Topic for the Paper
We have a problem concerning speech at this moment in our culture and you are going to solve it for all of us.
Much of the difficulty appears to arise from speech on the internet and it might be attractive to lay it off as stemming entirely from the reckless disregard for consequences that anonymous and disembodied speech on the internet makes possible. This, on the evidence, would be a serious mistake since by now we regularly see what appear to be living, breathing individuals spewing falsehood, venom, and hatred on television and computer screens everywhere.
In the paper, “Is the First Amendment Obsolete?” Tim Wu masterfully lays out the dimensions of the problem. The internet has made it possible for any government to control the effects of individual speakers without taking direct action to stifle them. Wu specifies three alternative strategies to control the landscape of discourse in a society:
Online harassment and attacks by troll armies
Reverse censorship, flooding and deployment of propaganda robots, and
Control of the main speech platforms
Of course, 1) and 2) are tools at the disposal of any group that has the means and the following to set them in motion. And because of the central role played by speech platforms such as Facebook, Google, and Twitter, 3) is a problem even in the United States where these platforms are clearly not under governmental control.
Your assignment in this paper is to investigate one of the main speech platforms, learn everything you can about how or whether it a) promotes free speech, b) takes effective measures to prevent harassment and violent or threatening speech directed toward users, and c) makes an effective, good faith effort to limit the circulation of demonstrably false information. Since many of the negative aspects of speech online involve the use of bots, it may be relevant to investigate the efforts made to control the operation of bot armies on the platform and identify their source. This is the research part of the assignment.
After you’ve learned as much as you can about the way the platform functions, you should develop a recommendation for limiting the destructive or negative effects of communication on this platform. A good place to begin might be the options presented in the section of Tim Wu’s article titled “What Might Be Done.” These include a variety of state actions and/or self-policing efforts. For insights into the ways that recommendation algorithms affect these behaviors, the paper of Zeynep Tufekci on algorithmic harms and the work of Guillaume Chaslot may prove helpful. Or you might wish to consider this from a different perspective. What are the responsibilities of a platform user or subscriber in preserving freedom of speech while protecting against violent and assaultive speech or malicious dissemination of falsehood?
Another possible approach would be to consider one of the smaller platforms which have succeeded in maintaining civil discussions. This might be particularly appealing if you have personal experience participating in discussions on a platform of this nature. Here the research portion of your paper could begin with your own experiences with and observations about discourse on the platform. As you examine what sorts of policies or behaviors might account for that success, your recommendation could then take the form of a method for transferring or scaling these virtuous policies and behaviors to one of the “main” platforms.
Your paper should find a healthy balance between research and recommendation. You should carefully lay out in sufficient detail what you’ve discovered about the policies, actions, and responses to evidence of platform-mediated abuse of the platform you’ve selected. Then fashion a concluding section in which you propose measures that you think will best help curtail or ameliorate the worst effects of abuse of freedom of speech on that platform.
Ultimately, the goal is to come up with a plan to help get us from where our society is now to where you would like it to be, at least with regard to this specific issue. Ideally, your solution should be plausible, i.e., something that could actually occur in the real world with a likelihood greater than, say, 5%. (For example, if your solution hinges on Facebook spontaneously deciding to become a non-profit, that ‘solution’ is unlikely to be applicable to the world in which we live. If your plan requires Facebook to become a non-profit, you have the responsibility, as part of the solution, to describe a plausible series of events that would bring this about.)