Moderating Content and Freedom of Speech

graffiti wall

Image by JamesDeMers from Pixabay

The social media platforms are finally turning off the opportunities for President Trump and many others to pump out misinformation and foment violence. Twitter and Facebook get the most attention because of their audience sizes, but there are lots of other places less obvious for those conversations and misinformation disguised as truthful information.

The right-wing app Parler has been booted off the Internet over ties to the siege on the U.S. Capitol. As the AP reported, "...but not before digital activists made off with an archive of its posts, including any that might have helped organize or document the riot. Amazon kicked Parler off its web-hosting service, and the social media app promptly sued to get back online, telling a federal judge that the tech giant had breached its contract and abused its market power. It was a roller coaster of activity for Parler, a 2-year-old magnet for the far right that welcomed a surge of new users. It became the No. 1 free app on iPhones late last week after Facebook, Twitter and other mainstream social media platforms silenced President Donald Trump’s accounts over comments that seemed to incite Wednesday’s violent insurrection."

Is that an attack on freedom of speech?

As Amber MacArthur wrote recently in her newsletter, "It's easy to say that moderating content is an attack on freedom of speech, but many fail to realize that freedom of speech does not mean freedom from consequences. Moreover, private businesses do have the right to set their own rules of engagement, which in the case of social media platforms is often outlined in their Terms of Service."

Germany - which has tighter controls on hate speech than the U.S. - nevertheless had Chancellor Angela Merkel saying that Trump’s eviction from Twitter by the company is “problematic.” Merkel’s spokesman, Steffen Seibert, sent a kind of mixed message saying that operators of social media platforms “bear great responsibility for political communication not being poisoned by hatred, by lies and by incitement to violence” but also that the freedom of opinion is a fundamental right of “elementary significance” and that “This fundamental right can be intervened in, but according to the law and within the framework defined by legislators — not according to a decision by the management of social media platforms. Seen from this angle, the chancellor considers it problematic that the accounts of the U.S. president have now been permanently blocked.”

Opinions in America are probably also pro and con with people on either side and some who are partially on both sides, like Merkel's opinion.

 Jillian C. York says "Users, not tech executives, should decide what constitutes free speech online. Social media companies aren’t very good at moderating speech. So why do we ask them to?" She continues: "...While some pundits have called the decision unprecedented—or “a turning point for the battle for control over digital speech,” as Edward Snowden tweeted —it’s not: not at all. Not only do Twitter and Facebook regularly remove all types of protected expression, but Trump’s case isn’t even the first time the platforms have removed a major political figure. Following reports of genocide in Myanmar, Facebook banned the country’s top general and other military leaders who were using the platform to foment hate. The company also bans Hezbollah from its platform because of its status as a US-designated foreign terror organization, despite the fact that the party holds seats in Lebanon’s parliament. And it bans leaders in countries under US sanctions."

I think Snowden's sense of a turning point is correct, but it's not clear into which direction we will be turning.


Gazing Back Into the Social Media Crystal Ball

crystal ballWhile lots of people online are making predictions about all kinds of things for the year ahead, I like to look back at the predictions that were made for the year that is ending. Did anyone get it right?

Clearly, the pandemic wasn’t on anyone’s radar in December 2019 although the first signs of it in China were starting to emerge then. That is the story of the year and it is hard to find any industry or sector that wasn’t affected by it.

I’m just looking here at social media which played a large role in not only the pandemic but also in the American Presidential election.

Social media has moved in the same way that the Internet itself has moved – from a social sharing place to a marketplace. Whether you are selling CBD oil or a candidate, social media (SM) is part of your strategy.

One prediction was that Facebook and other SM would get more expensive in 2020 was a safe bet. But the bigger story was the pressure on the big platforms (but especially Facebook) to control fake accounts, posts, news and its promotion.

Things still went viral but some controls were put in place, though more is needed. AI is playing a bigger role but human intervention and monitoring are still needed.

In January 2020, I read that worldwide there were 3.80 billion social media users. That was about a 9 percent increase (321 million new users) from the previous year. Globally, more than 5.19 billion people now use mobile phones, with user numbers up by 124 million (2.4 percent) over the past year.

Listing the top SM sites early in the year as (in order) Instagram, YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, TikTok, Pinterest. and Snapchat, is a numbers game and those rankings varied a bit throughout the year as earnings were reported to stockholders based on users and user growth.

I don’t see LinkedIn listed there but it certainly has a place in the more serious and business-oriented side of SM. LinkedIn advertising costs took a jump up in cost per click (CPC) when the platform released objective-based advertising back in early 2019. All the platforms have had to do similar things and Facebook was both publically called out for its ability to target ads very specifically and privately by marketers praised and

Another prediction was a further increase in using high-value video content. Facebook, IGTV and YouTube content in social marketing and the more subtle simple sharing of content certainly increased.

A much longer list (75 SM sites) might include some that you have never used or heard of and perhaps don’t even think of as SM, such as GoodReads, Flickr, Twitch, or ones that are foreign, like Skyrock in France.

And, of course, predictions for 2021…  like these from

Crossposted at Ronkowitz LLC

Will Your Instructional Designer Be AI?

cyborgRecently, I read an article about using artificial intelligence (AI) for the instructional design of courses. Initially, that frightened me. First of all, it might mean less work for instructional designers – which I have both been and run a department working with them. Second, it’s hard for me to imagine AI making decisions on pedagogy better than a designer and faculty member.

Of course, using AI for that kind of design is probably limited (at least at first) to automating some tasks like uploading documents and updating calendars rather than creating lessons. Then again, I know that AI is being used to write articles for online and print publications, so it is certainly possible.

I read another article asking “Is Artificial Intelligence the Next Stepping Stone for Web Designers?” and, of course, my concerns are the same – lost jobs and bad design.

Certainly, we are already using AI in websites, particularly in e-commerce applications. But using AI to actually design a website is very different.

Some companies have started to use AI for web design. A user answers some questions to start a design: pick an industry or category (portfolio, restaurant, etc.), enter a business name, add a subtitle/slogan/brand, upload a logo, enter an address, hours of operation, and so on. The AI may offer you a choice of templates and then in a few clicks, the basics of the site are created.

This is an extension of the shift 20 years to template-driven web design. Now, it is based on machine learning techniques with human intervention at the initial stage by providing their desired information and probably again after the site is created to fine-tune.

In my own instructional design work over the years, we have used templates for course shells. Standardizing the way courses look is a good thing in many ways. It makes it easier to do rapid development. That was certainly the situation in spring 2020 as school scrambled to move all their face to face courses online. A standard look also makes it easier for students to move from course to course. 

Though every course should not be the same, the structure and components can generally be the same. This is also useful if you are trying to have courses comply with standards such as Quality Matters or ADA accessibility standards

I do a lot of web design these days and many popular companies, such as Squarespace, are using AI and machine learning to get ordinary users started. Does design still require some human intervention? Absolutely. Does the human need to be a “designer”?  Clearly, the goal is to allow anyone to do a good job of creating a website without a designer.

I think there is an overlap between web design and course design. Add AI to either and the process can be made more efficient. I also think that you need people involved. For web design, it's a client and designer. For course design, it's a faculty member(s) and an ID. In my own work, I still find many people need someone with experience and training to create the website, but they can oftentimes maintain it on their own if the updates are simple. For courses, most faculty need help to create but generally not only can "maintain" the course but have to because the IDs can't always be there during a semester.

AI will change many industries and web and instructional design are certainly on the list of those industries. 

Zoom Fatigue

zoom screen

"Zoom fatigue” is a new term for 2020 that describes the exhaustion, worry, or burnout associated with overusing virtual platforms of communication. I am sure that Zoom Video Communications (the company) is thrilled to have their name mixed in with "fatigue."  Like other generic trademarks, it is a mixed blessing when your brand becomes the common (lower case) noun or a verb for something. People used to say they were going to "xerox" something to mean they were going to make a photocopy no matter what brand of copier they were using. Today someone might say they have to zoom or have a zoom call to mean they are going to video conferencing. I know that some teachers and students who are experiencing "zoom fatigue" at the end of the year and semester have been using Google Meet, Skype, Facetime, or some other conferencing platform.

Since there are more than 300 million daily participants on Zoom alone, this psychological and physical exhaustion is a real concern. Some people who study this have suggested some counterintuitive explanation, such as that audio is main reason that video meetings are draining. How? Millisecond delays in virtual verbal responses negatively affect our interpersonal perceptions, even without any internet or technical issues.

Being on a video call requires more focus than a face-to-face chat, says another researcher. "Video chats mean we need to work harder to process non-verbal cues like facial expressions, the tone and pitch of the voice, and body language; paying more attention to these consumes a lot of energy. “Our minds are together when our bodies feel we're not. That dissonance, which causes people to have conflicting feelings, is exhausting. You cannot relax into the conversation naturally."

One of the Google search trends this year has been searching "zoom fatigue", possibly in search of ways to reduce the fatigue. The ways to at least reduce video conferencing exhaustion are not surprising but they may not be easy to put in place. Suggestions such as building in break time, reducing visual stimuli, reducing virtual social events, and using phone calls and email again are helpful but not always an option, especially if you are not the video conference organizer or host.

A psychiatric explanation of zoom fatigue

Zoom fatigue is taxing the brain