The term paper has always been a misguided assignment, arbitrarily graded with little student-professor engagement, apart from awkward office-hour meetings during which errors are enumerated and deductions explained.
The revenge of the chatbot awaits these instructors.
I realize that journalism programs must uphold writing standards. So must English, public relations, advertising and other content-based disciplines.
The news media has published hundreds of stories on how AI chatbots, especially ChatGPT, have threatened the existence of the term paper. Why not examine the shortcomings of that to see if the assignment is worth saving?
In our Chat GPT Teaching Talks Series, faculty members discuss their strategies while teaching in this new educational landscape of Chat GPT or generative artificial intelligence that uses machine learning to generate human-like text in response to users’ prompts. Michael Bugeja, a distinguished professor at the Greenlee School of Journalism and Communication, will present the first in this series:
With the advent of AI chatbots, professors are looking for ways to ensure the integrity of the term paper or to do away with it entirely and replace it with a better pedagogy. Michael Bugeja, the distinguished professor, has been at the forefront of consumer technology with more than a dozen articles in Inside Higher Ed and the Chronicle of Higher Education. He was among the first to critique Facebook in January 2006 before many even realized that Iowa State students were interacting on the platform. He was key in criticizing the avatar world of Second Life and arguing against higher education investing in it, requiring students to adhere to the company’s terms of service rather than the Iowa State student handbook. He supports educational technology, including Canvas, which provides online discussion boards to engage students in class content. An advocate of research that informs teaching, Dr. Bugeja has created a multi-digital learning platform for media ethics that engages students in face-to-face classes and online. In his discussion of the term paper, he demonstrates how learning is enhanced if roles are reversed, with professors writing the term papers and students critiquing them.
Lack of childcare is only one issue plaguing Iowans and other Americans coping with work-related stress.
According to one study, 59% of us are so busy that we only can manage 26 minutes of free time per week. We put off tasks like cleaning, paying bills and making doctor appointments, household repairs and healthy meals.
Americans and Canadians are among the most stressed in the world. A 2021 Gallup study found that “57% of U.S. and Canadian workers reported feeling stress on a daily basis, up by eight percentage points from the year prior and compared with 43% of people who feel that way globally.”
Americans are not cutting corners at work. Their companies and institutions — including Iowa universities — are cutting budgets in a post-pandemic economy. That adds to workload.
Americans multitask more than people in any other country, often depriving us of inspiration and creativity. There is no study that documents how we multitask while worrying about issues beyond our control.
Many of us spend hours rehashing meaningless interactions, foiled bids for love or attention, real or imagined slights, and other pointless triggers, from road rage to internet outages.
Let’s start with the news. It’s bad. We hear about war, hate crimes, shootings, poisonous politics and, lest we forget, mutating omicron variants. It’s good to be informed, but not at the expense of sanity.
Take a break. You’ll hear the same reports in a week, a month, a year. One less thing.
Limit social media. Who cares if someone blocked or unfriended you or snubbed you because of a post? You don’t need to know the reason and then obsess about it in your 26 minutes of free time per week. One less thing.
Same holds true when someone stops talking to you at work for no good reason. Or gossips about you.
“Telling office bullies that they hurt your feelings may feel liberating. But it’s a bad idea,” writes Washington Post columnist Karla L. Miller. “Sharing your hurt only helps with people who care about your feelings. Otherwise, it’s giving them ammunition.”
Ignore them back and interact only when proper for work-related reasons. One less thing.
The philosophy of one less thing is liberating. Say “no” when asked to do extra tasks or service at home, school or work. Saying “yes” is one of the reasons our lives are so chaotic.
The philosophy of one less thing is based on stoicism, which the ancients viewed as a way of life. As the Stanford Encyclopedia explains it, “Once we come to know what we and the world around us are really like, and especially the nature of value, we will be utterly transformed.”
Apart from politics or career, what do you most value? Your church or community? Your spouse, friend, family, partner, pet? A hobby? Travel? Hunting, fishing, hiking, gardening? Make a list.
Now make another. What petty issues occupy your thoughts in the course of a week? Which ones can you dismiss, block or ignore for the sake of wellbeing?
The Greek stoic Epictetus has recommendations that resonate to this day. He reminds us that troubles abound. It’s how we react to them that matters. He also advises us to cease worrying about things beyond our power or control. Epictetus reminds us that people are not worried about real problems “so much as by imagined anxieties about real problems.”
The philosophy of one less thing may not set you free; but it will free up time for the pursuits and people you most value.
Michael Bugeja is a distinguished professor of liberal arts and sciences at Iowa State University. These views are his own.
The content of calls is disturbing, but the timing can be even more so.
You’re preparing a meal, watching Netflix or enjoying another’s company when the cell phone vibrates — someone wants to indict you for tax fraud, extend your car warranty or report an unauthorized Amazon charge.
The word “annoy” comes to us from the French, “enoiier,” which means to weary or vex. Webster’s defines it as “to disturb or irritate especially by repeated acts.”
Depending on party affiliation, you’ll get political texts and calls — a communique from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi or an urgent message from Sen. Charles Grassley.
Americans received an estimated 18.5 billion political text messages in 2020, and there’s little you can do to stop them. Unfortunately, the National Do Not Call Registry does not apply to politics. Neither can you bar charities and debt collectors from contacting you as they are exempt from the Federal Trade Commission’s blocking list.
And then there is the mobile phone itself. Among the top annoyances are battery life, software updates and passwords. Once again, time, place and occasion dictate the level of exasperation. Your phone dies during an important call or updates and wipes out your passwords so you have to remember them again.
The password guessing game is infuriating. You get three chances to recall a password before you’re blocked and now must call the facility or organization to be reinstated digitally.
Then there is two-factor identification, increasingly used by schools and businesses. You can’t simply sit at the computer anymore and get to work; you have to find your phone and affirm, “Yes, it’s me.”
We also are annoyed face-to-face.
According to one study, top irritants include bosses requesting urgent work, no toilet paper left, empty milk cartons in fridge, friends canceling plans at last minute, and encountering someone you dislike at the supermarket.
Familiar with the situation. “I’m always glad that the reporter didn’t rely on an unnamed source who was unfamiliar with the situation.”
War chest. “If political writers want to get cute, I vote that they replace it with the term ‘piggy bank.’”
Amid. “Amid these turbulent times, a little less ‘amid’ would make me happy. And we can ditch of ‘turbulent times’ while we’re at it.”
(For the record, my most annoying news phrase is “take a listen.”)
A Marist poll reported in December 2021 that “Trump” and “coronavirus” were among the most maddening terms, replacing “whatever” for the first time in more than a decade. Other annoying words included “Critical Race Theory,” “woke,” “cancel culture” and “It is what it is.”
Americans have a hard time trusting the news. The least trustworthy anchors in descending order are Sean Hannity (Fox News), Rachel Maddow (MSNBC), Don Lemon (CNN), Mika Brzezinski (MSNBC), Chris Matthews (MSNBC), Joe Scarborough (MSNBC), Tucker Carlson (Fox News), Chris Cuomo (CNN), Laura Ingraham (Fox News) and Anderson Cooper (CNN).
Cooper also was listed as among “the most trusted” after NBC’s Lester Holt, indicating how divided viewers are in ranking the news.
Considering worldwide disease and war, we might wonder why these trivial annoyances hijack our emotions, sometimes leading to outbursts that jeopardize character and reputation.
According to Psychology Today, “A minor irritation, a ‘petty annoyance,’ can be the straw that breaks the camel’s back under chronic stress.” We are asked to put things into perspective, think positively, be patient, avoid antagonistic people and understand moods, including our own.
People have been trying to tame emotions for millennia.
Stoicism, an ancient branch of philosophy, encourages us to face our feelings in a mindful way. One Stoic meditation that can help with annoyance is called the “premeditatio malorum.” Stoicism accepts that bad things can happen in life and urges one to imagine worst-case scenarios in logical, unemotional detail. If those bad things do indeed come to pass, then we can act quickly with purpose rather than be surprised and react with anger.
Marcus Aurelius, Roman emperor and philosopher, believed we have power over our mind, not external events. In his book, Meditations, he writes: “Begin in the morning by saying to thyself, I shall meet with the busy-body, the ungrateful, arrogant, deceitful, envious, unsocial.” Accept that as fact, he states, because being vexed at everything goes against human nature.
Do not take petty annoyances to heart. Rather, he opines, overlook the failings of others and “remember that all is opinion.”
Guerilla theater is a form of political protest, typically involving public stunts, satire and pranks. It has evolved in our time via social media but its methods date back to the 19th century.
In 1896, William Crush staged a spectacle to promote the Missouri-Kansas-Texas Railroad, crashing two 35-ton locomotives head-long into each other. He even erected a town, aptly named “Crush,” attracting 40,000 visitors on the day of the event — making Crush for a time the second-largest city in Texas.
When the engines collided, the boilers exploded, killing two spectators. A photographer hired to document the event lost an eye to a flying shard.
Crush was promptly fired. He was later rehired because news and photos of the event created a buzz for the company.
“In an effort to help the national debt, Taco Bell is pleased to announce that we have agreed to purchase the Liberty Bell, one of our country’s most historic treasures. It will now be called the ‘Taco Liberty Bell’ and will still be accessible to the American public for viewing. While some may find this controversial, we hope our move will prompt other corporations to take similar action to do their part to reduce the country’s debt.”
You can anticipate new forms of guerrilla theater to infiltrate campaigns in the midterms and beyond.
Taco Bell headquarters, the National Park Service and Congressional staff offices received thousands of complaints, overlooking the “April Fool’s” aspect of the ruse.
Later that day, White House press secretary Mike McCurry got in on the joke, telling reporters, “We’ll be doing a series of these. Ford Motor Co. is joining today in an effort to refurbish the Lincoln Memorial. It will be the Lincoln Mercury Memorial.”
More than 1,000 print and broadcast outlets covered the Taco Bell story, generating free publicity worth the equivalent of $25 million.
In the digital age, guerilla theater spawned a new genre called prank advertising.
Guerilla theater goes to the movies
The method has crossed over to movie theaters. One of the most successful promoted a remake of the horror movie “Carrie” in a video on YouTube, viewed more than 75 million times.
Titled “Telekinetic Coffee Shop,” it shows a production company setting up a scene in which a man spills coffee on the laptop of an agitated woman with paranormal powers. As patrons order coffee, not realizing the prank, the woman thrusts out a palm, levitating the offending man up a wall to the ceiling. Her anger escalates as chairs and tables telekinetically move away from her. She screams. Wall hangings fall and books fly off shelves.
The video cuts to a blood-soaked image of the actor portraying “Carrie” with the closing credit: “In theaters October 18, 2013.”
Guerilla theater now uses social media to pull off political stunts and pranks.
Instead of protesting a Tulsa rally in 2020 by then incumbent candidate Donald Trump, TikTok users and K-pop fans used internet to feign interest in the event, requesting more than a million tickets. That prompted campaign officials to build an outdoor venue for the anticipated overflow crowd.
The building where the rally took place had seating capacity for 19,000 but only 6,200 attendees showed up.
After the election, the Trump campaign set up a hotline for people to report election fraud. Pranksters flooded the line with mocking calls about his losing to President Joe Biden.
U.S. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, a Georgia Republican, has resorted on occasion to political stunts. In April she challenged progressive Democrat Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to a debate, using Facebook, Twitter and YouTube.
A month later in the presence of two Washington Post reporters, Greene followed Ocasio-Cortez out of the House chamber, shouting “Hey Alexandria!” and taunted her for support of far-left groups.
“You don’t care about the American people,” Greene shouted.
You can anticipate new forms of guerrilla theater to infiltrate campaigns in the midterms and beyond.
Ethics aside, as history has shown us, many of them will prove successful.
The invention of the internet has changed journalism a lot over the years, and during Professor Michael Bugeja’s Thursday lecture “Fakes, Hacks, Fibs and Tales: Journalism Ethics” on Zoom, he dug into how news has slowly warped into opinion, what role social media plays in the problem and how to combat it both in the short term and the long term.
Bugeja teaches media ethics, technology and social change at Iowa State University (ISU) and was the second speaker for this year’s Shear-Colbert Symposium lecture series at Marshalltown Community College (MCC). The theme of the 2022 symposium — which was originally organized by the late history professor Tom Colbert — is “Fact or Fake: Information Today.”
Bugeja started his presentation by discussing how the distribution of news has changed in recent years and said more people now get their information from social media instead of directly from news outlets. He also went on to address how little confidence people had in the accuracy of the news they consumed.
“Seventy-two percent of Republicans expect the news to be incorrect, 46 percent of Democrats and 52 percent of independents feel this way. So if you believe that the news is fake, why are you viewing it? The answer to that is because it’s convenient to do so,” Bugeja said.
In the past, the public had to wait for the next news cycle to get reports, allowing time for fact checking. Bugeja said the internet has created an instant gratification culture which does not always provide enough time to ensure the accuracy of information. Furthermore, because a large portion of the population gets their news for free online, fewer reporters are in the field due to a lack of income.
Bugeja also showed a media bias chart, which sorted an array of news organizations into left leaning, right leaning and neutral categories. He said the neutral middle is less appealing because it is both crowded and unprofitable.
“Consumers want news on demand but then pundits tell you how to feel about it, and that’s important because the margins are too low in the more objective middle,” Bugeja said.
Then a clip surfaced documenting Rogan’s use of racial slurs over a 12-year period. He apologized again, stating he never used the N-word “to be racist because, I’m not racist.”
Rogan claims not to have a racist bone in his body, but the malady usually is associated with the mouth. His reaches 11 million subscribers per episode.
Let that figure sink in.
That’s 2.6 million more than the population of New York, America’s largest city.
More importantly, that is almost half (45%) of the 24.3 million digital and print readers and viewers of all U.S. daily newspapers.
Here’s another number: $69,635. That’s the average highest paid salary for a news editor in Massachusetts, which pays more than any other state for the position. Editors are responsible for moderating content for truth and appropriateness. The average news editor salary across all states is $58,415, eerily equivalent to the average salary, $58,690, of a Facebook moderator. (More on them later.)
To be sure, the Joe Rogan saga will likely fade by the time you read this as another outrage flares across our screens. But the emphasis here is on news vs. entertainment, and the impact of the latter on the health and well-being of society.
One of Rogan’s proclamations focused on Generation Z: “If you’re like 21 years old, and you say to me, should I get vaccinated? I’ll go, no.”
As of February, 12,311,814 people ages 18 to 29 contracted COVID-19, more than any other age group. Some 5,476 have died. But, hey. When you amuse 11 million listeners with disinformation, perhaps that’s a minuscule number not worthy of consideration.
Neil Young took exception to that on his website. “Most of the listeners hearing the unfactual, misleading and false COVID information on Spotify are 24 years old, impressionable and easy to swing to the wrong side of truth.”
He’s right. According to the Pew Research Center, only 3% of people ages 18 to 29 get news from print. Some 7% rely on radio and 16% on television. A whopping 71% rely on smartphones and other devices for updates and notifications, mostly from social media and streaming sources, from Facebook to Spotify.
The COVID-19 economy has been particularly harsh on journalists, especially editors overseeing newsrooms. Here are data from the Columbia Journalism Review:
At least 6,154 news organization workers were laid off between March 2020 through August 2021.
At least 100 U.S. news organizations have closed throughout the pandemic.
Another 42 outlets were absorbed through mergers and acquisitions, bringing the number of eliminations to 128.
In the wake of the Joe Rogan scandals, Spotify quietly removed 70 of his podcasts. In journalism, this is known as retractions. In social media and other hosts of dubious information, it’s known as a “404 Not Found” error.
Because of threats by artists to remove content, Spotify now will post “content warnings” that promote dangerous false or deceptive medical information “that may cause offline harm or pose a direct threat to public health.” These include assertions “encouraging the consumption of bleach products to cure various illnesses and diseases.”
Spotify’s new policy is a whitewash, literally and figuratively.
Offensive content continues, warnings aside. But there are consequences.
Social media and streaming platforms are aware of the threat, not to humanity, but to its bottom line. For instance, Spotify denies that Rogan was the main reason why its stock plummeted by 18.9% in the aftermath of his scandals.
That’s why social media platforms employ moderators to screen offensive content.
CNBC reports Facebook spends billions to review millions of pieces of content every day. TikTok, Twitter and YouTube outsource that work to third-party companies.
Moderators are attracted to the prospect of working at home for an average of $16.50 per hour. But job risks include digital PTSD from viewing and deleting content about bestiality, incest, pedophilia, suicides and murders.
Other PTSD symptoms that develop from viewing thousands of offensive posts include adopting conspiracy theories promoting the Earth being flat, the Holocaust never happening, and the U.S. staging the 9/11 attacks.
To help alleviate the human emotional toll, Facebook has turned to computer moderation to delete disturbing content. Nevertheless, many obscene posts slip through because AI lacks the intelligence (and conscience) to catch them.
The environment allows the likes of Joe Rogan and company to “experience” the world any way they wish, without worrying about its impact on society. They have replaced reporters as the main purveyors of news. Moderators have replaced editors who once protected the audience from objectionable content.
This is your world without journalism.
Now let that sink in.
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Michael Bugeja, distinguished professor of liberal arts and sciences, is author of Interpersonal Divide in the Age of the Machine (Oxford Univ. Press) and Living Media Ethics (Routledge/ Taylor & Francis). These observations are his own.
Pajama ethics: bear in mind these 4 principles when doing desktop-based reporting
Copyright 2022 by Online Journalism Blog
“Pajama Journalism”—reports you can do in nightclothes on a computer, without going anywhere or talking to anyone—should not define online news, but the practice is widespread. In a special guest post, Michael Bugeja argues that following just four basic principles of reporting can help improve this form of journalism.
The Internet greatly enhances the ability to assemble a story in record time, using information from social media, blogs and databanks. But while this expansion of access has opened up new prospects for reporting, and increased productivity — it also brings risks to credibility.
The rise of “PJ Journalism” is due to multiple factors. Reporters work in downsized newsrooms with scant travel budgets, if any, and are evaluated by productivity levels. Recently isolation due to COVID-19 has added a further reason for remaining indoors rather than onsite.
This is not to say that “PJ Journalism” is inherently bad, if you view the digital world as having its own reality apart from the physical world. Stories about the Dark Web would be one extreme example of this, but you could also argue that newsworthy statements and discussions which would have previously taken place in the physical world now increasingly take place entirely on social media and other virtual spaces.
I teach media ethics at Iowa State University and decided last month to do a session on “PJ Journalism” to illustrate shortcomings in rushed reports — and how to avoid those.
There are four key dangers that the pajama journalist faces:
Linking issues, failing to cite source content or point to original documents.
Missed opportunities, failing to contact sources for additional information.
Due diligence, failing to note if officials or organizations had been contacted to respond to content.
False impressions, implying the writer was onsite at an incident or event.
1: Link to your sources – or risk misleading the reader
If you are going to use a computer to assemble content, you owe it to viewers to provide links to original content.
This digital standard was missing in a few instances in our example article.
The lead and following paragraphs use the attribution “said” in reference to a news release, rather than “stated” or “noted” — the preferred terms when you cite an inanimate object, such as an athletic department or news release.
No links are provided either for “a statement” (fifth paragraph), Rolovich’s hiring on Jan. 14, 2020 (accessible here), and while a link is included in the sentence “Earlier Monday, the National Hockey League announced that Evander Kane of the San Jose Sharks has been suspended,” that link opens to another CNN report, not the NHL announcement, which I found here.
The article does include some links: a link is provided for Gov. Jay Inslee’s proclamation requiring full vaccinations for state employees. And a link was provided for his salary.
But here’s where we hit the second item on our checklist…
2: Missed opportunities for contact
The reporter might have contacted the governor for a quote about Rolovich’s firing. But she leaves it at that.
There’s another missed opportunity for contact when the article references a Twitter statement by Rolovich in which he states that he is not getting the vaccine for “private” reasons.
It ends, “I will not comment further on my decision” – but things change, and a good reporter should check if the person is still refusing to comment or if they have new things to say — as turns out to be the case in this story…
3: Due diligence
He posted that statement on Twitter on July 21, 2021. And he would comment further—initially not whether he got the vaccine—but about his decision not to comment, as in this article in the Spokesman-Review.
Rolovich did confirm why he is not getting the vaccine—a fact omitted from Waldrop’s post. USA Today reported on Oct. 9 that he was seeking a religious exemption.
That disclosure would have made the Waldrop report more substantive. So would have a quote from a lawyer or theologian.
4: Avoid false impressions
A more serious omission comes in the last five paragraphs, featuring quotes from Rolovich about his situation: no link is provided, implying the reporter was at the postgame interview where those comments were made.
This is an unintentional oversight, but everyday viewers might not realize that.
Embedding the video would have not only avoided this — it would have provided a more valuable and engaging article, potentially increasing the amount of time readers spent on the story.
All too often these lapses are found in reports by cable news sites disseminated by wire services and reaching multitudes. Little is added by way of context—including whether additional information might be forthcoming—and then updating accordingly. Quotations are lifted from news conferences or on-site interviews without reference to source material, as if the writer was at the scene.
Basic standards that make reporting better
It’s important to note that Waldrop’s piece does contain information that viewers would have considered newsworthy. Again, my intent is to show how attention to basic standards—linking, additional information, updates and context—could have enhanced her article.
That used to be the task of copyeditors, eliminated in typical newsrooms. The onus now is on the reporter, which makes this discussion particularly vital.
Instant digital access allows reporters to keep pace with rapidly occurring developments. But the danger here is relying too much on access without the reporting. Eventually, that affects credibility—not only of the outlet but of the platform itself.
In a recent piece for Poynter, I wrote how Americans can’t tell the difference between fact and factoid, assigning political labels to news outlets based on columnists rather than reporters.
I argued for new standards to label opinion and, in some cases, require subscribers to opt-in to get them in newsletters.
Online editors and producers need to rethink what is becoming conventional practice—hurried reports without substantive context or updated information—that parades as quality journalism and is re-distributed as such.
Keep in mind that viewers (not to mention the competition) also question such reports, especially if content seems political, divisive or controversial. That’s when posts can be called out, often by what they omit as opposed to what they state.
We can apply higher standards with links to original content; additional quotations via phone, email or text; notations about whether new information is forthcoming and when; and transparency, attribution and links to actual conversations, without any semblance that a reporter was on the spot.
These simple practices will build trust and add value, especially since links to original content help SEO for an outlet. Moreover, updated information will be re-tweeted and shared, again enhancing credibility.
In the end, standards aside, rushed journalism is still news to many. But we are advocating here for reports that have an extra dimension. A few hours to contact sources via text, email or phone call is not too much to ask. Neither is a bit more effort to verify data or add context.
The public deserves better, and we can easily provide it with online tools.
In 2010, in a piece for Inside Higher Education, I wrote the following: “Without editors monitoring political campaigns, voting rights would be trampled and elections, routinely rigged. Candidates wouldn’t run for office; they’d purchase it.”
It was one of the many pieces I have written over the years as I documented the decline of the newspaper industry and the forces that factored into that.
Because of that work, I have some ideas for leaders to implement. Here’s the history and here’s what we can do about it.
By Michael Bugeja copyright 2021 Iowa Capital Dispatch
Protesters gather at a March for Freedom rally demonstrating against the Los Angeles City Council’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate for city employees and contractors on Nov. 8, 2021. (Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)
Emotional intelligence is the ability to fathom our feelings so as to reduce stress, enhance reasoning and perceive emotions in ourselves and others so as to enhance awareness and mental well-being.
The ability to process emotions has many benefits. We can interact prudently and mindfully with others, communicating effectively, overcoming challenges and defusing conflict.
The global pandemic requires such intelligence. We should empathize with others who have succumbed to coronavirus and its variants.
Those who received the vaccine have overcome one of the biggest challenges of the century.
But partisan politics and conspiracy theories, often promulgated by social media, have done little to defuse conflict.
The opposite of emotional intelligence is sectarianism, which has become “especially acrimonious in the United States,” according to a study published by the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Sectarianism is defined as political polarization driven by the urge to dominate and revile supporters of the opposing party.
Unlike emotional intelligence, sectarianism increases stress, triggers imprudent or even dangerous actions, and uses communication as a weapon, especially on social media.
As such, sectarianism does little to overcome challenges or defuse conflicts.
To practice emotional intelligence, we have to take inventory of our deepest desires, fears, beliefs and values.
Ask yourself, what do you wish more than anything in life? What prospect terrifies you the most? What are your convictions about political parties or policies? What moral principles do you embrace without question?
If you answer those questions, chances are you will not succumb to those who would mislead and manipulate you. They analyze your emotions and set a plan in motion to deceive you.
If you desire upward mobility, you can enhance your work ethic via mindfulness or fall prey to scammers with get-rich schemes. If you fear loss of employment, you can improve your skill sets or blame company policies for your shortcomings.
Political sectarians transform neighbors, friends and even relatives into godless socialists or ignorant fascists.
Kitchen debates, especially on holidays, can be disconcerting. When it comes to social media, we can unfriend those who disagree with us. And while that is generally unharmful, sectarianism in the time of pandemic can be lethal.
Another study, “The Anti-Vaccination Infodemic on Social Media,” noted that vaccinations are “one of the greatest achievements of modern medicine,” offering humanity a solution to halt the COVID-19 pandemic. That goal was undermined by the anti-vaccination movement spreading misinformation about safety. The study analyzed behavior on Twitter and found anti-vaxxers used emotionally charged language to dissuade others from being inoculated.
The same result was occurring on other platforms, including Instagram. When such tweets and posts were banned, anti-vaxxers developed their own coded language to circumvent monitors.
Instead of using hashtags like “#vaccineskill,” they used “abstruse hashtags like #learntherisk and #justasking.” They also spelled “vaccines with cedillas, “vaççines,” or modified spelling with brackets and parentheses, such as “va((ines.”
Because of social media crackdowns, NBC News reported that anti-vaxxers targeted local media. Whether on Twitter, Instagram or network TV affiliates, the goal was the same — information laundering.
Whitney Phillips, an assistant professor at Syracuse University, who studies media manipulation, notes: “If you make a harmful position sound reasonable, then more people who would otherwise not be inclined to believe it, might be willing to look at it as an issue with two sides.”
National news has been featuring anti-vaxxers who contracted coronavirus recanting previous beliefs and begging doctors too late for inoculations on their death beds.
This scenario has played out before in America, as early as 1721. James Franklin, older brother of Benjamin and publisher of The New England Courant, attacked an early type of smallpox inoculation called variolation —inserting into a recipient a minute amount from an infected person. The ensuing disease often would be milder and death, in most cases, averted.
The Courant attacked the procedure and attributed smallpox “as Judgments from an angry and displeased God.”
Benjamin Franklin came to the opposite conclusion, using emotional intelligence to keep an open and independent mind.
Despite his belief in inoculation, Franklin still experienced the loss of his 4-year-old son Francis to the disease. Francis was scheduled to be inoculated but suffered from a spell of diarrhea. Franklin had thought it best to wait until the symptoms passed. By then, though, his son contracted smallpox naturally and passed away.
Rumors spread that Francis died from the smallpox inoculation.
For the rest of this life, Franklin bitterly regretted not getting the inoculation earlier. He confessed that in his 1771 autobiography, clearing the air about the rumor so that others would not be deterred.
“I do hereby sincerely declare, that [Francis] was not inoculated, but receiv’d the Distemper in the common Way of Infection,” Franklin wrote. “Inoculation was a safe and beneficial Practice … and that I intended to have my Child inoculated, as soon as he should have recovered sufficient Strength.”
To this day, Franklin is revered as a scientist and patriot. Perhaps others can heed his message and get the vaccine.
Michael Bugeja is the author of “Living Media Ethics” (Routledge/Taylor & Francis) and “Interpersonal Divide in the Age of the Machine” (Oxford Univ. Press). He is a regular contributor to Iowa Capital Dispatch and is writing a series of columns on the topic of “Living Ethics.”