Hoaxes and scams take an emotional toll

Michael Bugeja


The cost of internet scams and hoaxes isn’t limited to money. (Photo by Michael Geiger via Unsplash)

Countless people have lost millions of dollars to online hoaxes and scams, but the biggest collective loss concerns trust. Losing trust hurts us more than money ever could.

Internet deceptions afflict everyone, from a child awaiting a pet to a pensioner awaiting a Social Security check.

Let’s deal with pets first, as these scams have become prevalent during the pandemic.

 Freya, pictured here at 12 weeks, is a Maine Coon purchased from an Iowa breeder registered at The International Cat Association (TICA) and Cat Fanciers’ Association (CFA). (Photo by Michael Bugeja)

Many people, including me, wanted a kitten or puppy to help alleviate the stress of working at home. Unbeknownst to us, there are hundreds of fraudulent websites that prey upon your longing for that perfect pedigreed pet.

For instance, I wanted a Maine Coon but was almost taken in by scams.

Maine Coons, the largest cat breed, are highly desirable and typically go for between $1,500-$4,000. Often there is a waiting list with non-refundable deposits.

Internet has acclimated us to get anything we want on demand, and so many fall for these scams.

When you google “Maine Coon Kittens for Sale,” or crowdsource for them on Facebook, you will get hundreds of websites with adorable pets that somehow have not been reserved, selling for bottom-basement prices.

Here’s a screenshot of a scam site. (All pet scams use the same methods.)

 Screen shot of an internet site claiming to sell pedigreed kittens.

Those photos featured here are likely pilfered from reputable breeders registered with the International Cat Association or Cat Fanciers’ Association. The kittens would cost thousands. But wait — there’s a sale on this site! You can get these gorgeous cats for $400 apiece.

If you click on “Buy Now,” you won’t be able to telephone this breeder. Everything will be done online through their websites. But wait — there’s more! You’ll get your kitten with a half-price shipping rate of a few hundred dollars.

It’s a bargain, and your pet will be shipped immediately.

You’ll be asked to pay via Venmo or Zelle or other pay site. As soon as you hit “send,” your money is lost.

By now you and perhaps your children have invested emotionally in a particular pet. You have become a prime target for more deception.

Here’s what comes next. You will be asked to cover boarding fees. Perhaps the pet has missed its flight or became ill and now you must pay for a ventilated cage as well as vet fees. And if you refuse, threats about pet abandonment and legal costs follow.

You will never get the kitten or pup.

These sites are so numerous that as soon as you report one to the website hosting company, the scammer simply creates another site with a new name and same script.

How to spot a scam

To check if you are dealing with a scammer, go to the “About” tab of the site. Select and copy a suspect sentence that does not sound quite right — perhaps one with an awkward word or seldom-used phrase. Then paste that suspicious sentence onto an internet search engine.

If it is a scam, you will see multiple websites with the same sentence, all offering kittens depicted with different backgrounds (because photos are stolen various from legitimate breeders).

Other popular scams include fake Amazon charges, Social Security/IRS violations, and internet/telephone service refunds.

No matter the con, fraudsters often read from the same script.

Case in point: IRS scammers will state that you were audited and must pay penalties with gift cards or face jail time.

The scam has been so successful that the IRS has a video about it.

But this is just one of thousands of scams that most of us deal with or ignore daily. The AARP reports up to 150 million illicit calls per month.

Hoaxes do as much damage as scams. Those are associated with mainstream and social media and prey upon our fears, beliefs, and values. Here are common ones:

  • Fear of a certain ethnic, social-class or political group.
  • Belief that people who look different are inherently immoral, moral, unintelligent or intelligent.
  • Belief in or skepticism about the paranormal.
  • Conviction about a political party, candidate, religious deity, etc.

Hoaxsters typically persuade us to take action by affirming our fears or validating our biases. And in an age of deep fakesvoice cloning and conspiracies, we just might take the bait and base life choices on falsehoods.

Dealing with emotional fallout

The outcome is not in squandered funds but in loss of trust and the pervasive feeling that everyone is out to deceive us.

If you fear or suspect being scammed, visit the Federal Trade Commission site about what to do and how to report fraudulent activity.

If you have been scammed, you are likely feeling unhealthy symptoms, including anxiety, shame, depression, fear, insomnia and much more.

There is no government entity to help with that. Restorative practices include forgiving yourself; joining a local support group; confiding in a psychologist, pastor, mentor or trusted partner; and becoming active in your community.

Serving others, especially in volunteering, builds confidence in yourself and trust in others. Often that is the best remedy.

How can we keep our composure when everyone is so angry?


 Everyone seems to be angry these days, but maintaining composure can help calm people around us. (Photo by Priscilla Du Preez via Unsplash)

Everyone seems angry, cheated, entitled, resentful, deprived — new American norms afflicting every walk of life — from viral Karens and road-raging Kens to berserker travelers and conspiratorial lawmakers.

What has happened to Americans in the past decade?

Many blame fake news. Others, social media. And some say we’re responding psychologically to real depredation and disenfranchisement.

Whatever the cause, many of us seem to lack composure. Simply defined, composure is a feeling of calmness in the wake of criticism or crisis, knowing we have the wherewithal to handle any situation that might arise.

Life is difficult enough without coronavirus. Wearing masks is sensible and essential. But that has triggered all manner of rebellion, covering the mouth and shrouding identity when many of us want to air complaints.

A New York Times article, “The March of the Karens,” associates that name with “a type of interfering, hectoring white woman, the self-appointed hall monitor unloosed on the world,” demanding to speak to police for trivial or imaginary transgressions.

There is no consensus about the name of the male version of Karen, although “Ken” is gaining traction. He is described as an entitled snob, never satisfied with anything, “a jerk to the waiting staff, who always wants to speak to the manager.”

The Times article makes a salient observation. A Karen or Ken “has only words as weapons, and those words no longer hold as much power as they once did.” As a result, they resort to people with real power to enforce their wishes, and they resist.”

That enrages them.

Pandemic pique, road rage

A biting rebuke of this reaction is Late Show host Stephen Colbert’s satiric rendering of Dolly Parton’s “Jolene” with the theme changed to “I’m begging you, please just wear a mask.”

Masks have sparked a rise in unruly airline passengers, with the Federal Aviation Administration levying more than $1 million in fines. Between January and August 2021, the FAA logged 3,889 reports of unruly behavior, “nearly three-fourths of which were passengers who allegedly refused to comply with the federal face mask mandate in airports and on airplanes.”

Anger doesn’t abate when traveling in cars and trucks, with or without masks. In the past seven years, some 12,610 injuries and 218 murders have been attributed to road rage. A statistical report attributes causes to drunk driving, mental breakdowns and emotional strain.

Political angst

Americans are feeling emotional strain because of partisan politics. According to Science Daily, “Nearly 40% of Americans surveyed for a new study said politics is stressing them out, and 4% — the equivalent of 10 million U.S. adults — reported suicidal thoughts related to politics.”

A 2016 report by the Pew Research Center found for the first time since 1992, majorities in both parties express not just unfavorable but very unfavorable views of the other party.” Some 55% of Democrats are afraid of Republicans and 49% of Republicans are afraid of Democrats.

An article in Psychology Today titled “The Politics of Fear” explains how politicians use that emotion to divide us, often with the media’s help. “Fear is a very strong tool that can blur humans’ logic and change their behavior.”

Americans were fearful before the pandemic. Fear is at its zenith. An article in the Journal of Anxiety Disorders notes that fear is a normal response to the presence of danger. “However, when threat is uncertain and continuous, as in the current coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic, fear can become chronic and burdensome.”

We see segments regularly on the news. Fear is at the heart of rage in stores, cars, planes, and on the floor of Congress. Everyone wants to speak their mind no matter whom it hurts or offends.

As Benjamin Franklin once observed, “Thinking aloud is a habit which is responsible for most of mankind’s misery.”

The solution: composure

The antidote is composure. There is a dearth of it at the moment, but it is not yet dead.

Forbes published a useful article about how to maintain composure during difficult times. Here are recommendations:

  • Do not take things personally, allowing emotions to dominate your day.
  • Keep a positive mental attitude and project confidence in everyday activities.
  • Act decisively when situations warrant but also be accountable for your actions.
  • Remain calm in crises. Speak less. Listen more.

Those are easy to remember but hard to practice. But the more you do, the more others will heed and model that behavior, especially at the workplace.

To effect this, Franklin practiced a daily routine. When he awoke each morning, he envisioned the good he would do in the world. When he went to bed each night, he reflected on how well he lived up to his intentions.

For better or worse, all of us wear the mask of moral character that no cloth covering can conceal. Composure reflects that character, enabling you to rise above the daily vexations that plague us.REPUBLISH

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Michael Bugeja


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.”



Iowa Republican U.S. Rep. Mariannette Miller-Meeks shared a tweet from a parody site that President Joe Biden was withholding health benefits from unvaccinated veterans.

Miller-Meeks retweeted the bogus story from www.delawareohionews.com, adding “If true, this is insane!”

She justified the retweet with this statement:

“I retweeted a story about President Biden requiring the VA to withhold benefits from unvaccinated veterans, saying ‘if true, this is insane.’ The story and website is obviously satire and makes a powerful point. President Biden’s executive orders about COVID-19 have been classic examples of government overreach and these days the unbelievable has become reality.”

The parody included fake quotes attributed to Biden:

“You are willing to fight and die for your country. You are willing to take a bullet in the head for next to nothing. Get blown to bits over in Afghanistan. But you won’t let us pump some mRNA molecules into your arm?” the president continued. “It’s time to get real. Some of you are behaving like some real wise guys here, some real dummies. Wiseguy dumb-dumb boys, as my father used to say. Enough is enough. So sit down and get the dang shot. Do what we tell you to do and continue your service to this great country. Or go without your healthcare benefits. The choice is yours.” 

Delaware Ohio News warns viewers that everything “on this website is made up.” Nevertheless, people mistook the report for real news, expressing their disgust with the phony veterans vaccination decision. Here’s a screenshot:

This story emerged on the day an article by Michael Bugeja appeared on the Poynter news site about Americans being unable anymore to tell the difference between news and opinion.

A Media Insight Project survey found only 43% of respondents being able to easily sort news from opinion in online-only news or social media. They were more confident differentiating news from opinion in local TV news, “which usually contains no formal commentary.” Even when a news publisher labeled opinion as such, many people still could not tell the difference.

Bugeja discussed the Miller Meeks retweet with ABC News affiliate WOI television.

In the interview I warned, “Read before you retweet!” Any person with a constituency has an added obligation to check the validity of the source before affirming what might turn out to be an embarrassing topic or fake post. Parody takes no prisoners. While Democrats were the target of the parody, the piece ensnared mostly Republicans who believed it to be true.

Opinion: Opt-in to op-eds, a final attempt to distinguish news from opinion

Americans can’t tell the difference between fact and factoid and assign political labels to news outlets based on columnists rather than reporters.


By: Michael Bugeja

The New York Times deploys 1,700 journalists in 160 countries “to bear witness and hold power to account.”

Founded in 1851, the newspaper rose in prestige through the decades, beginning with coverage of the Titanic in 1912 and continuing with publication of The Pentagon Papers in 1971, changing the course of history and helping establish First Amendment freedoms in the process.

In 1913, librarians designated the Times as “the newspaper of record” because it indexed stories. The newspaper has won 132 Pulitzer Prizes, more than any other outlet, with its first for public service in 1918 — publishing full texts of official World War I records.

As of August 2021, the Times listed 16 op-ed columnists, including Maureen Dowd, Thomas L. Friedman and Paul Krugman.

Arguably, these and other columnists have shaped the newspaper’s reputation as much as the phalanx of reporters on the ground around the world, with many Americans still believing the Times is a bastion of liberal thought.

Media Bias/Fact Check rates the newspaper as moderately left of center, with highly factual reporting “considered one of the most reliable sources for news information due to proper sourcing and well-respected journalists/editors.” The analysis did find false claims in reportage with timely corrections made as soon as new information was available. Further, the site adds, “failed fact checks occurred on Op-Ed pages and not straight news reporting.”

The Times also was noted for its efforts on impartiality. For years it hired independent public editors to address newsroom bias. In “Why Readers See The Times as Liberal,” Liz Spayd, the sixth and last public editor, recommended “leaving editorials on the editorial page, banning campaign ads from the home page,” and diversifying political values in the newsroom.

A year later, the Times eliminated her position.

In her last report, “The Public Editor Signs Off,” Spayd wrote:

Having the role was a sign of institutional integrity, and losing it sends an ambiguous signal: Is the leadership growing weary of such advice or simply searching for a new model?

I am going to recommend that model — an opt-in newsletter for anyone willing to pay for op-eds. I am focusing on the Times because the newspaper already is moving in that direction. The model works for any major newspaper with a digital website.

Fact or factoid?

Many Americans do not know the difference between news and opinion.

A Media Insight Project survey found only 43% of respondents being able to easily sort news from opinion in online-only news or social media. They were more confident differentiating news from opinion in local TV news, “which usually contains no formal commentary.” Even when a news publisher labeled opinion as such, many people still could not tell the difference.

In “Opinion, news or editorial? Readers often can’t tell the difference,” Poynter contributor Eliana Miller noted that print media readers typically know what is and isn’t news. “Online, things aren’t so clear. Confusion fuels readers’ complaints that opinions, political agendas and bias are creeping into reporters’ work.”

Miller detailed efforts to delineate news from opinion, such as labeling and page design. She cited an editorial page editor explaining to the audience that op-ed writers are “paid to opine” and a content director videotaping interviews with columnists about their opinions.

All nice. All ineffective.

The situation has become alarming in recent years. A report by the Pew Research Center, “Distinguishing Between Factual and Opinion Statements in the News,” tested people’s ability to “recognize news as factual — something that’s capable of being proved or disproved by objective evidence — or as an opinion that reflects the beliefs and values of whoever expressed it.”

The study found that a majority of Americans could identify three of the five statements as news or opinion. “But this result is only a little better than random guesses. Far fewer Americans got all five correct, and roughly a quarter got most or all wrong.”

Some editors now label op-eds as “Opinion:” (with colon) in the first word of the headline. The New York Times, which retired the term “op-ed” earlier this year, includes the label “guest essay,” as in this recent one with a distinct political viewpoint: “The South’s Republicans Talk About Freedom While People Die.”

That was published on Sept. 6, 2021. The Times front page that day had comprehensive reports on a new abortion law in Texas, COVID-19 deaths, Afghan refugees, a Napoleonic general, and Nicaraguans who fear President Daniel Ortega — hardly content of a left-wing Democratic mouthpiece. But that is precisely what a federal appeals judge believed about the Times and The Washington Post (among others) in a dissenting opinion about an unrelated defamation case.

To combat such stereotypes, some newspapers have taken steps beyond labeling and design considerations. For instance, The San Diego Union-Tribune has a “News vs. Opinion” site, defining a news story, an editorial, a column, an analysis, a letter and an op-ed.

The Chicago Tribune responded last year to reader complaints with a multi-pronged approach, labeling op-eds “Tribune Voices,” developing headline standards for commentary, and revising the design of print pages with all columns in one place.

“Finally,” wrote then editor-in-chief Colin McMahon, “we are experimenting with other callouts we may add as we strive to be as transparent as possible with readers about what we do — particularly amid what is by all accounts a raw and hyperpartisan political environment.”

McMahon stepped down Aug. 10, 2021, “after a challenging 18 months at the helm of Chicago-based Tribune Publishing’s flagship newspaper.”

Every newspaper is experiencing challenging times, in part, because people increasingly do not believe legitimate news. Many Americans associate newsmakers, events—and even the pandemic—with partisan politics.

Consumers get free political news from websites, blogs and social media. That diet has consequences.

It’s time to opt in.

The case for newsletters

The New York Times has three types of email newsletters: briefings, personalized alerts, and subscriber-only. Briefings are free but point to the Times’ paywall. Personalized alerts build viewership in the same manner, attracting people passionate about a topic, writer or trend.

Some 19 out of 50 Times newsletters are now available only to subscribers. Nieman Lab staff writer Sarah Scire quoted Alex Hardiman, chief product officer at the Times, promoting newsletters because they attract people who “are far more likely to pay and to stay.”

Opinion writers reportedly are the anchor of newsletters, incentivizing recruitment and retention of subscribers.

Krugman, in fact, is mentioned as a particularly valuable asset to the newsletter format. You can find his columns in newsletters and on the Times’ digital website.

The Times should make one more adjustment to its model, removing Krugman and other opinion writers from the digital edition and including them only as opt-in newsletter headliners.

No doubt Krugman et. al. would dislike the option as it diminishes influence. That’s the point here. By all means, retain op-ed writers in print editions because readers readily can distinguish viewpoints from news.

This reverses a common marketing strategy that aligns viewpoints of columnists with the perceived psychographics of the target audience. This practice has blurred the line between news and opinion, exacerbated now because some current and former opinion page editors operate as digital engagement editors.

In “It’s time to rethink the opinion section,” media reporter Chris M. Sutcliffe makes the case for change when voices of columnists undermine reportage, often because news outlets promote commentary on social media.

“There is considerable incentive for columnists to be controversial or deliberately strident on some arbitrary issue, because they are rewarded for driving views,” Sutcliffe writes. “That controversy may be good for newspaper businesses in the short-term. However, when it undermines trust in the news side of the house, it undermines the business as a whole.”

In sum, newspapers should adopt all of the methods cited here:

  • Fact-check op-eds and require corrections for any fabrication, half-truth or exaggeration.
  • Survey audiences to see if they can tell the difference between news and opinion.
  • Create stand-alone digital and print pages, defining a news story, an editorial, a column, an analysis, a letter and an op-ed.
  • Clearly label op-eds, using “Opinion:” or “Guest Essay:” as the first words in the headline so that the term also appears in social media links.
  • Revise the design of the website and print page so that columnists are clustered in one place.
  • Hire or assign audience engagement editors with reporter rather than opinion credentials.
  • Consider an opt-in newsletter for op-eds, removing columnists from digital but not print editions.

Society and social media are awash with opinion, and we are paying the price, with people no longer believing in democracy, science and each other. Publishers need to do more so journalism regains its lost allure and people new respect for the demanding, dangerous and yes, impartial, jobs of reporters.

Otherwise, the lack of trust and perceived bias will taint reputations and decimate subscriptions.

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).

Updating the Trigger Warning in Contentious Times

With sexual assaults, racism and anxiety spiraling on college campuses, such warnings are needed now more than ever, argues Michael Bugeja.

By Michael Bugeja, Copyright 2021 by Inside Higher Ed 


I know what you’re thinking: we’ve covered trigger warnings for more than a decade, and you don’t need a refresher. Some of us use or refuse to use them, and you can find reasons to do either.

Pro-warning rationalesthey prepare students for content that might distress them. Students are still responsible for the material, and we can best solve individual issues during office hours, one on one. We cannot risk classroom disruptions with students crying and leaving class while others espouse ignorant or hateful views.

Con-warning rationalesthey coddle students, who need to be exposed to challenging topics. You cannot excuse some while requiring others to know the material. Disruptions are a fact of life. We shortchange students deleting controversial content from lectures and lesson plans.

But we need to revisit the idea of trigger warnings now because, in fact, times have changed. Although reporting levels remain low (Links to an external site.), one in four undergraduate female students and one in 15 undergraduate male students have been raped through physical force, incapacitation or violence, according to some estimates. Moreover, according to reporting in Inside Higher Ed (Links to an external site.), Black students continuously experience racism, coping with emotional trauma, increased anxiety and poor mental health outcomes.

Indeed, a mental health pandemic (Links to an external site.) is occurring on America’s college campuses, exacerbated by COVID-19. Recent statistics show an estimated 25 percent of college students have been diagnosed with or treated for a mental illness. Worse, 73 percent of students with mental health conditions have experienced a mental health crisis while on campus.

Add to that the anxiety of returning this fall (Links to an external site.) to face-to-face classes after a year of online and blended classes — a transition that will affect teachers as well as students.

Also factor in this: today’s multimedia classes differ significantly from those a decade ago when the issue of trigger warnings — the pros and cons — erupted on college campuses. Gone are clickers, overhead projectors and whiteboards; they’ve been replaced by YouTube videos, machine learning (Links to an external site.) and virtual and augmented reality (Links to an external site.). In other words, we’re recreating a facsimile of reality with the potential to trigger flashbacks without warnings.

Viewpoint Matters

According to a 2015 report (Links to an external site.) by the National Coalition Against Censorship, trigger warnings are defined as alerts to students that course material might be emotionally upsetting or offensive. The coalition states the origins were associated with content about sexual assault but now include “materials touching on a wide range of potentially sensitive subjects, including race, sexual orientation, disability, colonialism, torture and other topics.”

The organization also notes that requests for trigger warnings often come from students and that many (but not all) educators believe warnings have an adverse effect on academic freedom.

Another report (Links to an external site.) by the American Association of University Professors also states that trigger warnings are a threat to academic freedom: “The presumption that students need to be protected rather than challenged in a classroom is at once infantilizing and anti-intellectual.”

Then there is the 2016 letter (Links to an external site.) by John Ellison, dean of students at the University of Chicago, which sparked a national discussion about intellectual safe spaces. “Our commitment to academic freedom means that we do not support so-called trigger warnings, we do not cancel invited speakers because their topics might prove controversial, and we do not condone the creation of intellectual safe spaces where individuals can retreat from ideas and perspectives at odds with their own.”

Some evidence supports his stance. A 2019 study (Links to an external site.) published in Clinical Psychological Science suggests that trigger warnings do little to reduce stress in the classroom. Experiments exposed students to graphic videos, and some students were shown a trigger warning about the contents being disturbing while others did not view the warning. Afterward, participants reported emotional distress. They responded similarly whether or not they saw a trigger warning. Researchers concluded that trigger warnings had little effect on stress levels.

So why am I all in?

Measuring distress in a clinical experiment is one thing; encouraging discussion about distressing topics over an entire semester is another. Warning an incoming class about the absence of intellectual safe spaces is one thing; providing those spaces is another. Concerns about threats to academic freedom is one thing; exercising freedom responsibly is another.

Trigger warnings are as much about class discussion as graphic content. Professors who use or respect the use of trigger warnings typically are on alert about risks of discussing distressing content or reiterating racial slurs. They approach those conversations with sensitivity and decorum. Others who do not have been suspended (Links to an external site.) or fired (Links to an external site.).

You can label this “cancel culture (Links to an external site.)” and rail against it. Or you can acknowledge that professors are being held to rigorous standards apart from course content, typically involving discussion in a politically partisan environment (Links to an external site.).

Further, reports and studies conducted years ago fail to consider the audiovisual and multimedia nature of today’s engaged classroom. We show a lot more than PowerPoints. As noted earlier, we employ video, audio and multimedia platforms that recreate and, at times, reactivate intense experiences.

A case in point: in my media ethics class, we discuss how bystanders with mobile phones are changing attitudes about race with on-the-scene videos of discrimination and brutality. Those videos have had more impact in society than many news reports. Students also explore timelines of Black deaths at hands of law enforcement, like one the BBC recently published (Links to an external site.).

Should we show accompanying YouTube videos without warnings, knowing students of color regularly experience racism (Links to an external site.) and perhaps as many as a quarter of the students in every class have personal survivor memories of sexual misconduct?

Previously cited demurrals about trigger warnings have one flaw: they indirectly affirm the professor’s viewpoint rather than the student’s.

Campus crime alerts do the opposite. When my institution issues such an alert, it begins with a warning: “Any recipients of this notice who have been a prior victim of sexual misconduct or assault should be aware the following message could invoke an emotional response.” It also states the intended outcome: “to provide information that promotes safety; facilitate individuals being able to better protect themselves; and describe details regarding the date, location and type of crime involved.”

Institutional review boards use similar language when approving surveys that might trigger intense emotions. The perspective of human subjects outweighs that of researchers. At Iowa State University, our review board’s purpose is “to ensure that the rights and safety of human participants in research are protected,” advising investigators to design projects “that minimize potential harm to participants.”

That is the goal when it comes to students.

Words of Warning

In 1995, I started assembling information in advance about possible triggers in each media ethics class. Data are collected in our “trigger word game,” conducted electronically now via Zoom. You can see responses here (Links to an external site.).

Using the anonymous chat function, students send me a word or short phrase that evokes an intense positive or negative emotion. I’ve instructed them to use proper nouns rather than lowercase words that might harken to past personal experiences. Capitalized terms can be traced to culture, pop culture, government, media, social debate or “other” category. That’s instructional. (Links to an external site.)

I compile a comprehensive list of words from the entire class. We use the chat function again, asking students if each term also constitutes a trigger for them. After all votes are tabulated, we compile a “Top 10 Trigger” list.

Here’s one from spring 2021:

  1. COVID-19 [media]
  2. Black Lives Matter [social debate]
  3. Trump [government]
  4. MAGA [media]
  5. #MeToo [social debate]
  6. George Floyd [social debate]
  7. [Iowa governor] Kim Reynolds [government]
  8. Kamala Harris [government]
  9. Planned Parenthood [social debate]
  10. Christianity [culture]

We cover Nos. 1 through 6 and 10 in my ethics classes. That gives me knowledge about where warnings may be warranted.

As instructor, I am obligated to ensure that everyone still knows the material. To do so, I provide a schedule of each lecture with description of content and digital study guides covering material needed for exams.

The schedule appears in the syllabus under “Content of Lectures (Links to an external site.),” containing this disclosure:

In media ethics we deal with several sensitive topics. As such, you will see trigger warnings on segments that require such. You can miss class during these sessions and view website content on your own. You also may decide not to view that content but instead access a digital study guide without certain multimedia to acquaint you with concepts that may be covered in exams. If you decide to miss class, just send an excuse email stating that you will view the study guide.

Before class I send out an email reminder about content of the day’s lecture. Here is one that contains a trigger warning:

Lecture #22. Temptation. Temptation is something we all live with, as part of human nature. It involves ethical choices, especially ones we make in our personal and professional lives. Case studies illustrate risks. Trigger Warning: Content deals with conflicts of interest, Iowa State Daily coverage of sexual assault, and information about alcohol and misconduct. Note: You don’t have to attend class if the content elicits an uncomfortable emotional response. Just send an email about the absence and view this study guide: https://myethicsclass.com/temptation-edited/ (Links to an external site.)

Students also know that those attending class will engage in spirited debate as my syllabus includes a free speech statement, required by my institution, upholding “open inquiry on a diversity of ideas.” Students are not penalized for germane viewpoints conveyed in an appropriate manner.

By adapting the traditional trigger warning model, you can enhance learning with a detailed schedule about content, email reminders about that schedule, advance notice of sensitive material, modification of attendance policies and alternative venues and study guides. Yes, that’s a lot of work on part of the professor. But it accomplishes one of the best practices for student learning: organization (Links to an external site.).

Trigger warnings respect the student’s viewpoint. Study guides allow students to opt out of a session while still being responsible for material. Free speech and civil discourse are encouraged. Content of lectures in syllabi puts everyone on notice that sensitive topics will be discussed on a particular day and in a particular manner, helping to maintain classroom climate.

I adopted this standard during pandemic Zoom sessions. I had always used trigger warnings on my websites and in-class lectures and videos. But several students asked me to do more, providing detailed schedules, study guides and advance emails about content.

I listened to them and revamped my course, understanding their concerns about this tumultuous time in our history and improving my instruction in the process.


Michael Bugeja, distinguished professor of liberal arts and sciences at Iowa State University, is author of Interpersonal Divide in the Age of the Machine and Living Media Ethics: Across Platforms (Links to an external site.) (Oxford University Press, 2017). The views expressed here are his own.

After a tsunami of negative emotions, can we find saving grace?


Grace can help counter the negative emotions of the past year. (Photo by Jackson David via Unsplash)

In the past few years people have weathered a tsunami of negative emotions, triggered by political strife, economic hardship and global pandemic.

How many have you experienced in the list below?

  • Fear
  • Anger
  • Disgust
  • Rage
  • Annoyance
  • Sadness
  • Loneliness
  • Melancholy

Social media spread those emotions among the populace. The Brookings Institution used Twitter data to document the fear, anger and disgust that follows after mass shootings. “Rage,” title of a 2020 book by Bob Woodward, became synonymous with divisive politics. Then there was the Jan. 6 insurrection. We are annoyed by some 150 million robocalls each monthCurfews, closures and lockdowns due to COVID-19 spawned worldwide sadness, loneliness and melancholy.

As we aright ourselves economically and, perhaps, politically, it may be time to reacquaint ourselves with high moral principles: forgiveness, sympathy, compassion, empathy and grace.

Those emotions are associated with consciousness and conscience, terms often used interchangeably but that have distinct philosophical definitions:

  • Consciousness: A sense of awareness, involving how our interactions affect or influence others and ourselves. By expanding our perception, we can foresee consequences of our actions before taking them and minimize harm.
  • Conscience: An intuitive knowledge of right and wrong, involving how we choose to live among and view others. It is a tiny voice inside us, informing us about what to do and avoid and when and how to act under pressure.

We have much to forgive as individuals and as a country. According to an NPR report, political polarization has reached a peak. A recent survey indicates nearly 80% of Americans have only a few friends, or none at all, across the political aisle.

Forgiveness involves a conscious decision to let go feelings of anger against a person, thing or group that has caused harm, whether or not the other is worthy of it. Once you opt to forgive, the conscience is uplifted, along with your spirit.

America has exceeded 611,000 COVID-19 related deaths. Worse, hundreds of thousands of those died alone without family because of fear of infection. The Biden administration is paying up to $9,000 for each person who died of coronavirus at an estimated cost of billions of dollars.

While some may argue about cost, the gesture symbolizes the conscience of a nation. As we end social distancing, perhaps we can express sympathy anew to surviving families and friends.

Compassion is a response to suffering. As happens with sympathy, the conscience feels the plight of others. Now, however, consciousness kicks in, sparking the desire to do something and ease the physical or spiritual pain.

An article in the Lancet titled “Compassion in a Time of COVID-19,” states that people are motivated to act “because the phenomena we observe are unjust, not worthy of the world we would like to live in.”

Empathy unifies us in times of crisis. The conscience grasps that we are fellow travelers in a shared world regardless of our nationality, sex, race or social class.

According to Forbes Magazine, “empathy is our desire and willingness to see as others see and to feel as they feel” and “is the single most important leadership skill that outshines all others.”

Dolley Madison, wife of President James Madison, is regarded by many as our country’s first celebrity. The National Endowment for the Humanities notes that her qualities of “empathy, warmth, and courteous consideration account for both her enduring fame and her historical legacy.”

When the British burned the White House in the War of 1812, she gave instructions to rescue the portrait of George Washington, concerned what the enemy would do with it if the painting ever fell into their hands.

The highest ethical value is grace. The emotion raises consciousness and deepens conscience, inducing insight into the human condition.

Grace incorporates forgiveness, sympathy, compassion and empathy in one transcendent act.

Unfortunately, many never experience grace, but those who have might recall a time of crisis, when something happened, distorting awareness and chilling conscience. A person feels lost, confused. Abandoned. Finally, they go to a parent or partner, fearing rebuke. They confess an act or thought, only to have the other reach out in loving embrace, acknowledging the human condition.

We are a fallen species, perhaps, but worthy of redemption.

The power of grace is transformative and often at the heart of great literary works, such as Victor Hugo’s “Les Misérables.”

We’ll end with an excerpt from that work, which promises “the advance from evil to good, from injustice to justice, from falsity to truth, from darkness to daylight, from blind appetite to conscience, from decay to life, from bestiality to duty, from Hell to Heaven, from Limbo to God.”

That is grace. May we all experience or remember it as we emerge from isolation and interact with each other again.

It just might save us all.REPUBLISH

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Michael Bugeja


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.” MORE FROM AUTHOR

Bourdain film illustrates ethical issues with voice cloning, media manipulation

by Michael Bugeja, Iowa Capital Dispatch
July 24, 2021

In a new documentary about the late celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain, he is heard discussing his life shortly before committing suicide. “You are successful, and I am successful, and I’m wondering: Are you happy?”

Questions arose about Bourdain’s voice. He wrote those words in an email, and people were wondering how the filmmaker purloined an audio clip.

As it happened, director Morgan Neville used “deep fake” technology in his film, “Roadrunner.” He resorted to voice cloning because he could not find adequate and authentic audio for the story he wanted to tell.

In journalism, we used to call this lazy.

When movie critics learned about this, they panned Neville’s use of deep fakes, currently being deployed to deceive viewers on social and multimedia, especially in political ads.

Neville claimed he was not manipulating the audience. “We can have a documentary ethics panel about it later,” he quipped.

We can do so now.

The term “documentary ethics” is oxymoronic. Neville believes deep-fake technology is a storytelling tool. It’s not. It’s manipulative.

I have no doubt the technique in due time it will become acceptable. We’re living in a post-truth age.

In one generation, media ethics went from differentiating between interviewing a source in person or by telephone to via email, tweet or text message, and now to deep fakes.

Neville argues that he wasn’t putting words into Bourdain’s mouth; he was just inserting audio.

That is true, in a sense; but it ignores the importance of tone. You can ask, “Are you happy?” in an introspective or infuriated voice.

Voice cloning not only is being used by filmmakers, but cybercriminals, too.

In one case, a chief executive officer’s voice was cloned to trick him into transferring $243,000 into the criminal’s account.

Cybercrimes are classic examples of manipulation, defined as attacking a person’s mental and emotional states, thereby creating an imbalance of power to gain control, benefits or privileges at the expense of the victim.

An encyclopedia entry, “The Ethics of Manipulation,” identifies three types:

  • Manipulation that bypasses reason, such as subliminal advertising or hypnosis.
  • Manipulation as trickery, such as advertising that promotes false claims or induces false beliefs.
  • Manipulation as pressure, such as scam phone calls warning about costs if demands are not heeded.

Watch out for deep fakes in political ads

Voice cloning has the potential to combine all manipulative types. You can anticipate its wide use in mid-term election political advertisements.

Edward Bernays, the so-called father of public relations, wrote this ominous quote in 1928:

“The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society. Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country. We are governed, our minds are molded, our tastes formed, and our ideas suggested, largely by men we have never heard of. … It is they who pull the wires that control the public mind.”

Little did Bernays realize his methods would be used years later by dictators.

In “The Manipulation of the American Mind,” Richard Gunderman, Chancellor’s professor of medicine at Indiana University–Purdue University Indianapolis, writes that Bernays used fear to sell products. “For Dixie cups, Bernays launched a campaign to scare people into thinking that only disposable cups were sanitary.” Bernays even founded the Committee for the Study and Promotion of the Sanitary Dispensing of Food and Drink.

“Bernays sought to turn citizens and neighbors into consumers who use their purchasing power to propel themselves down the road to happiness,” Gunderman writes.

If we change the words “purchasing power” to “votes,” we can see how manipulation plays a role in political advertising.

The news magazine, The Week, compiled some of the most manipulative political ads of the 2020 election.

One of the worst was titled “Meet Joe Biden’s Supporters,” showing riots and mayhem associated with Black Lives Matter and culminating with hellish music and a maniacal laugh.

Biden hit back, turning the tables on former President Trump in an advertisement titled, “You’ll Never See Me Again.”

The ad is only 10 seconds and shows Trump speaking at one of his rallies, stating, “If I lose to him, I don’t know what I am going to do. I will never speak to you again. You’ll never see me again.” Then we hear: “I’m Joe Biden, and I approved this message.”

To understand manipulation on a personal level, take an inventory of your deepest desires, convictions, fears, values and beliefs. Manipulators target them in a strategy to make you do something you ordinarily would not do.

When you respond emotionally to a political ad, positively or negatively, remember you are the target voter. You can still hold your political beliefs while acknowledging that the video, audio and voice is manipulating you.

This is true even if that voice is one you recognize and admire— Biden, Nancy Pelosi, Kamala Harris, Trump, Mike Pence, Mitch McConnell — because you no longer can trust what you see or hear.


Iowa Capital Dispatch is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Iowa Capital Dispatch maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Kathie Obradovich for questions: info@iowacapitaldispatch.com. Follow Iowa Capital Dispatch on Facebook and Twitter.

You can’t be a truth-seeker if you’re also a liar

Trump’s claim that he won the 2020 election is one lie in a culture of falsehood. Media ethics students learn they, too, often fail at truth-telling.

In this Jan. 12, 2021, file photo President Donald Trump walks to board Marine One on the South Lawn of the White House in Washington. In a fall 2019 and early spring 2020 media ethics class at Greenlee School Journalism and Communication at Iowa State University, Michael Bugeja and his students studied lies, deceit and secrecy in the first impeachment trial of Donald Trump (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert, File)

By: Michael Bugeja, copyright 2021, Poynter Institute

In 1996, 77 college students kept a diary of their social interactions every day for a week, noting all the lies that they told, whom they told them to, and their reasons for telling them.

According to an article titled “Lying in Everyday Life” published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, students told two lies per day on average. That translated into about one lie in every three encounters. In general, women told as many lies as men, but those tended to differ in substance, with women tending to lie to make people feel better and men to make themselves look better.

When that article appeared in June 1996, I had been doing a similar diary exercise for about six years in my media ethics classes at Ohio University. Students received these instructions:

  1. In a personal journal, for a period of one week, keep track of all the white lies, half-truths and falsehoods that you say or indicate to others. Under each incident or item, briefly note the immediate, future or possible consequences of the lie.
  2. Keep track of all the white lies, half-truths and falsehoods that others say or indicate to you. Under each incident or item, briefly note the immediate, future or possible consequences of the lie.
  3. Keep track of times when you wanted to tell a white lie, half-truth or falsehood … but caught yourself and told the truth or declined to answer the question (doing so in a polite, discreet, or otherwise appropriate way).
  4. In your personal journal, write about what you learned from the exercise.

I continued this exercise through my tenure at OU, ending in 2003. On average, students told between two to six lies per day underestimating the consequences, caught others in a lie every other day dispensing swift consequences, and were tempted to lie but told the truth about once or twice a week. Essentially, that meant students were interacting in an environment of lies as many went undiscovered with liars seemingly escaping consequences.

For the rest of the article, click here or visit: https://www.poynter.org/ethics-trust/2021/you-cant-be-a-truth-seeker-if-youre-also-a-liar/

Digital data is not a shortcut to fact-based truth


It’s a myth that data provide us with “undiscovered truth.” (Creative Commons photo via Pxhere)

Before tackling algorithmic “truth” — data that affirm some views over others — ethicists typically assert that actual, factual truth should be the cornerstone of any value system.

If you rely on machines for perception, you’ll end up seeing or believing things that are not there and overlooking ones that are.

To be sure, perception varies from person to person based on experience, education, culture, religion or another variable, but truth is a constant. Many of humanity’s woes emanate from mistaking one’s perception as reality.

Truth is often relative, although there are a few universal tenets. They include such absolutes as it is wrong to lie, to steal, to humiliate others and right to be generous, responsible and honorable. Nevertheless, the pursuit of fact-based truth sharpens perception, expands awareness and deepens conscience.

Truth is subject to proof, without which we have opinion. And while everyone is entitled to that, machines are thought to transcend any human point of view.

That, of course, is a myth.

The myth of ‘undiscovered truth’ from data

Technologists have embraced that myth for decades. They claim digital data helps discover hitherto unexplored truths.

The problem with that is how data are used, especially in social media, and interpreted by users whose perception is skewed.

Case in point: At 4 a.m. on Nov. 4, as presidential votes were being tallied in multiple states, the polling website fivethirtyeight.com posted this chart showing a huge spike in the Wisconsin vote for Joe Biden. In actuality, all that happened was the city of Milwaukee uploaded absentee ballots, which had taken time to verify and assemble.

This Facebook post, which garnered a mere 38 reactions, was shared 77 times, claiming someone stealthily added votes to tilt the tide to Biden. Others picked up the deduction. An Instagram post intimated an illegal vote dump and conspiracy. Twitter erupted. Within hours, President Trump retweeted the false narrative to his 89 million followers.

By then, news organizations were covering allegations. Soon talking heads took over — some Democratsome Republican — in disputing or affirming the now mysterious early morning pro-Biden lead.

In the months that followed, this and related voter fraud charges made their way through Wisconsin courts to the U.S. Supreme Court, which finally on March 8 declined to hear the case.

Keep in mind that this is technological — not political — commentary. You may dispute that. After all, social media assumes every example, every utterance, should be viewed through the prism of divisive politics.

If you want to cast blame, level it at how we receive and cipher information.

Big data, bigger lies

In an article titled “Algorithms and data construct ‘truth,’ not discover it,” artificial intelligence expert Kalev Leetaru debunks the idea that algorithms adjust for human bias with “pristine mathematical perfection that captures the world as it is rather than the world biased humans would like.”

Unfortunately, he notes, the world depicted by data is especially prejudiced. Eventually, people realize this. But when governments and organizations do, they manipulate data to replace algorithmic “truth” with “the preordained outcome they desire.”

The result is mass obfuscation of reality.

The Eticas Foundation, which analyzes technological bias in the interest of public debate, acknowledges that “the public largely believes that machines are neutral arbiters.” However, the foundation questions whether algorithms “amplify and extend” discrimination prevalent in society.

In that vein, a recent study finds that algorithms ingest unchecked information that engages people interactively, often via social media, further eroding truth. People then base decisions on the biased data, which algorithms also gather, leading to increasingly unreliable information.

Machine vs. humane values

This above effect is not new. In fact, George Washington — purported never to tell a lie (a historic fabrication) — believed authority figures bamboozled citizens by “concealment of some facts, & the exaggeration of others, (where there is an influence) to bias [a] well-meaning mind — at least for a time.”

His remedy? “Truth will ultimately prevail where pains are taken to bring it to light.”

To this day, that remains the solution, which I have documented since 2004 in my Oxford University Press books, the latest titled “Interpersonal Divide in the Age of the Machine” (2017).

Given the time we spend on social media, now more than two hours per day (apart from other screen time), we have replaced humane values with machine ones. They include:

  • Importance of self over others.
  • Boredom over attentiveness.
  • Oversharing over privacy.
  • Entertainment over knowledge.
  • Distraction over concentration.
  • Incivility over empathy.
  • Affirmation over information.
  • Belief over fact.

If you want to change perception so that it is closer to reality, just reverse the aforementioned tenets. Make others as important as yourself. Be attentive. Protect privacy. Focus. Be empathic, civil. Seek knowledge and fact-based information from a variety of trusted sources.

If you do, as George Washington promised, the truth will come to light.

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.”

Reviving awe during the pandemic

We hear so little in the news to uplift us, but there are everyday wonders above, below and among us.

Michael Bugeja, Guest Columnist, Des Moines Register

On Feb. 24, an American Airlines pilot in route to Phoenix saw an unidentified flying object whiz by at enormous speed, prompting him to radio, “Do you have any targets up here? We just had something go over the top of us that — I hate to say this — looked like a long cylindrical object.”

A blogger accidently intercepted the communication, uploaded to YouTube.

But the incident barely made news. Consumed with the usual journalism fare, we heard about Capitol security officers to testify before Congress, Joe Biden to fight climate change, Donald Trump to speak at a Conservative convention, and Cabinet nominees to be confirmed.

One wonders how journalism would cover an encounter of the third kind with a big-eyed tiny-mouthed oval-headed visitor foretelling a wondrous future for humankind. Would CNN and Fox News still lead with analyses affirming worst suspicions about Biden and Trump to fervent target audiences?

This op ed is dedicated to rekindling awe in short supply because of COVID-19 and divisive politics in a post-presidential election year.

FOR THE REST OF THE ARTICLE, click here or visit: https://www.desmoinesregister.com/story/opinion/columnists/iowa-view/2021/03/07/coronavirus-pandemic-stress-we-need-revive-our-awe/688936900