Table of Contents
Question #1: Networked Individualism & Theoretical Perspectives [Total: 25 points]
Dutton and Graham (2019) argued that public discourses, conventional wisdom, and traditional perspectives around new media technologies, whether positive or negative, often embody technologically or socially deterministic perspectives. They argue that such perspectives limit our understanding of new media technology on society. Instead, the social construction of technology may provide a more complete way to understand the impact of new media on society.
In one-two sentences, provide a definition of technological determinism. [2 points]
Technological determinism is the theory that technology influences cultural values, social structure, and history, and that technological development takes a predetermined path that is unaffected by cultural or political factors (Dutton & Graham, 2019). There are numerous instances in which technological progress altered the course of mankind’s history, such as the invention of the wheel, which made it possible for humans to travel farther distances and carry greater loads.
In one-two sentences, provide a definition of social determinism. [2 points]
According to Dutton and Graham (2019), social determinists refute the notion that technology influences human history by asserting that people create and respond to technologies in an open and adaptable manner. For example, according to social determinists, when people demonstrate against a certain government policy, they do so because of social influences only, such as what they consider to be morally correct, and not because they got influenced by technology.
Briefly explain why Dutton and Graham (2019) consider a social shaping of technology perspective helpful in better examining/studying/understanding the impact of new media on society compared to technological and social determinism? [6 points]
Contrary to technological and social determinism, social shaping of technology views the relationship between technology and society as one of “mutual shaping.” This concept critiques technological determinism, which asserts that technology pursues its own path of development, independent of human impact, and influences society in turn. It also goes beyond the social determinism perspective, which like technological determinism considers technology as a reflection of single rationality. According to Dutton and Graham (2019), technologies are fashioned, executed, and used by individuals within particular social settings. Dutton and Graham argue that understanding all the factors that shape technologies, such as economic and technical factors, can promote more equitable implementation and use designs.
An example of this ‘mutual shaping’ relationship between technology and society exists with mobile phones that have evolved over the years to make our lives easier in terms of communication. Despite their significance in our lives, there are still limitations for those who are not technologically savvy. In addition, there are prerequisites, such as monthly bills and access to electricity, and unintended consequences, such as the distraction they cause to people. With the unpredictability of technology, policy, and users in the future due to major developments such as big data and artificial intelligence, the social shaping of technology becomes a crucial concept compared to technological and social determinism perspectives.
The spread of digital media technologies has created a NEW ‘organizing structure’ for human relations that describes a new way people connect, communicate and exchange information with one another compared to traditional social arrangements. Rainie and Wellman (2019) provided key traits of this new human relation arrangements associated with networked individualism.
In one-two sentences, briefly explain how networked individualism is different from traditional social arrangements? [5 points]
In the traditional social arrangement, people lived in close proximity within narrowly defined groups, with an emphasis on the household unit. Networked individualism, with emphasis on individuals’ networks, has enabled people to broadcast to and receive information from more sources, create media and search for relevant information, change the size and shape of their social networks, and alter their communication patterns within these networks (Rainie & Wellman, 2019). For instance, family members living in different cities can participate in social gatherings and create and share content as if they were physically close.
Identify one of the key traits associated with networked individualism. Briefly describe how new media technology has led to the creation of this new trait of human relation arrangement [5 points].
With networked individualism, communication can be more customized and private, while also enabling individuals to have multiple and diverse social networks with fluid connections that assist them in navigating daily activities with a variety of people for a variety of purposes. Before the advent of the Internet, face-to-face communication was the primary mode of communication. According to Rainie and Wellman (2019), we can now tailor the message so that only the intended recipient receives it. It began with emails and progressed to private videos and shared cloud files. Therefore, we can have multiple social networks via the Internet, such as while maintaining the message’s confidentiality. The Internet is now an indispensable resource for those who wish to expand their networks and integrate themselves into existing ones.
Briefly discuss one benefit and one disadvantage of networked individualism. [5 points].
One benefit of networked individualism is personalization. The internet is decentralized and open to individual choice (Rainie & Wellman, 2019). The notions of personalization and customization held by networked individuals are compatible with the decentralized philosophy of contemporary computing. According to Rainie and Wellman, individuals are free to select their software and hardware, modify them as they see fit, and have greater control over the sources of communication they wish to receive messages from, when, and about. Rainie and Wellman note that as many internet users leave significant digital footprints, both intentionally and unintentionally, users are “creeping” and “stalking” one another. Similarly, governments and large organizations can conduct surveillance on individuals.
Dutton, W. H., & Graham, M. (2019). Introduction. Society and the Internet, 1–24. https://doi.org/10.1093/oso/9780198843498.003.0001
Rainie, H., & Wellman, B. (2019). Networked : the new social operating system.
Question #2: Communicative Value of Memes [Total: 25 points]
According to Shifman (2019), internet memes are groups of user-generated digital units (e.g., texts, videos, images) that share characteristics of content, form, and/or communicative stance. The unsaid is just as important as what is being said in a meme because memes often reveal the core political, social, and cultural principles encoded in the creation and circulation of the memes. They are forms of presentation and representation – a way to speak up and talk about (Literat, 2021).
Briefly explain the popularity of memes in society [5 points].
Memes are groups of user-generated digital units that share attributes of content and communicative stance (Shifman, 2019). Shifman notes that memes have become popular due to their economic and social influence. In a decade, internet memes have evolved from subcultural curiosities to a fundamental media practice (Miltner, 2018). Almost every significant moment in popular culture or politics is accompanied by memes. Some people use memes as a mobilization strategy, while others use them to speak the truth to those in power, and still, others use them as instruments of oppression. According to Miltner, their popularity is due to the fact that they are inexpensive and simple to make. Miltner notes that memes are a powerful method of disseminating an idea and can dominate popular culture, which makes them attractive to profit-driven individuals and organizations such as entrepreneurs and media companies. Their applicability to nearly every social group has made memes popular in modern society.
Find a specific example of a popular meme circulating online. Provide screenshots of the meme as evidence for each of the core values. Apply Shifman’s (2019) communicative values and illustrate how the meme of your choosing support (or not) the core values of Internet Meme [15 points]:
This meme, found in the following link: https://twitter.com/howie_hua/status/1463563504644857859, expresses the sender’s feelings towards the subject. Having a better understanding of mathematics subject, in this case, implies the sender is reasonably comfortable with “finding patterns and connections” while solving problems compared to what some would consider as just “memorization and speed.” Shifman (2019) notes that memes are expected to express the emotions, experiences, hopes, and fears of unique individuals. In other words, they show why we are different from others.
The above meme depicts two realities; one that is pleasing and the other displeasing. In this sense, the meme’s author creatively uses two contrasting statements to depict these realities using the term ‘literally.’ Firstly, as Shifman (2019), transforming original content into a new one is the essence of creativity. The contrast the meme’s author made between the two individuals is a creative element.
The meme was a way of expressing an idea that is shared among a group (Spotify users). The meme is loyal to the creator as well as the broader community within whose realms it was created (Shifman, 2019). So, the meme does not only appeal to the creator but also to those that share the same opinion that Spotify is better than Apple music.
Freedom of information
According to Shifman (2019), information, which includes emotive accounts about the self, is a public good that should be distributed limitlessly. Social media users are expected to use memes to address a range of issues even when it seems to conflict with the value of privacy. The above meme expresses the sender’s feeling of “Holding boobs” versus “Having Boobs” which to the social media network, doesn’t seem like a violation. Because it is a meme, we see it as appropriate even when the creator uses them to express their private emotions and feelings.
As Shifman (2019) argues, social media participants are expected to share their thoughts and opinions irrespective of their sociocultural rank, political leanings, or gender. Social media users can use the above meme to mock government officials for increasingly printing money to address crises such as the Ukraine-Russia conflict. Those that ‘believe in economics,’ they see that as a bad move and feel displeased by such policies. On the contrary, some don’t see the consequences and feel the move is appropriate.
What is the underlying message of the meme you chose – in other words, what is the meme really about? Provide evidence (e.g., screenshot of specific memes or links to the specific meme community) to support your answer. [5 points]
The “Two Guys on a Bus” meme was made to illustrate the distinction between pessimistic and optimistic individuals. Two men on the same bus have vastly different experiences and emotions based purely on where they position themselves. The depressed man chooses to remain depressed by facing the wall, but the happy, positive individual chooses to sit on the side of the bus with views and sunshine. In this meme, we see the message as one can choose the happy side of life. This meme has circulated through the internet in various forms. For instance, the following link provides a variety of instances where the meme is applicable (https://junkee.com/two-guys-on-a-bus-meme/316242), such as feeling anxious to go for therapy versus feeling happy about it. As Miltner (2018) explains, this meme has become popular because the image allows different audiences to make their meanings.
Miltner, K. M. (2018). Internet Memes. The SAGE Handbook of Social Media, 412–428. https://doi.org/10.4135/9781473984066.n23
Shifman, L. (2019). Internet Memes and the Twofold Articulation of Values. Society and the Internet, 43–57. https://doi.org/10.1093/oso/9780198843498.003.0003
Question #3: Algorithmic Filtering & Bias [Total: 25 points]
Dutton, Reisdorf, Blank, Dubois and Fernandez (2019) offer multiple theoretical perspectives on the role of algorithms (personalized search and social media) in shaping access to political information online. The perspectives are technological-deterministic, social-deterministic, and a social-technical shaping approach. While there are limitations to their 2017 study (i.e., focuses narrowly on political information), Dutton et al. (2019) cross-national comparative study found evidence that challenges both filter bubble and echo chamber perspectives when it comes to learning about politics. Specifically, they found that search skills and interest in politics are the most important factors determining behaviors such as fact-checking, consulting larger number of sources, and using search to find information about politics.
According to Dutton et al. (2019), what is an algorithmic filter bubble and what is an echo chamber? [5 points]
According to Dutton et al. (2019), an algorithmic filter bubble refers to the notion that a person’s search results are tailored to minimize their exposure to information that could contradict their beliefs. In other words, the algorithm ensures that the user receives search results that correspond to their interests, location, and previously searched topics. Dutton et al. claim that echo chambers are the result of individual biases, the inclination to utilize social media and other information sources in ways that support their prior biases, such as to connect with like-minded others. The user tends to consume the material that confirms their preexisting beliefs rather than information that challenges them.
Briefly describe how the intermingling of users’ creation of their own “echo chamber” and algorithms creation of “filter bubbles” on social media impact users’ access to info and news, AND elaborate on what that impact means for politics and democracy. [5 points]
Samantha and Philip (2019) note that users tend to create “echo chambers” by “friending” individuals who share similar interests. Due to the social filtering of their friends and networks, individuals are exposed to less diversified information (which occurs regardless of influence algorithms). For instance, we could have conservatives getting exposed only to conservative news and liberals getting exposed only to liberal news sources (Dutton et al., 2019). Social media can exacerbate people’s tendency to seek out like-minded persons and isolate themselves in politically homogeneous echo chambers. Dutton et al. argue that personalization and other algorithms may have unanticipated effects on access to political information. People are more likely to share with their social networks material that corresponds with their preexisting ideas, resulting in a widening of individuals’ ideological differences.
There are consequences in politics and democracy since individuals are exposed to knowledge that could influence their political opinions. It is more likely that Internet use will be dominated by topics other than politics, causing algorithms to personalize on matters that go far beyond political orientations, reducing potential impact on politics and democracy. However, according to Samantha and Philip, it is apparent that social media delivers significant volumes of fake and junk news. Consequently, when such content is backed by automation, political players have powerful tools in their hands to manipulate public opinion and degrade democracy.
Provide one evidence/finding from Dutton et al. (2019) study that suggest user behaviors can “burst filter bubbles” and “dismantle echo chambers”. [5 points]
Dutton et al. (2019) contend that user activities that enhance their exposure to a higher variety of information sources decrease their likelihood of becoming stuck in a filter bubble or echo chamber. These habits include using numerous platforms and other resources to verify internet material. According to Dutton et al., users may detect incorrect information (about 42 percent or a mean of 1.68/4) and more than three-quarters obtain new or unexpected information via search. Users’ capacity to discern online material they consider “wrong” lessens their probability of getting affected by fake news. In addition, even if filter bubbles did exist for some users on specific platforms, the choices of individuals help them see contradictory information.
Garcia (2016) mentions that algorithms learned mistakes aren’t just offensive or an inconvenience to individuals. Rather, as computers are tasks with making crucial decisions, certain groups of people may be unfairly affected. Garcia (2016) provides multiple examples of algorithmic bias.
Briefly explain how algorithmic bias can come about. [3 points]
According to Garcia (2016), an algorithm is a set of instructions for a computer to solve a certain problem. Garcia explains that when algorithms or their underlying data contain biases, even the most fundamental computer operations will amplify these preconceptions. According to Martin (2018), algorithm bias can occur when a program’s coding is designed to prefer one group over others or when machine learning is employed – using historical data to instruct the algorithm on what variables to consider to achieve a particular goal.
Using an external source, provide an example of algorithmic bias. [2 points]
In 2014, Amazon Inc. developed an algorithm to evaluate job applicants’ resumes and identify the most qualified candidates (Kodiyan, 2019). The AI would also identify significant indicators in the resumes and link them with those submitted for screening. Sometimes later, there were concerns with ratings and a significant decline in the proportion of women hired for specific positions relative to men. Engineers determined that the cause of the prejudice was that the data used to train the AI system primarily comprised the resumes of male employees.
Gillespie (2014) pointed out six public relevance algorithms that have political power, arguing that algorithms have important implications on how we find information, and on what is known and knowable to us. Yet, governmental organizations and corporate entities that employ algorithms often argue that algorithmic decisions are far more impartial than human decision making. Because humans are prone to mistakes, emotions, and unconscious biases, algorithms that are based on corpus data and long-term patterns (i.e., code is simply just code) are more objective and reliable than humans in making decisions.
Do you personally agree that “code is just code” (i.e., code is neutral, objective, or impartial)? Explain your answer with at least one relevant example. [5 points]
According to Gillespie (2014), algorithmic logic is reliant on the programmed decisions of a computer developed by humans. As soon as we start developing artificial intelligence, we run the risk of introducing biases into the code that will make judgments for decades. So, AI can be programmed to emphasize the creator’s favored objectives, which may not be neutral. In 2015, for instance, researchers at Carnegie Mellon utilized AdFisher to track internet advertisements (GARCIA, 2016). After stimulating browsing activity among men and women searching for employment websites, Google’s advertising engine offered a listing of high-income positions to males at nearly six times the rate it displayed the same ad to women. This indicates that the code was biased because the professionals who wrote the code either acknowledged or ignored the bias.
Dutton, W. H., Reisdorf, B. C., Blank, G., Dubois, E., & Fernandez, L. (2019). The Internet and Access to Information about Politics. Society and the Internet, 228–247. https://doi.org/10.1093/oso/9780198843498.003.0014
GARCIA, M. (2016). RACIST IN THE MACHINE: THE DISTURBING IMPLICATIONS OF ALGORITHMIC BIAS. World Policy Journal, 33(4), 111–117. https://www.jstor.org/stable/26781452
Gillespie, T. (2014). The Relevance of Algorithms. Media Technologies, 167–194. https://doi.org/10.7551/mitpress/9780262525374.003.0009
Kodiyan, A. A. (2019). An overview of ethical issues in using AI systems in hiring with a case study of Amazon’s AI based hiring tool. Researchgate Preprint, 1-19.
Martin, K. (2018). Ethical Implications and Accountability of Algorithms. Journal of Business Ethics. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10551-018-3921-3
Samantha, B., & Philip N., H. (2019). Social Media and Democracy in Crisis. Society and the Internet, 212–227. https://doi.org/10.1093/oso/9780198843498.003.0013
Question #4: Conspiracy Theories & why they spread [Total: 25 points]
New media technology (e.g., social media, search engine, recommendation systems) is often blamed for being the main/sole/key reason for spreading misinformation, disinformation, and/or conspiracy theories.
Yet, your course readings in module 3 have pointed out the nuance and complexity of why people believe in mis and disinformation. In other words, it is NOT just technological (i.e., social media, deep fake, recommendation systems, search engines, computational propaganda). The course readings and lecture in this module offer multiple perspective ranging from emotional, cognitive, environmental, education/literacy, political, and economic. These factors contribute, to varying degrees, to the spread of misinformation, dis-information, and conspiracy theories.
Provide a definition of misinformation, disinformation, and conspiracy theories. And explain how positive and negative emotions both can be instrumental in the spread of mis and disinformation. [5 points]
Misinformation is a claim, propagated either inadvertently or unintentionally, that contradicts or distorts common understandings of verifiable facts. Disinformation is a type of deliberate deception, such as purposely deceptive articles made to replicate the appearance of legitimate articles from established news sources. Specific characteristics of conspiracy theories include the assumption that a secret cabal of powerful individuals maintains influence over some area of society, which tends to foster suspicion in authorities, the government, the media, professional associations, industry, and academics (Weigmann, 2018). Emotions influence an individual’s perception of fake news or wrong information channeled online. For instance, if a candidate wins an election, those that supported the individual would be more likely to spread the news about the candidate’s influence and the positives about the party. It is so because, in most instances, users prefer the information and news that legitimize their emotions, which trigger them to spread fake or wrong news about an issue.
Explain how each of these factors contribute to the spread of mis- & disinformation and/or conspiracy theories [20 points]:
New Media technology factor
The advent of the internet and social media has facilitated the spread of misinformation and disinformation. According to Mason (2018), as newspapers endure a drop in traffic and viewership in comparison to the advent of social media, there is an increased risk of reporting factual errors or distributing public relations material as news without adequately vetting it for bias or inaccuracy. This is intended to increase clicks and, thus, contribute to the company’s bottom line. This is termed “iterative journalism,” which refers to the repetition of unsubstantiated news from less credible sources under the guise that the story is still under review and the facts are incomplete. Yet, reporters are aware that the tales are false, so they rarely conduct additional research. Consequentially, although accidentally, these social media corporations are boosting conspiracy theorists’ fake news.
Psychological factors may contribute to the propagation of conspiracy theories. According to Weigmann (2018), individuals self-deceive through a variety of cognitive biases that inhibit rational judgment and logical thinking, such as illusory pattern perception. When false or incorrect information is congruent with our worldviews, which might occur when we find meaningful linkages between events that are merely random occurrences, we are inclined to believe it. Weigmann contends that confirmation bias is a significant factor in the propagation of conspiracy theories. People who believe GM crops and vaccines are hazardous, for instance, will accept and disseminate any material that validates their fears while rejecting as part of the conspiracy any data demonstrating their safety.
Literacy factor (news or scientific)
According to Mihailidis and Thevenin (2013), in an era of greater reliance on digital and social media for information and communication needs across all age groups, individuals must be able to critically evaluate the online material they consume. If individuals do not know how to acquire proper information about an issue or how to judge the veracity of specific stories, they are more prone to fall victim to misinformation and conspiracy theories.
According to Weigmann (2018), political leaders who accept conspiracy theories can cause significant harm. Politicians can facilitate the dissemination of false information and conspiracy theories since they frequently have a large following. Politicians can also spread propaganda for their gain, sometimes government officials use media to negate international criticisms. An example is the rebranding of the RT channel as the Russian government weaponized it to service its political interests after the Russia-Georgia conflict in 2008 (Elswah & Howard, 2020). When these politicians spread falsehoods, their supporters are inclined to believe them because they distrust all other sources.
The majority of conspiracy theories concern large corporations with a monetary motive. According to Mason (2018), news outlets are fighting for clicks and views, and as a result, they are more inclined to publish sensationalist and exaggerated items without checking their authenticity. To prevent income loss, non-media firms finance or restrict news that discredits their products. For example, the pharmaceutical industry is suspected of concealing studies indicating that their drugs are unsuccessful or acting as a barrier to the development of affordable treatments to sell their costly drugs.
Elswah, M., & Howard, P. N. (2020). “Anything that Causes Chaos”: The Organizational Behavior of Russia Today (RT). Journal of Communication. https://doi.org/10.1093/joc/jqaa027
Mason, L. E., Krutka, D., & Stoddard, J. (2018). Media Literacy, Democracy, and the Challenge of Fake News. Journal of Media Literacy Education, 10(2), 1-10. https://doi.org/10.23860/JMLE-2018-10-2-1
Mihailidis, P., & Thevenin, B. (2013). Media Literacy as a Core Competency for Engaged Citizenship in Participatory Democracy. American Behavioral Scientist, 57(11), 1611–1622. https://doi.org/10.1177/0002764213489015
Weigmann, K. (2018). The genesis of a conspiracy theory. EMBO Reports, 19(4). https://doi.org/10.15252/embr.201845935
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