Thus far we've focused on social networks being used by bad actors for nefarious purposes, and the psychological/social effects of social networks on individuals (whether inadvertent or on purpose). This week we turn to one last look at the role of social networks—in this case as a way of disseminating information.
Choose one of the following topics and choose one person to work with, and between the two of you, write a brief (less than a page) reflection on the topic. It doesn't matter which of you turns in the result, as long as both names are on it.
Possible assignment: Information, freedom, and power
Can you describe any examples where either the Internet as a whole or social networks clearly emerged as the catalyst of a significant positive change that actually took effect? Or, would you argue that today's Internet makes it unlikely that will ever happen? Try to argue both sides. A few quotes from the film (timestamps relate to the abridged edition) suggest a connection between the Internet and the empowerment of the individual, which you may find useful:
- ~11:30, David Kirkpatric (author of "The Facebook Effect"): "social media was designed for the empowerment of the user, giving them 'broadcast power', and that changes politics"
- ~06:45 Steve Jobs - "making centralized things become decentralized"
- ~10:15 "People openly expressing opinions about topics is always good for democracy" (Jimmy Wales, Wikipedia founder)
- ~10:25 the "Arab Spring" of 2011 in Egypt and elsewhere - "If you want to free a society, give it Internet access" -
Possible assignment: Information consumption & agency
Not everyone thought computers would be good for democracy:
- ~04:00 "A tool to improve management control ... it follows management's instructions exactly"
- ~05:00 "There was a fear that [computers] would become instruments of social control"
- ~09:20 "I'm losing my ability to concentrate" - shallowing-out of thinking processes, being replaced by rapid-fire "quick read" stimuli
- Late in the film, we hear from Snowden about the connection between surveillance for national security and the "attention economy" (surveillance for profit)
The framers of the Constitution were concerned about business and government getting too close for comfort; argue on the one hand that the current media environment is an example of what they feared, and on the other that it is not harmful and in fact can be beneficial for national security.
Possible assignment: "Democratization of news/information"
At ~25:30 we hear about how free speech & free press (as enshrined in the First Amendment to the US Constitution) are key ingredients of avoiding the "Militarization" of a whole society. Indeed, much has become visible about abuses against people of color that might never have come to light if not for the democratizing dissemination power of the Internet.
Argue on the one hand that for all its faults, social media and other forms of Internet speech are in fact "free" in this sense, and important to a free society, as in the example above (and therefore, Congress should not interfere to regulate it); and that on the other hand, that the current configuration of Internet speech has actually made the "traditional" press less free. Some points to consider (but you're not required to specifically address them):
- Is traditional media just a casualty of Internet business models? Nobody was as indignant when Craigslist put newspaper classifieds out of business, so why all the hand-wringing?
- ~28:00 Kellyann Conway and Eli Pariser commenting on the "democratization of information." Note that Ms. Conway didn't say "...of news." Has news actually been democratized? If so, what are the pros and cons of that shift? (Recall: on first day we talked about Robin Hood "democratizing" trading and the pros and cons of doing that) How do the economic models for "democratized" news vs "traditional media" news compare? How do the editorial models compare?
- How would you engage with a colleague/acquaintance/etc. who consumes information from these sources non-critically, i.e. taking it as news at face value?
- At ~12:50 there's a quaint educational-film clip explaining the relationship between capitalism & democracy. In that same discussion we hear that "The competition of capitalism results in the best products at the lowest cost for consumers". Later we hear that the "most democratic countries" in two different surveys are the ones that publicly subsidize news media— the opposite of "free market capitalism". Should the news media be a public good, or a private enterprise, or both? Is the current online media environment a "free market" that benefits consumers in the ways described in outtake from the educational film?
- What is the state of net neutrality today? Has it been in the news recently? Does it play a role in this debate?