EOTO Classmate Review

November 11, 2008
U. of Wisconsin doctored photo

U. of Wisconsin brochure doctored to show "diversity"

1. Alex Molaire focused her project — like a trusty camera lens — on the manipulation of digital photos. This modern scandal has a historical context involving the rise of computers, so Alex begins appropriately with some numerical data describing the well-known tendency of readers in “wired” countries worldwide to abandon print media in favor of internet media. She points out that this is a global phenomenon, and that the world’s top ten online news sources hail from the U.S., the U.K., China, and South Korea.

Because of the digitization of photos and the inter-connectedness of the web, Alex says, it is easier for manipulated photos to be passed along and published on many websites before they are corrected or identified as fakes — this is part of the “viral” nature of the internet. A manipulated photo might appear once or twice in a print media source, but it would not receive the same maniacal level of attention or be passed along as many times as is possible over the internet.

I paused for a moment and thought of the Thomas Friedman book we read at the beginning of this course, The World Is Flat. He talks about “the digitization of media.” One technical concept that makes the information superhighway possible is that photos, videos, spoken words, written text, music, and many other forms of information can be “digitized” — represented by a series of numbers in a mathematical language that the computer can read and display and, well, allow users to manipulate.

It occurred to me, and Alex came to the same conclusion, that in the doctoring of digital photos, digitization is both the underlying technical culprit and the hope for technical solution. If software is being developed to make it easier to doctor photos, why not develop counter-software to detect and reveal where doctoring has taken place!

I found this list of 15 (in)famous manipulated photos at http://www.listverse.com. Some of them issued from familiar private sources such as Time Magazine and The University of Wisconsin (see above!), other from state-owned media such as the Stalin photo. It occurred to me that there needs to be a set of checks and balances in place for such photos to be discovered and exposed — the reading public needs to be vigilant. The adoption of formal ethical standards, as Alex suggests, may help, but some news sources may have a strong motive to spread misinformation, and who’s going to hold them accountable to their own professed ethical standards?

Alex’s project was deeply researched and I would like to write much more about it, but I can only scratch the surface here.

Fact Checking the campaigns

Fact Checking the campaigns

2. Betty Dishman wrote about voter information and misinformation. Her project was quite similar to mine, but focused more on getting accurate information rather than the debate and learning aspect. A couple of her fears seemed to overlap with mine — such as basing voting decisions on fear and emotion rather than fact — and I almost shuddered when I read her 5th fear:

“Our country will become [more] divided and polarized than it already is.”

The first website she links to, “Obama Crimes,” currently displays a message that says “upgrading due to interest and traffic” — which could indicate that its readership has increased even since the election, a troubling possibility. Thanks to a Facebook friend who is a vocal right-wing conspiracy buff, I am familiar with the story of Philip J. Berg, who has filed a lawsuit in Federal Court alleging that Obama is not a natural-born citizen of the United States, and therefore, cannot meet the Constitutional requirements for being President of the United States. That there is such a lawsuit, and that it has been apis fact, not myth, but whether there is any substance behind it is something we have yet to see.

I agree with Betty’s assessment of FactCheck.org and the “fact check” sections of mainstream media sites like CNN.com — they seem generally reliable about specific facts and claims. In response to the questions about Obama’s birth and citizenship status, Factcheck.org staff members actually went to Chicago to examine the Obama birth certificate that the campaign holds there, and they believe it is valid.

One thing that has helped me the most in getting accurate information during this election is listening to each candidates’ broadcasted speeches as much as possible, on TV and YouTube and elsewhere. These are the things that they say about themselves and their own agenda, and are more reliable than 100 blogs or websites. Ideally, every town (or neighborhood!) in the nation would get a lengthy town-hall meeting with both candidates, with the opportunity to hear them speak live and ask questions spontaneously. Short of that ideal, we’ll have to trust that the broadcasted speeches are an accurate presentation of what each candidate actually thinks.

internet censorship in China

internet censorship in China

3. Dick Barron has written an essay about internet censorship in China. We studied specific examples and data about censorship in China in class. For example, we found that the websites of places like the Asian-American Baptist Church in Dallas, Texas, and key military websites of Western nations and Israel were blocked in China. What exactly the Baptist church has to do with the Department of Defense is unclear to me, but they both seem to be unwelcome to the communist government of China.

Dick is concerned about the selective blocking of web domains that goes on in China, so that anti-American and pro-China resources are encouraged to the exclusion of those that would present a positive image of America or criticize China’s government. Dick is concerned that fostering an anti-American mentality among the population could make the nation more likely to sell weapons or give military support to an anti-American regime like North Korea or to potential terrorists.

Dick offers some creative solutions. One is to promote the development of more counter-censorship software that would allow individual users in China to reach blocked websites. Another would be to create a world Communications Summit where China is invited along with several more open nations such as India, “to show best practices and best results from open and free-flowing Internet use.”

I was slightly surprised that Dick did not use some of the empirical data from our class’s study of Chinese internet censorship. He could have made his case even more strongly with examples of blocked websites and content, and what types of empirically verifiable behaviors or attitudes those types of censorship may have led to among the population. But on the whole his project was well thought out and well stated.

GPS satellite in orbit

GPS satellite in orbit

4. It’s been amazing to see how my classmates have tied the themes of their blogs into the EOTO topics they have chosen to write about. Katie Lowrance is no exception. Her blog is about athletics — marathons — and how to use the internet to find interest and information about running. Now what technology could possibly be more useful to a runner than GPS (Global Positioning System)? See the connection?

Katie lists a couple of the positive things GPS devices have done for her and for our society in general. They help us save time and gas, which is money. They help make travel to formerly unknown areas easier to accomplish. Also, they help “spatially-challenged” people, as Katie put it, find their destinations with assurance — without having to rely solely on clunky maps, confusing verbal directions from gas station attendants, etc.

I was pretty surprised when I read Katie’s fears about GPS. I didn’t know some of the malicious uses that have already been made out of this technology. Apparently the hijackers of United Airlines Flight 93 used some form of GPS technology to align their stolen plane’s flight path with the World Trade Center. Wow, that’s pretty scary. And I didn’t know that people could steal GPS devices out of cars and use them to find out where that person lives, so as to commit a crime against that person at his home. We all need to be careful about clearing the cache of private information we enter into GPS systems.

I hope Katie will continue to explore this technology, and will write about its usefulness for runners. I would like to see her write more about how runners can plan their paths, calculate distances, and all of the other useful things they can probably do with a hand-held GPS device.

Video killed the radio star?

Video killed the radio star?

5. Kennedy Elliott showed a lot of analytical flair in investigating the Fair Use Doctrine and how it applies to videos posted on YouTube.  Kennedy’s post was a delicious taste of the world of intellectual property rights and internet law, which I hope to explore in the near future, perhaps through another UNC Certificate course.

It seems that the main issue here surrounded the removal of certain McCain/Palin campaign videos from YouTube with just weeks or a few days left until the election.  The tremendous importance of a few days was neglected under the current legal arrangement, which causes videos to be taken down immediately if they are claimed to be in copyright violation by any party; and it can take weeks to effectively appeal a take-down.

This kind of legal arrangement seems like a natural breeding-ground for false accusations, as I believe Kennedy expressed well in her title, “Guilty Until Proven Fair Use.”  There is basically no incentive for people to avoid making false accusations, and every incentive for them to do so.  The video gets automatically pulled down until it can be investigated, while nothing negative happens to the accuser if the accusation was false.  The accuser does not have to provide their personal information, while the remixer of the video does have to give personal information in order to appeal, etc.

In addition to the solutions Kennedy proposed, I would say there needs to be weightier liability for making false accusations.  Kennedy mentioned that YouTube took this into its own hands to some extent recently by suspending the accounts of those who made false accusations about some videos related to Scientology.  I would say these claimants should also be subject to countersuit for damages suffered by the remixer of the video.

I think we will see a time soon when YouTube will not be the only place to share videos.  It is a wonderful video community, but I believe more will come.  Also, tech-saavy members of political parties can start posting videos to their own websites.  Why not?  Obama’s website had some marvel inventions this year with FighttheSmears.com and the Tax Calculator; why couldn’t the McCain campaign respond with a McCain Video site posting all of the disputed videos?  Just a thought.


5 Websites for My EOTO Project

November 7, 2008

Sorry, I am about a week late now, and I just noticed I hadn’t separately listed or described the 5 websites I found most valuable for my EOTO project!  Well, here they are:

1.

Title: Beliefnet Blog

URL: http://blog.beliefnet.com

Description: This blog is a collaboration by several Beliefnet staff writers.  It reflects on the intersections between politics and faith — Christian (Catholic and Protestant), Muslim, and other faiths.  It is a particularly valuable site in this election, as both Barack Obama and John McCain actively sought to gain the trust of religious voters.  Both candidates speak of a high place that faith occupies in their lives, and both are regular church-goers.

One virtue of this site is that it offers a balanced, nuanced take on the candidates’ relationship to issues that are important to religious voters, as in the following excerpt:

I hope you can see from my description that the born alive bill was neither a slam dunk, unconstitutional, boneheaded bill (as the Obama campaign said) nor a clear, black-and-white verdict on whether you care about life. It was a gray-area dispute over how non-viable fetuses brought forth during an abortion should be treated.

2.

Title: Public Discourse: Ethics, Law, and the Common Good

URL: http://www.thepublicdiscourse.com/index.php

Description: Here is an excerpt from the “Mission” page:

Public Discourse: Ethics, Law, and the Common Good is an online publication of the Witherspoon Institute that seeks to enhance the public understanding of the moral foundations of free societies by making the scholarship of the fellows and affiliated scholars of the Institute available and accessible to a general audience.

What caught my eye about this publication is the consideration given to opposing views.  One day an article will be featured by pro-life Democrat Doug Kmiec making the case that abortions are best reduced through education and the alleviation of poverty; the next day an article called “Obama’s Abortion Extremism” might be featured!

3.

Title: Facebook

URL: http://www.facebook.com

Description:  I had to include Facebook, as it was the starting-point of this process for me.  Some would say Facebook is a place to keep in touch with friends and exchange pleasantries, nothing more.  I can attest that it has been more than that for me.  It has been a place to engage in productive debate that has continued for several days at a time with my friends and acquaintances.

The “notes” feature serves as a kind of blog, where many of my friends have written their political reflections at length.  The “posted items” feature has served, willy-nilly, as a daily news and views source for me, especially on the candidates’ stances on social issues that are important to me.

Through the use of these two features, Facebook has provided an invaluable service of “filtering the web” for me — not just the filtering that unknown blog authors who live thousands of miles away from me do, but the very personal, palpable filtering of friends and family members.

4.

Title: The Daily Dish by Andrew Sullivan

URL: http://andrewsullivan.theatlantic.com/the_daily_dish/

Description: Andrew Sullivan has supported Obama from day one, been quite open about it, and has advanced rational arguments designed to “swing” undecided voters in Obama’s favor — voters who do not normally identify as liberal or Democratic.  I mentioned in my first EOTO post how this blog ran a very thoughtful piece about “the redistribution of wealth,” making the case that a progressive income tax is a healthy thing for a market economy.  You can agree or disagree with the argument, but it is not being written from a socialist or ultra-liberal perspective, and it shows respect for the ideas of market economics.

This blog usually generates several short snippet articles a day dealing with politics in an intelligent, well-informed manner.  It is pro-Democratic overall, but is sympathetic enough to the G.O.P. that today it featured a link to a G.O.P. website that is seeking to rebuild the party through user-contributed ideas.

5.

Title: Fact-Check.Org: Annenberg Political Fact Check

URL: http://www.factcheck.org/

Description: From the website’s mission statement:

We are a nonpartisan, nonprofit “consumer advocate” for voters that aims to reduce the level of deception and confusion in U.S. politics. We monitor the factual accuracy of what is said by major U.S. political players in the form of TV ads, debates, speeches, interviews and news releases. Our goal is to apply the best practices of both journalism and scholarship, and to increase public knowledge and understanding.

This website offered “Summaries” and “Analyses” of the claims made by both candidates and their running mates in their speeches and campaign ads throughout the election.  The site was helpful for me in looking up the “Born-Alive Bill” from the Illinois Senate.



5 Biggest Fears for using Facebook as a forum for Political Debate

October 31, 2008
Facebook NewsFeed

Facebook NewsFeed

5 Biggest Fears

My 5 biggest fears about the use of the internet, particularly Facebook, for researching and debating political candidates are as follows:

1. I fear that I will sometimes give in to repeating partisan rhetoric gleaned from partisan websites and blogs as if it was gospel truth.

I actually did this for a while (briefly) in the past few weeks. As I described in the previous post, I made a sweeping conclusion about Obama’s stance on the abortion issue based primarily on one bill he voted against in the Illinois State Senate. At the time, I didn’t even realize it was a sweeping conclusion, and that there were other possible conclusions from the known facts. Unlike my usual self, I took Robert George’s claim that Obama was a pro-abortion extremist at face value, perhaps on the basis of the article’s seeming authorititaveness. I think the problem here was my unwillingness to wrestle with the article. Maybe I was too fearful that my own beliefs would be overthrown by alternate conclusions. I shouldn’t have held my beliefs so delicately. Solid beliefs are not arrived at overnight. I should be willing to criticize and evaluate arguments rather than taking other people’s words as a substitute for thinking about the issue for myself.

2. I fear that political debates online will usually devolve into emotional reactions and will not increase intellectual understanding.

There is a good reason to be passionate about your fundamental beliefs. They are, after all, core convictions, part of who you are, and democratic society depends on people advancing and contending for their own core convictions in public. But there is no reason to get emotional and weak mentally, to the point of shutting out opposing viewpoints. This is mostly a matter of patience.

One of the inherent weaknesses of the internet medium is that you cannot see and hear intangible, personal things like facial expressions and tone of voice when engaging in a debate. All you see are words typed on a page! A lot, therefore, depends on your ability to remain patient and calm in the face of heated debate. Another sensible solution would be to attribute charitable motives to the people with whom you are debating. They are, most of the time, not out to waste your time or debate for the sake of debating; if they are debating with you, chances are it is because they sincerely believe something that conflicts with something you sincerely believe. Thus, you can assume that it is an opportunity for growth in your own understanding.

Another solution is to interrupt public internet debate and send a personal e-mail to the person you are debating with. Midway through my first round of debating on Facebook, the Obama supporter I was debating with sent me an in-house Facebook message. Here is the text from that email:

Hey — perhaps now would be a good time to communicate what body language and expression might convey in a face-to-face conversation. I’m very interested in what you’re saying and am enjoying having the chance to debate with someone whose views are different from but still connected with mine. I’ve enjoyed your frankness on Facebook on these issues, and have merely been attempting to participate in the same wise.

This email, and my response to it, gave me a sense of personal contact, and made me realize that we were, if nothing else, old college buddies who merely had some conflicting opinions!

3. I fear that political bloggers and other political internet content producers will often write dishonestly, publish misinformation, and otherwise try to take advantage of me as a reader, for the purpose of advancing a partisan agenda.

This is a tough one, because it is not directly under your control, as my first two points were. Many bloggers may misinform, and in a free country there is no stopping them. Misinformation may even characterize 9/10’s of all political blogs. Because of the anonymity of the internet especially, writers may publish things they would not even attempt to say in personal conversations. And even if they do not publish anonymously, the internet may encourage this type of behavior because it is less likely that people who read their statements from thousands of miles away will know who they are, or have any personal relationship to them offline.

But it is not impossible to find more balanced, nuanced sources. Again, it takes time, discernment, and patience. A possible solution would be to think over the political statements you have read online, discuss them frankly and in person with a friend, and weigh them before even considering believing them or repeating them yourself.

4. I fear that the “star quality” of a candidate may serve to bias me against that candidate.

I confess, for the past two months or so I have suffered off and on from an irrational bias against Sen. Obama. It has nothing to do with him, his views, or his identity. It has to do with the star quality that surrounds him. He is in fact a star, a rock star of Democratic politics. He is a charismatic individual, appealing to many people on many levels. I have myself called him the Michael Jordan or Nirvana of politics — the one person everybody knows about in a particular field without having to know anything else.

For example, anybody who really knows something about NBA basketball will also know who
Jason Kidd or Carmelo Anthony are. But absolutely everybody will say they know who Michael Jordan is! So I begin to think of “Michael Jordan” as a code word for “I don’t really know anything about basketball.”

But just as Michael Jordan was in fact one of the best, most talented basketball players ever to play the game, so, many times, well-known people also have legitimate merits. Obama’s celebrity does not in any way amount to an argument against his intelligence or his qualifications to serve our country.

The solution here is to realize that star quality comes and goes, and usually says more about a person’s fans and the culture he lives in than about the person himself. If he were just a pop singer or basketball player, I could choose to tune him out. My life has not been any worse for avoiding Britney Spears’ albums. But a politician, especially a Presidential candidate, is much different. If I have a negative gut reaction to a politician simply because a cult of personality seems to surround him, I may be missing out on his real merits and substance.

The solution to this problem is easier. I think the internet is actually well-equipped to help get us past celebrity. Since blogs are a two-way street, it is much easier to talk about the substance behind the real person in a blog than it would be to talk back to the television set about a popular entertainer.

5. Pride, coupled with a well-known internet persona, may bias me against being willing to change my mind publicly.

After I had engaged in debate on Facebook with this old friend for a few days, I began to realize that I was leaving a very public, very readable trail of words — sitting there in the plain sight of all of his friends and all of our dozens of mutual friends, mostly from college. If I ended up changing my mind now, it was a potential embarrassment. I would be recanting on passionately held positions I had advanced no more than a few days ago!

Facebook is a very public medium. In the past I have found out, to my chagrin, about friends’ relationship problems and all manner of dirty laundry through the NewsFeed, so much so that at one point I changed the privacy settings for my Newsfeed to cut down on what gets shown to me.

One solution to this problem is to debate somewhere less public, or under a pseudonym, or in person, where there are not dozens or hundreds of people watching and reading your comments! Another solution is simply to be less prideful and be willing to admit a change of thought undergone through learning new information. In the long run, those heated exchanges will be buried under new material. But they will still be frozen in cyberspace, virtually on the public record, and anyone who wants to embarrass me by digging them up will always be able to do so! How weird! Words in the virtual age can now never be completely unspoken, and can always be dredged up for future use! I’m glad I have no aspirations to run for political office!




Facebook as Catalyst for Improving Thoughts about the Candidates

October 31, 2008

Sen.'s Obama and McCain

Introduction

In this class, we have discussed the idea of weblogs as a “two-way street” that promotes the aims of democracy by fueling healthy debate. Positions are stated by blogs’ authors, and then comments allow readers to question the positions, poke holes in the arguments, and make counterpoints.

We have also looked at blogs as “citizen journalism.” The goal of citizen journalism is to “read between the lines” of mainstream newspaper and magazine articles. The mainstream media provides a starting-point for bloggers to reflect and analyze what is going on.

I’m centering this project on how Facebook has served as a catalyst for me to develop my own thoughts about the candidates in the 2008 elections. Several of my Facebook friends have used their Facebook pages over the past few months as a kind of personal blog, including a blogroll filled with articles about the candidates and their positions. As you will see, I have undergone a personal evolution in my thoughts about the candidates — including two important stages.

Born Alive

The first stage was when I was debating for John McCain, as the more acceptable pro-life candidate. I wasn’t so much a supporter of Sen. McCain as I was an opponent of Sen. Obama. I debated hotly, mostly parroting existing allegations against Obama that I now regret, and generally embarrassed myself! I used external articles as support for my pre-conceived opinions (no pun on the word “conceived” intended!).

Sen. Obama had voted against the Born-Alive Bill in the Illinois State Senate. This bill, to my understanding, would have given protection and rights to babies who are born alive in abortion clinics after failed abortion attempts. This disturbed me greatly. I linked to an article about this on my Facebook page by a Catholic author named Robert George. This article, and I, interpreted Obama’s vote to mean only one thing: that Obama was more than merely a pro-choice candidate; he was decidedly guilty of supporting infanticide. This was an incredibly weighty charge to make or believe.

Then I began to sense, through debate with one particular Facebook friend who is a pro-life Democrat, that there were holes in my argument — or at the least, that Obama’s vote on the bill did not support the sweeping conclusion I had drawn. I was shown evidence that there were other considerations for Obama’s vote against the bill. First, the bill might have been a deliberate set-up by politically organized pro-lifers to smear Obama as a “pro-abortion” politician.

The bill’s wording was more complex than I had realized, and included a redefinition of fetal viability, criminalizing any doctor who did not provide life support for what he judged to be a non-viable fetus. Some pro-lifers may indeed support this kind of criminalization, but they should admit that it goes beyond merely providing rights to born-alive, viable babies. To vote against the bill, then, is perhaps only a vote against criminalizing abortion doctors, not necessarily a vote to kill born-alive babies.

Secondly, there was a 1975 law already in place to protect born-alive babies, and Sen. Obama thought at the time that this other law was sufficient. Third, I learned that Sen. Obama has since changed his mind and stated that were he to vote again, he would have supported the Born-Alive bill.

Spreading the Wealth

A second plank in my opposition to Sen. Obama was a statement he made on the campaign trail about “spreading the wealth.” A believer in free-market economics, I saw the idea of redistribution as incompatible with economic growth and prosperity. Debate ensued. I was given the opportunity, by the Obama supporters I debated on Facebook, to learn more about progressive income taxes and what they are intended to accomplish.

I was offered a link to an article by blogger Andrew Sullivan making the serious, Aristotelian argument that a free-market democracy requires progressive income taxes to balance outcomes and keep the poor from revolting. Here I was faced with a pro-Obama argument that was based on support for the capitalist system of economics. My friend was not only a pro-life Democrat, I found out, but a free trade Democrat. To make matters even more difficult for me, I was presented with the following words from Adam Smith, the father of free-market economics:

The necessaries of life occasion the great expense of the poor. . . .The luxuries and vanities of life occasion the principal expense of the rich, and a magnificent house embellishes and sets off to the best advantage all the other luxuries and vanities which they possess. . .It is not very unreasonable that the rich should contribute to the public expense, not only in proportion to their revenue, but something more than in that proportion.” [italics and bold text mine]

Now I was in a real pickle! With the 700 billion-dollar financial bailout spear-headed by McCain only a few weeks behind us — a clear example of spreading the wealth from the people to huge corporations — I began to consider, for the first time in my life, that, no matter what the usual rhetoric is about the Republican and Democratic parties and their respective ideologies, the Democrats may be — in a very practical sense — doing more than Republicans to promote the values of market economics that I believe in!

So my thoughts circled and swarmed, and I began to doubt for the first time that I was on the right side of the debate — given my own conservative ideals! To top it off, the online version of the free-market British magazine The Economist came out the next day with a cautious and balanced endorsement of Obama. This gave me even more food for thought.

Conclusion

I have tried to highlight in this story how virtual interactions centering on Facebook but branching out to blogs and the mainstream media allowed me to improve and sharpen my understanding of each candidate, especially of Sen. Obama, getting rid of some irrational biases I held when I started. Specifically, I can now see a believable argument for considering Obama to be the preferable candidate from a traditional, conservative standpoint.

The potential problem with using the internet to research a candidate is that you will amass an army of partisan articles and blogs only to support your pre-existing opinions. There is nothing wrong with partisan articles and blogs as such, especially in politics, where nothing is really neutral. What is a problem is looking at them as a weapon, rather than as an opportunity to learn something new. The hope and promise of internet debate — the two-way street of blogs — is that each person may arrive at a more nuanced, factually-correct understanding of the candidates.