“As human beings, we have a visceral reaction to audio and video. We believe they’re true, on the notion that of course you can believe what your eyes and ears are telling you. And it’s that mechanism that might undermine our shared sense of reality.”
– Daniele Citron July, 2019, “How deepfakes undermine truth and threaten democracy”
In this chapter, we examine the issues which surround free speech in SM. On one side of the issue, free speech enables anyone to broadcast their hateful speech, disinformation, and deepfake videos with impunity, with total detachment from the victims’ experiences. And victims have nearly no recourse.
On the other side of the issue, communicating anonymously has served as a channel for dissent and organizing under conditions where, if the author were known, they would be at-risk of harm or persecution. In fact, a collection of American dissent-driven “Alt Gov” Twitter accounts appeared soon after Donald Trump’s election to provide a countervailing (and often trollish) pro-science voice, presumably from employees of the federal government who wished to remain anonymous.
In this week’s readings and media, you will see a scientific study about the Online Disinhibition Effect, which explains how a person’s social behavior is different when posting online anonymously. You will also review the most recent technology called deepfake that enables nearly anyone to create videos where the identity of the person in the video can be changed with astoundingly realistic results.
When you consider the negative impact of trolling and deepfake activity, you may be wondering why there isn’t a global initiative to eliminate anonymous communication all together? Should the social media companies be held accountable?
On the other side of the issue, you will examine the social and political benefits to being anonymous. There is a strong case to suggest that, without anonymity, there would be a chilling effect on the expression of free speech which, as you know, is a cornerstone of democracy.
Deepfake – A term that describes a video or image where the original individual in the video is digitally changed to another person to deliberately create a misleading effect.
First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States of America – “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” Please note that the First Amendment applies to government actions to abridge free speech. It does not pertain to the right of private companies to censor content according to the Terms of Service policies each user agrees to upon joining. Arguments for unabridged free speech in social media as an unalienable right are often predicated on the misbelief that all speech is protected under the First Amendment when in fact it only pertains to government actions to curtail free speech.
Pseudonym – A username that is not the user’s actual identity.
What should you be focusing on?
Your objectives in this module are:
- Construct an argument both for and against online anonymity.
- Evaluate the risks and tradeoffs in allowing or disallowing anonymity as a feature in your app or story ideas.
Readings & Media
Thematic narrative in this chapter
In the following readings and media, the authors will present the following themes:
- The emergence of powerful SM systems enables hate speech, deepfakes, and harassment to proliferate on a mass scale, often by organized and mechanized efforts.
- People behave differently when they know they are anonymous – mostly negatively or in anti-social ways.
- The power of SM to inflict suffering and hate upon individuals and groups causes tension against the principles of free speech.
- Anonymity provides protection for political dissenters and oppressed groups to organize and communicate safely.
Required Video: Wall Street Journal – “Deepfake Videos Are Getting Real and That’s a Problem” (10:00) Oct. 15, 2018
This video describes the basic technology behind deepfake videos and images. However, the factor that is crucial to our study is the way in which these videos and images are proliferated through SM systems. As you watch this video, think about whether the use of deepfake technology and its spread on SM requires rethinking the rules of free speech and accountability on the side of the SM platforms themselves.
Of particular interest is the anonymous deepfake creator who states in his interview that, “This content, people are going to make it regardless.” This ties into the article that follows about the Online Disinhibition Effect.
Required Article: Council on Foreign Relations – “Hate Speech on Social Media: Global Comparisons” by Zachary Laub, June 7, 2019
This article provides an analysis of the relationship between hate speech on social media and hate crimes on a global scale. Worth noting are the following statements:
- “The same technology that allows social media to galvanize democracy activists can be used by hate groups seeking to organize and recruit.”
- “Users’ experiences online are mediated by algorithms designed to maximize their engagement, which often inadvertently promote extreme content…. ‘YouTube may be one of the most powerful radicalizing instruments of the 21st century,’ writes sociologist Zeynep Tufekci.”
- “The 1996 law exempts tech platforms from liability for actionable speech by their users. Magazines and television networks, for example, can be sued for publishing defamatory information they know to be false; social media platforms cannot be found similarly liable for content they host.”
Required Article: The Online Disinhibition Effect
John Suler’s research article “The Online Disinhibition Effect” describes the six psychological factors that contribute to trolling behavior. Download PDF: “The Online Disinhibition Effect.”
Required Article: Anonymity in social media
Laura Rogal’s “Anonymity in Social Media” summarizes the forces intertwined within the issue of anonymous / pseudonymous communication in SM. Skip the section on Copyright. Focus on section II: “History of Right to Free Speech and Speaking Anonymously” on pages 3-6 of the PDF and the end conclusion on page 17. Download PDF: “Anonymity in Social Media.”
Required Business policy: The value of anonymity
Whisper app: Whisper allows users to post their intimate feelings with total anonymity. Here are their community guidelines with references to their philosophy of anonymity. In this Huffington Post article, we see how the anonymity factor has served as a channel for expression: “LGBT Youths With Unsupportive Parents Sound Off Anonymously On Whisper App” by Curtis M. Wong Senior Editor, HuffPost Queer Voices. Retrieved December 18, 2016.
Optional: Supplemental resources that are relevant to anonymity
“Kai Visits the Dark Web” Kai Rysdall of NPR’s Marketplace plunges into the Dark Web “live” with cybersecurity researcher Stephen Cobb. They discuss how the TOR browser works, what they find, and how even in the marketplace of illegal goods and services, there are familiar instruments being used to build and sustain consumer trust and market share.
“Turkey Passes Law Extending Sweeping Powers Over Social Media” – This article describes how the authoritarian government of Turkey is striving to control social media content and data about its users.
Kristian Sturt on Twitter argues for real identification on file for all social media participants. And the thread of people who disagree.
An example of anonymity: the U.S. State Department’s “Dissent Channel” which is an anonymous channel for its members to voice their concerns without fear of retribution.
“How China has censored words relating to the Tiananmen Square anniversary” – An example of how people are still able to express themselves in SM about the Tiananmen Square incident despite censorship.
“Court Says Police Chief’s Social Media Policy Violated The First Amendment” – An example of how First Amendment rights intersect with the rights of police officers’ rights to free speech on SM. Curated by James Gambone (COMM601 WN17).