. I’m in favor of transparency so I want people who read my articles and papers to see what sources I collected, and what I used and didn’t use. That tells you something about a piece, what was selected for use out of what was available. And if you are interested I hope you read the sources too!
In my social engineering class, I’m studying Russian social media advertising more and might write about the topic more on this blog. This week we have been assigned to read these three papers among other material:
As I read and work on my assignments, I may or may not find that some of what I wrote above is incomplete. This is a complex topic and if I run across anything I think I need to add or change, I’ll do that and make a note of it. In the meantime, I recommend that everyone read the same three papers I’m reading so you have more background on the issues. Media reporting on this topic is very poor and very confusing and seems mostly designed to obfuscate what happened instead of attempting to help people understand. Your understanding is likely to improve after reading and like me you might have a lot more questions as well. Enjoy!
I turned in my final paper for Media Organization Regulations last night. It was already a lot longer than it needed to be for the assignment, but I would have kept writing more if I had more time, right or wrong!
I am not an attorney or law student. Edit 12-22-20 – I found and fixed a couple of typo-type errors in the Works Cited section.
After seeing my grade, I did ok on this paper but I didn’t do great. I want it to be great. My professor left me some comments about things she thinks I should have included. It is possible that I will publish a revised version of this paper incorporating the professor’s suggestions. When/if I do that I will have to double-check how to give proper credit for that sort of thing in an academic paper in the MLA format because I’m being trained in academic writing and academic integrity as I go as well as in course material. Before starting this degree in 2019 I hadn’t written an academic paper since 1993. What you will read below is unedited from when I submitted it except for two typos in the credits section. When/if I revise it further I’ll make that clear in the proper format.
At the end I have links to sources, and after that links to other posts on this blog that are on related topics in case you think the subject is interesting and want to read more. I’ll also link to the Pinterest board I use to help collect and organize sources I might use. Enjoy!
Carolyn Hasenfratz Winkelmann
Geri L. Dreiling, J.D.
MEDC 5350: Media Organization Regulations
20 December 2020
Can Laws Protect The Public From The Media?
Physical abuse of women in history has been mostly allowed to go on without consistent punishment until the 1990s. Hundreds of years of beliefs that abuse victims deserve it, that the perpetrators who are punished are the real victims, or that abuse victims must be lying will likely take generations to diffuse because they were validated by hundreds of years of attitudes as well as the lack of prohibitive laws. Another obstacle abuse victims have to face is a lack of enforcement even when there were applicable laws on the books (Bancroft 321).
In our culture, physical violence against domestic partners is slowly becoming less acceptable. It is not as common as it used to be for family members, neighbors, or bystanders to look the other way when they witness abuse. Some schools even teach children that they are entitled to safety from family members in their home instead of only strangers outside of it when they are teaching them how to call 911 for help (Bancroft 293).
Even though emotional and economic abuse can inflict severe harm, there are not as many legal preventive measures or remedies available for mental abuse as there are for physical violence (Bancroft 293). It is difficult to promote awareness of the seriousness of emotional abuse when physical abuse has only been taken seriously in very recent history (Bancroft 321).
Negligent infliction of emotional distress, or NIED, is a tort that can be used in a suit against someone who carelessly caused emotional harm to another person (Trager et al 184). A plaintiff hoping to win such a suit must be able to prove the following facts (Trager et al 184):
The defendant had a duty to use due care in interactions with the plaintiff.
The defendant acted negligently while failing to use due care.
The plaintiff has suffered injury.
The injury can be proven to be caused by the plaintiff’s negligent actions.
Attempts have been made to bring NIED lawsuits against the media as well as individual abusers, but they usually are not successful (Trager et al 185). It is difficult for the plaintiff to prove proximate cause, that is, a reasonable finding that the defendant’s actions were directly to blame for the plaintiff’s injury (Trager et al 184). It is theoretically much easier to prove that a media plaintiff was negligent because there are ample studies showing how media members should behave if they care about the public’s well-being, but negligence alone is not enough to win a suit (Trager et al 184-185).
If the behavior of the media defendant is so outrageous that “a civilized society” would consider it “intolerable and beyond all bounds of decency” then the potential tort might rise to the level of intentional infliction of emotional distress, or IIED (Trager et al 179). The plaintiff must still prove direct causation (Trager et al 179). In addition, if the plaintiff is a public figure, the defendant must be proven to have acted with actual malice, that is “publishing with knowledge of falsity or a reckless disregard for the truth” (Trager et al 181). Even actual malice is sometimes not actionable if the courts interpret the defendant’s actions as satire or parody, or if the subject of the offending speech is about a matter of “public concern” (Trager et al 184).
One reason the media has so much latitude is because the founders of our country considered a free press and freedom of speech to be so important that they specified those rights in the First Amendment (Baran and Davis 30). When members of the media are criticized for having harmful effects on our culture, they argue that they are not that influential, that they reflect society but don’t have the power to shape it. At the same time, the media tells advertisers they can give them a good return on their investment and if an organization is of any significant size, be it government, nonprofit, or business, they spend money and resources on maintaining a public relations department (Baran and Davis 30). A belief that media IS very influential is apparently coming from somewhere.
There has been disagreement among theorists, academics, government officials, media companies and the public about how legally free from restraint the media should be ever since there was such a thing as media (Baran and Davis 62-63). The idea of technocratic control was considered and debated in the United States but ultimately rejected, at least if it was framed as control by the government. Technocratic control is “direct regulation of the media” by technocrats, people considered to possess the correct values and skills to regulate media for the welfare of the public (Baran and Davis 62). One of the reasons government technocratic control was rejected in the United States in the 20th century was because there was no consensus on who was qualified to have that power (Baran and Davis 62-63). Regulations that applied in certain situations that passed First Amendment tests have been enacted over the years and are sometimes thrown out by the courts when re-tested. The limits are renegotiated constantly from both the direction of greater freedom and the direction of more control (Baran and Davis 63).
Part of my incentive in choosing in this paper to examine parallels between domestic abusers and media abusers is the observation that both groups have the characteristic of constantly testing limits, like predators looking for weaknesses and loopholes to see what their targets and society will let them get away with. Awareness and legislation often lag behind the latest technological developments and technocracy strategies. Another reason is that abusers and media utilize many of the same manipulative techniques. Does the media share some of the same motivations as domestic abusers? Neither group can be trusted to be forthcoming about their intentions because of course they are more effective when their tactics are opaque – one can only judge by observing patterns of behavior.
There is another parallel between domestic abuse and media behavior that could be examined from a regulatory perspective. In considering the pattern of legal intervention in abuse, physical harm was an obvious effect of abuse to be considered worthy of attention by the law. When consumer products began to be subject to regulation in the United States, the danger of physical harm to the public was also an issue addressed early on.
Consumer protection laws began to be enacted in some US states as early as the mid-1800s to protect the public from adulterated food and drugs (Pride and Ferrell 78). The federal Food and Drug Administration (FDA) was created to assume responsibility, formerly handled by the Department of Agriculture, for testing agricultural products (“The History of FDA’s…”). The 1906 Pure Food and Drugs Act was a continuation this public safety work as the regulatory body evolved into what we know as the FDA by the 1930s (“The History of FDA’s…”). There was a further push for increased legislation designed to reduce physical harm from products, their advertising, and labeling in the 1960s and 1970s (Pride and Ferrell 78). Today there are several additional federal agencies created to help protect consumers. Some of the major ones are the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC), the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) (Pride and Ferrell 80).
Ideas are also products – they can be sold using a lot of the same strategies as tangible goods. By the 1930s, the notion of regulating harmful ideas was part of the discussion and remains so to the present day (Baran and Davis 68). An influential compendium of the state of scholarship on media effects, The Effects of Mass Communications, was published by Joseph Klapper in 1960. Klapper’s opinion was that media was more of a reinforcer than a dictator of current culture because there were mitigating social institutions in peoples’ lives such as churches, families and schools (Baran and Davis 114). If media actors with self-serving and destructive intentions wanted a strategy for how to break down society to bend more people to their will, it was made readily available to them, however unintentionally, by Klapper and other theorists.
Consumer protection laws of a sort directed at media and advertising do currently exist under the auspices of agencies like the FTC and the FCC. Normally these laws don’t deal much with physical harm unless the issues are safety related. Physical injury is however sometimes considered as part of the negligent infliction of emotional distress tort in some states. It is acknowledged in some jurisdictions that physical assault can cause emotional distress, and severe emotional distress can cause harmful physical symptoms and disease (Trager et al 185). If the link between the media and emotional abuse is better studied and acknowledged, and the link between emotional distress and physical disease is likewise given due consideration, a pathway to further regulation of media to protect consumers might be blazed through studies of the physical sufferings of those harmed when media abuse goes too far.
The FCC is permitted to regulate broadcast media to an extent because the airwaves are considered the property of the people. Broadcast stations are thought to have a responsibility to the public due to the people’s ownership of the airwaves (Trager et al 402-403). It is less clear who, if anyone, “owns” the internet, but it was originally partially developed by US taxpayer-supported institutions (Press). As of 2015 the amount of foreign ownership of US communications companies was capped at 25% with the then-current FCC commissioner proposing to raise the cap on foreign investment or eliminating it entirely (Traeger et al 404). The policy that foreign companies would be allowed to own anything that US citizens own or paid to develop is something the FCC could reconsider by following their normal procedures for a change of policy (Traeger et al 401). Any corporation, association or individual affected by FCC regulations has the legal right to a challenge in Federal appellate court (Traeger et al 402). Foreign exploitation via international internet scams is rampant all over the world but we still allow access to our citizens by criminals from foreign countries who don’t participate in international anti-fraud measures (“Report international scams…”). Economic exploitation tips the power balance in the abuser’s favor (Bancroft 156).
Tactics Employed by Domestic Abusers
Here are some of the techniques that abusers use to gain control over their victims (Bancroft 74, 145-146, 213-214, Dwyer 55-56).
Ridicule, name calling, insults, put-downs, and sarcasm
Distorting what was said
Accusing you of doing what they do, or thinking the way they think (projection)
Using a tone of absolute certainty and final authority – “defining reality”
Turning your grievances around to use against you
Criticism that is harsh, undeserved, or frequent
Provoking inappropriate guilt
Playing the victim
Threatening to harm you
Discrediting, spreading rumors
Getting other people to put pressure on you
Spreading confidential information (doxxing)
Presenting one face in public and another in private to gain credibility and trust
Using events from the past or situations that can’t be changed as a reason a person should accept poor treatment
Separating the target from sources of support
It is not easy sometimes for us to imagine that our entertainment providers would knowingly set out to abuse us, the consumers. People often feel warm emotions toward celebrities and providers of entertainment. A paper by Eduard Sioe-Hao Tan suggests why that might be the case (Tan 45). “A lay person’s understanding of what it means to entertain somebody involves being amusing or giving pleasure, activities associated with being a good host to a guest.” The entertainer may be considered responsible for voluntarily rendering a personal service to the viewer (Tan 45).
One trap that is easy for consumers to fall into is to forget that we are not really the ultimate customers for most entertainment products – the advertisers and sponsors are. We may be the audience, but we are not the customer. When considered in that light, it is a little more understandable why entertainment and media companies would be willing to actively abuse us, or at least not care if we become collateral damage.
In an article for Psychology Today, Dr. Jim Taylor proposed that what we now call “popular culture” is no longer a reflection of the genuine culture of the people, but an artificial, media-cultivated corporate culture that he names “synth culture” (Taylor “Popular Culture…”). Cultivation Analysis is the theory that the media present a view that does not necessarily reflect reality, but because people believe it does, reality changes to conform to the media (Baran and Davis 287). As early as the 1950’s, architects were creating buildings and landscapes to conform to movie and television versions of reality. The cultural landscape known as Disneyland, for example, was the product of a media corporation and was not merely appealing to existing media-cultivated tastes but actively implanting them (Hine 150-152).
If the culture we have is not based on the genuine culture of the people but is deliberately planted there by the media, I postulate that if we don’t already have it, we will end up with a government that is no longer “of the people, by the people, and for the people,” but is of the self-appointed media technocracy whose primary interest is in exploiting us (Taylor “Popular Culture…”). It’s obvious which political direction the technocracy wants us to go. If we ask why, the large media corporations have the power to remove questions from public debate through moderating content and banning users with certain views even though they claim immunity under Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act (“Does Section 230’s…”).
The Rewards of Being Abusive
Above I have listed some of abuser’s techniques – now I’ll provide some of the possible incentives that motivate people to abuse other people. Abusers enjoy the following advantages and privileges in life (Bancroft 43, 152, 153-158):
Abuse victims change their behavior and work to bolster the abuser’s self-esteem to win approval or tolerance.
Abusers gain the freedom to behave as they desire without restraint while getting lots of attention.
After being catered to, they get praise for being a great person and improve their public image when they act decent.
The comforts, privileges, and financial advantages of being catered to are too attractive to give up.
The thrill of having power is a seductive feeling.
The abuser can pick and choose low-stakes situations to act altruistic so that they can cultivate a positive image without making any actual sacrifices.
Abusing others can give the abuser temporary relief of frustration at life’s annoyances.
Others can be coerced into performing unwanted tasks or giving up resources, resulting in better quality of life or gratification for the abuser.
When people are deprived of financial resources or financial autonomy, they are much easier to control.
The abuser’s goals are prioritized while others are diminished. The abuser escapes consequences while others who would dare to engage in the same behavior are held accountable.
The abuser receives peer approval from the surrounding culture.
Disunity among a group gives the abuser more power by directing attention into fighting among themselves rather than holding the abuser accountable.
Abuse Examples and Comparisons
Here are a few examples of how members of the media have used abuse techniques to advance their agenda while disregarding the harm to individuals and society.
Abuse Example 1
Abuse benefits: Abuse victims change their behavior and bolster the abuser’s self-esteem to win approval or tolerance. Others can be coerced into performing unwanted tasks or giving up resources, resulting in better quality of life or gratification for the abuser. Financial resources are often something abusers work on transferring from their targets to themselves (Bancroft 155-156).
Abuse tactic: Using a tone of absolute certainty and final authority – “defining reality”.
Media example: The highest status people in our culture tend to be doctors, lawyers, professors, executives, politicians, sports figures and entertainers (Dwyer 19). Some of these people are at least well-educated, but many have no more knowledge or ability about most issues than we do. When people are catered to as though they are of a higher status than the common person, they often feel entitled to treat us as inferior and expect us to defer to their authority (Dwyer 19).
News content producers can be an example of media using their sense of entitlement and branding skills to claim authority they have not really earned. Before the 1970s, news programs were offered as a public service and run at a loss to the station in exchange for the right to use bandwidth on the limited public airwaves. Released from that obligation, many news programs still claim the image of public service while earning large profits by featuring “sensational, sentimental or dramatic” stories that will attract mass audiences for their advertisers (Silverblatt et al 119). In return for their airwaves generating profits for media companies, the public gains at best only low-quality entertainment disguised as news, and possibly manipulation, abuse and ill health.
Some prominent social media companies have recently declared themselves to be authorities on objective truth, supposedly in the service of their users, who they see as not as qualified to judge as their own self-declared technocracy. They employ “fact checkers” to distinguish between beneficial and harmful content. A couple of the areas they recently claim special authority on are Constitutional law and medicine (Lucas, “Does Section 230’s…”). When a technocracy was originally considered for the United States in the 20th century, sufficiently wise people, such as social scientists, religious leaders, the military, the police, Congress and the FTC were considered as members (Baran and Davis 62-63). Investigative journalists have been trying to investigate today’s new technocracy. In documenting the harsh working conditions of Facebook content moderators, journalist Casey Newton found that most of Facebook’s content moderators are employees of outside contractors. At one facility in Phoenix, content moderators are paid $28,800 per year as compared to the average Facebook employee compensation of $240,000 (Newton). Facebook periodically audits the contract workers for accuracy, with accuracy defined as what Facebook decides it is. It is unclear what the educational qualifications are to be a contracted content moderator or a Facebook employed auditor (Newton).
Abuse Example 2:
Abuse benefit: The abuser receives peer approval from the surrounding culture.
Abuse tactic: Provoking inappropriate guilt.
Media example: Netflix aired a documentary showing walruses falling to their deaths from a cliff, claiming the deaths were caused by climate change. In actuality, the falling walruses were chased by polar bears, and possibly were even frightened by the film crew’s disturbing presence in the area and noisy equipment (Foster). Netflix gained the benefit of appearing to be socially responsible while directing attention away from their own possible culpability. As professor of space architecture and author Larry Bell commented in Forbes, phenomena that we used to be taught were natural, such as earthquakes, “hurricanes, droughts, floods, blizzard cold weather conditions and such” are now our fault and we are pressured to feel guilty (Bell).
Many celebrities have shared mis-identified fire photos on social media, claiming they are current and from the Amazon rain forest, when they were sometimes not current and taken somewhere else (Richardson). Perhaps they feel less guilty about their lifestyles for spreading these often unverified messages, while at the same time enjoying social approval from their peers without having to actually sacrifice anything. One of the privileges abusers regularly enjoy is to feel better while others around them feel worse (Bancroft 31).
What is the cost to mental health of this constant bombardment of what some affix the label “tragedy porn”? Therapy for eco-anxiety is a prominent field of mental health with over 120 practitioners known as far back as 2008 (Bell). Sufferers of eco-anxiety have reported shoulder pain, fibromyalgia, fatigue, overeating, bulimia, depression and alcoholism (Bell). 96% of respondents of one study on relatively affluent Americans claimed that eco-anxiety changed their ideas about having children, 6% even going so far as to regret the ones they already have (Carrington). What is it like for a child to grow up as a regret? In one case a seven-month old baby is going to have to find out what it’s like to live through a gunshot wound in the chest as the only survivor of an Argentinian family killed in a murder-suicide pact apparently precipitated by eco-anxiety (Sacks).
Children and adults alike have been taunted with threats that important cultural traditions like Thanksgiving and Christmas will be ruined or cancelled because of climate change (Watts). This could be interpreted as doubling down on the effort to induce poor mental health in viewers because religion is one of the well-known weapons against depression, anxiety, substance use disorder, suicidal behavior and poor physical health (Whitley). Thanksgiving is a secular holiday, not a religious one, but gratitude is something both atheists and theists alike can embrace. However, too much gratitude is not good for the advertising business. If people get too satisfied with what they already have, they won’t buy as many new things. The idea that products should constantly be updated in appearance to make old versions obsolete or deliberately made not to last very long became mainstream by the middle of the 20th century in the United States (Hine 66). The media likes to encourage us to buy unnecessary products while at the same time promoting guilt in us because excess consumption is bad for the environment. That behavior results in a triple win for the media/entertainment industry and their advertising clients – they sell more products, appear to be socially responsible for infiltrating our entertainment with guilt messages, and evade accountability for their own environmental misdeeds.
Abuse Example 3:
Abuse benefit: The abuser’s goals are prioritized while others are diminished. The abuser escapes consequences while others who would dare to engage in the same behavior are held accountable.
Abuse tactics: Getting other people to pressure you, discrediting, spreading rumors, ridicule, name calling, insults, put-downs and sarcasm.
Media example: Because they claim immunity under Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, social media corporations such as Facebook and Twitter maintain they are not liable for the actions of their users (“Does Section 230’s…”). At the same time, they can allow content they approve of and ban content they don’t approve of, boost content they favor and restrict content they disfavor, and promote or suppress users in an equivalent manner. In that way they can discredit, spread rumors, bully, harass or otherwise pressure whoever they choose by selectively enforcing speech, while avoiding proposed regulation of this privilege by manipulating public opinion to vote for whoever is unlikely to impose regulations that would reduce their technocratic control (“Does Section 230’s…”).
Sophisticated advertisers know what anxieties, fears and insecurities their target audiences are prone to, and they know how to trigger them at will and then offer products and ideas as solutions to the uncomfortable feelings that result (Silverblatt et al 291). Facebook ran a test in 2012 to see if they could go beyond mere curation and actually prompt the type of content users post on their platform by manipulating people’s moods (Meyer). They succeeded, and if there was ever any doubt, everyone now knows that they have the power to recruit their users into unconsciously propagating the media’s agendas and those of their advertisers. Fear and anxiety have been known to be aids to selling products for a long time (Packard 48, 58-59, 221-223). When Vance Packard published his book The Hidden Persuaders in 1957, the techniques advertisers studied to appeal to our fears and anxieties were still new to the public (Hine 28). Even though the methods are no longer new, they still work as the Facebook experiment demonstrates (Meyer). There are a number of possible health related side effects resulting from induced fear and anxiety, including fevers, vomiting, impotence, diarrhea, increased heart rate, fatigue, nausea, sleep problems, reduced ability to fight infections, heart disease, inflammation, irritable bowel syndrome, substance abuse, social dysfunction and suicidal thoughts (Dyer 33, 197-198, Leonard).
Even with the available legal remedies, there is a limited amount that can be done for a victim of physical or mental abuse unless they decide to stop accepting the abuse and take action to use what help is available to assist in freeing themselves. Many of the harmful mental and physical effects of media can be overcome if individuals make the decision to reclaim their agency and follow up with suitable action. Abused individuals and abused media viewers are groomed in a similar manner with deceptive seductive techniques that hide the true intent of the abuser. Abuse and grooming gradually break down the resistance and health of the target to make the target less able to fight and break free from bondage.
Dangerous and addictive products that are regulated as “vice” products perhaps provide a precedent for the legal system and government agencies to regulate abusive media in a similar manner. “Vice” products are related to activities that are not considered healthy or moral and whose use is controlled to some extent by age-related or other restrictions (Trager 547). Categories of “vice” products currently include alcohol, tobacco, hookahs, e-cigarettes, drugs, gambling, sexually explicit material, firearms and marijuana (Trager 547, 550). In the past some of the methods of combating the harm caused by the misuse of these products has taken the form of public service messages and warning labels. The battle lines which government agencies and commercial interests navigate as they both attempt to advance their opposing goals is constantly in flux, with states and local jurisdictions having a lot of leeway to tighten or loosen regulations on vice products (Trager et al 542-555). If the media is going to intentionally or negligently affect our health, I think a case can be made for providing media literacy information content on their channels in lieu of labeling on media products in exchange for the benefits their corporate owners enjoy at the public’s expense.
Some forms of media regulation have been allowed by Federal government agencies and the courts in the past to promote the ability of citizens to make informed choices about their health, welfare and the consumption of products and ideas. Here are a few examples of past attempts by the FCC.
From 1949-1989 the Fairness Doctrine required broadcast stations to provide programming that presented diverse views on controversial topics of public importance (Trager et al 408).
The personal attack rule required broadcasters to provide a rebuttal forum for the subjects of an-air attacks on their “integrity, honesty, or character”. Because the personal attack rule did not apply to public officials, it had limited power to limit one-sided attacks. Even that protection for private individuals was eliminated in 2000 (Trager et al 409).
Under the political editorial rule, private broadcasters were required to allow legally qualified candidates for public office rebuttal time in response to editorials aired either against the candidate or in favor of a rival. The political editorial rule also ended in 2000 (Trager et al 409). Public broadcasters are not allowed to endorse a candidate but can editorialize on public issues (Trager et al 409), some of which could affect the livelihoods of those who work for public broadcasters and in that case could be one-sided and self-serving. The taxpayers who fund a portion of public broadcasting involuntarily are afforded no opportunity to rebut (Trager et al 417).
Net neutrality was the requirement for internet service providers to treat all internet traffic equally and not set up paid priority service for preferred content (Traeger et al 423). Net neutrality was repealed in 2018 (Morton). Some states have started to create their own net neutrality legislation since it no longer exists at the Federal level (Morton).
There was a time when the four above regulations were considered acceptable under the First Amendment. The First Amendment has not yet changed – not the text of it anyway. I suggest that as a country we consider bringing some regulations back, as they are possible hedges against the technocracy gaining further power over us and increasing their ability to abuse.
Bancroft, Lundy. Why Does He Do That? Inside The Minds of Angry and Controlling Men. Berkeley Books. 2002.
Baran, Stanley J. and Dennis K. Davis. Mass Communication Theory: Foundations, Ferment, and Future. Seventh Edition. CENGAGE Learning, 2015.
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.
The first part of this post is a homework assignment for Strategic Communications Applications class in which I summarize the barriers to government and citizen communication as stated in our textbook, “Cutlip & Center’s Effective Public Relations”. The second section is my own commentary which includes a lot of my opinion, speculation, and things I’d like the opportunity to delve into further to either prove or disprove. What do you think? Is your government a help to your life, a deadweight on your progress, or a mixture of both?
In our textbook are listed many challenges to successful two-way communication between citizens and government (Broom and Sha 356-366).
1. The government is large and complex with many bureaucratic layers that are difficult and time consuming to navigate.
2. Citizens expectations of what services government should provide keep expanding.
3. There is suspicion about the ethics of the entire profession of public relations and the governments that employ them.
4. Actual incidents of government misinformation have occurred, intentional or just not thorough enough, interpreted as lies or spin, such as in the Iraq war buildup.
5. There is a lot of citizen apathy.
6. There is often hostility of legislators to the public relations profession for budget and other reasons, sometimes causing practitioners to choose other areas of expertise.
7. A lack of journalists to cover government activity thoroughly.
8. When it comes to distributing information, government and media often have different agendas.
9. The job of informing the public is too large for anyone to do well.
10. Unlike a business with a more limited scope, a government has to attempt to please everyone rather than cater to one public in particular.
Broom, Glen M. and Bey-Ling Sha. Effective Public Relations. Pearson, 2013.
My Further Commentary
Here are some factors I’ve considered that the book did not mention, based partly on my own opinion, perceptions and experiences. I’ll put in any links and citations I can find as I go, exploring ideas that I can bolster with other sources.
A. Some members of government agencies represent their departments poorly and abuse their power over citizens, building mistrust. This apparently is what happened to my husband and I when we started putting in a rain garden to help cope with excess storm water. I documented all that in these two blog posts of mine and my final project for this course, Strategic Communications Applications, will partly be an attempt to analyze and find motivation for these actions against us.
B. News media is no longer the watchdog over government that it once was, due to more activist news coverage (Broom and Sha 365), or was perceived to have been. There is more than one reason for this in my opinion.
1. Because traditional “old media” institutions are losing revenue to other channels, they are concentrating more on their social media channels. News on social media tends to be less informative, more opinion based, less accurate, and posted by journalists who are less constrained by ethics or standards than in the past (“The Impact of…”). Much content is only created to get views and clicks in order to sell ads and does not need to have much substance or even be true in order to meet the goals of the media organizations who publish it (Johnstone).
2. Investigative journalism about government takes a lot of time and money to produce, and available money and staff are more limited (Grieco). Journalists can get stories with less time and effort by just repeating statements from sources without confirming or investigating (Johnstone).
“Journalists wanted information to be easily available, yet resented the men and women who made it available. By the mid twentieth century, journalists were dependent on PR practitioners for a large percentage of the stories appearing in newspapers. But admitting their dependence would shatter cherished ideals. Journalists were proud of their ability to uncover stories, verify details, and expose sham. Thus, they were unlikely to admit their dependence, lack of skepticism, failure to verify, and failure to expose every sham.” – Delorme and Fedler, 2003. (Broom and Sha, 226)
3. The attention span of the average person in our country is going down and there is less demand for in-depth stories with enough information to truly be informed (Lords).
4. Issues related to the size and function of government are politicized. The personal philosophy of journalists and companies that employ them is more likely to follow their political interests rather than the well-being of citizens than in the past (“The Impact of…”).
5. The media has less and less credibility with citizens because of selective reporting, staging and manipulating events in order to have a story that they want to be able to report, un-named sources that may or may not even exist and outright fabrication (“The Impact of…”, Johnstone). There are bi-partisan examples of this to be found. I’ll post one example each from two different political sides here for examination.
The Pew Research Center measures the public’s attitudes toward both media and government and finds that news coverage about government is evaluated and consumed very differently according to political affiliation (Jurkowitz, et al).
6. Many media institutions and personalities engage in “gaslighting”, similar to what is often done to the victim in abusive domestic relationships. Media, both entertainment and what is presented as “news” is permeated with attempts to make a lot of people who have done nothing wrong and have accurate and reasonable perceptions of reality to feel ridiculed and ostracized (Battaglio). If this is continued, the “Spiral of Silence” theory posits that certain ideas disappear from public discourse over time (Baran and Davis 268). Our form of government is based on the premise that people should be free to discuss issues in order to make the most rational choice, but there are many forces trying to restrict certain information from being discussed in public (Bufkin, Farrah, Gordon, OyperG, Poulakidakos, Sherr).
For example in 2013 I was literally holding in my hand a letter from my insurance company saying that my insurance was cancelled when an “entertainment” podcast I was listening to was ridiculing people who claimed that their insurance was cancelled, claiming we were liars trying to fool people. This was a podcast that I had a paid subscription to. I sent a scan of my rejection letter to the podcast host along with a cancellation of my subscription to the podcast. The host’s response was to call me stupid and say I was making it up. That’s an example of gaslighting and DARVO, Deny Attack Reverse Victim Offender, a tactic that abusive domestic partners and other abusers use to keep their victims under coercive control (Harsey, Zurbriggen and Freyd, 644). While the majority of media outlets were trying to deny that there were cancellations happening, a web site with Twitter account was set up for people to send pictures of their cancellation letters for publication (Fennell). Twitter shut that account down, then reinstated it later after public outrage (Fennell). Since I did see my letter on that web site and Twitter account and it was unaltered from what I sent them, I judged the things they were posting to be credible unless I was presented with information indicating otherwise. So even in a society where there is supposed to be freedom of speech and the government has limited ability to censor if the constitution is followed, corporations can take political stances and if they don’t want certain things known they can do a lot to censor information that isn’t in their interests (OyperG, Fennell, Bufkin). If we rely for information on a corporation that is in the business of news or providing a communication platform, we can’t assume without investigating that we are getting true or complete information about any issue. While media corporations sometimes have an agenda that is in opposition to a government (Broom and Sha 365), at other times they can be complicit (Woodruff). Citizens must investigate for themselves to try to determine the truth to the best of their ability, and many do not have the time or interest and so remain poorly informed (Broom and Sha 356-366, Poulakidakos 373).
TO BE CONTINUED…
Baran, Stanley J. and Dennis K. Davis. Mass Communication Theory: Foundations, Ferment, and Future. Seventh Edition. CENGAGE Learning, 2015.
Battaglio, Stephen, “Hallmark Channel isn’t winning Emmys, but red states love it.” Los Angeles Times, 2017, https://www.latimes.com/business/hollywood/la-fi-ct-hallmark-red-state-20170914-story.html. Accessed 12 November 2019.
Broom, Glen M. and Bey-Ling Sha. Effective Public Relations. Pearson, 2013.
Bufkin, Ellie, “Twitter Users Appalled by Bias and Censorship Plan Boycott.” Townhall.com/Salem Media, 2020, https://townhall.com/tipsheet/elliebufkin/2020/06/24/conservatives-appalled-by-bias-and-censorship-plan-twitter-boycott-n2571231. Accessed 12 October 2020.
Farrah, Kristen. “Republicans fear prejudice on campus.” Webster Journal, 2019, websterjournal.com/…/republicans-fear-prejudice-on…/. Accessed 4 October 2019.
Fennell, “Twitter Suspends (Then Reinstates) Account Critical of Obamacare.” IndustryDive, 2013, www.socialmediatoday.com/content/twitter-suspends-then-reinstates-account-critical-obamacare. Accessed 12 October 2020.
Gearhart, Sherice, and Weiwu Zhang. “Same Spiral, Different Day? Testing the Spiral of Silence across Issue Types.” Communication Research, vol. 45, no. 1, Feb. 2018, pp. 34-54. EBSCOhost, doi:10.1177/0093650215616456. Accessed 2 October 2019.
Gordon, Sherri. “How to Handle Political Bullying on Facebook.” Dotdash, 2019, www.verywellmind.com/how-to-handle-political-bullying…. Accessed 4 October 2019.
Grieco, Elizabeth. “U.S. newspapers have shed half of their newsroom employees since 2008.” Pew Research Center, 2020, www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2020/04/20/u-s-newsroom-employment-has-dropped-by-a-quarter-since-2008/. Accessed 11 October 2020.
Hasenfratz, Carolyn. “MSD’s Project Clear and Our Local Water Issues.” Schnarr’s Hardware Company, 2017, schnarrsblog.com/msds-project-clear-and-our-local-water-issues/. Accessed 15 October 2019.
Johnstone, Caitlin. “‘Confirmed’ Is a Meaningless Word In MSM News Reporting.” Consortiumnews, 2020, consortiumnews.com/2020/09/27/confirmed-is-a-meaningless-word-in-msm-news-reporting/. Accessed 11 October 2020.
Jurkowitz, Mark et al. “U.S. Media Polarization and the 2020 Election: A Nation Divided.” Pew Research Center, 2020, www.journalism.org/2020/01/24/u-s-media-polarization-and-the-2020-election-a-nation-divided/. Accessed 11 October 2020.
Kim, Mihee. “Facebook’s Spiral of Silence and Participation: The Role of Political Expression on Facebook and Partisan Strength in Political Participation.” CyberPsychology, Behavior & Social Networking, vol. 19, no. 12, Dec. 2016, pp. 696-702. EBSCOhost, doi:10.1089/cyber.2016.0137. Accessed 2 October 2019.
Lords, Shannon, “As Attention Spans Get Shorter, Content Gets Even Shorter – What Would Ken Burns Do?” Advertising Week, 2020, https://www.advertisingweek360.com/attention-spans-get-shorter-content-gets-shorter-ken-burns/. Accessed 10 October 2020.
Madrigal, Alexis C. “What Facebook Did to American Democracy And why it was so hard to see it coming.” The Atlantic, 2017, www.theatlantic.com/…/2017/10/what-facebook-did/542502/. Accessed 4 October 2019.
OyperG, “NBC Goes Mask Off – Reveals Twitter Censorship Methods After Devastating Hack.” Bitcoin Warrior, 2020, bitcoinwarrior.net/2020/07/nbc-goes-mask-off-reveals-twitter-censorship-methods-after-devastating-hack/. Accessed 9 October 2020.
Poulakidakos, Stamatis, et al. “Post-Truth, Propaganda and the Transformation of the Spiral of Silence.” International Journal of Media & Cultural Politics, vol. 14, no. 3, Sept. 2018, pp. 367-382. EBSCOhost, doi:10.1386/macp.14.3.367_1. Accessed 2 October 2019.
Sarah J. Harsey, Eileen L. Zurbriggen & Jennifer J. Freyd (2017) Perpetrator Responses to Victim Confrontation: DARVO and Victim Self-Blame, Journal of Aggression, Maltreatment & Trauma, 26:6, 644-663, DOI: 10.1080/10926771.2017.1320777. Accessed 12 October 2020.
Sherr, Ian. “How Facebook censors your posts (FAQ).” CNET, 2016, www.cnet.com/news/how-zuckerberg-facebook-censors-korryn-gaines-philando-castile-dallas-police-your-posts-faq/. Accessed 9 October 2020.
Silverblatt, Art et al. Media Literacy: Keys to Interpreting Media Messages. Fourth Edition. Praeger, 2014.
Swift, Art. “Americans’ Trust in Mass Media Sinks to New Low.” Gallup, Inc. 2016, https://news.gallup.com/poll/195542/americans-trust-mass-media-sinks-new-low.aspx. Accessed 24 September 2019.
“Taliban Denies CBS Claim of Endorsing Trump Reelection.” Tasnim News Agency, 2020, www.tasnimnews.com/en/news/2020/10/11/2367327/taliban-denies-cbs-claim-of-endorsing-trump-reelection. Accessed 11 October 2020.
“The Impact Of Social Media On News and Journalism.” New York Film Academy, 2014, www.nyfa.edu/student-resources/social-media-in-journalism/. Accessed 10 October 2020.
Winkelmann, Carolyn Hasenfratz. “Drainage Problems Are Bringing Tom and Me To Court.” Carolyn Hasenfratz Design, 2019, www.chasenfratz.com/wp/drainage-problems-are-bringing-tom-and-i-to-court/. Accessed 15 October 2019.
Woodruff, Betsy. “Democrat Rep: Insurance Cancellation Letters Should Have Just Said Things Are Getting Better.” National Review, 2013, www.nationalreview.com/corner/democrat-rep-insurance-cancellation-letters-should-have-just-said-things-are-getting/. Accessed 9 October 2020.
I also put some resources I’ve collected as I work on my degree on this Pinterest board: