A Guide to Ethical Dilemmas in the Digital Public Sphere

In module 10 of this course, we examined the potentially problematic situations of Wikipedia and deepfakes (video and audio). The 2 articles we read about Wikipedia presented a comprehensive view of crowd-sourced projects – its potentials, its successes, its pitfalls, and its failures.

I think in regards to Wikipedia, or any project where content can be easily and quickly modified, every user should always begin their engagement with the resource in a very guarded manner. Of course, it’s always a good idea to cross-reference sources and do your own fact-checking. A good place to start with Wikipedia would be the references section of a page. Ask yourself the following questions: How many references are there? Is every statement and every claim on this page substantiated by a reference?

Of course, just because a page has a lot of references doesn’t necessarily mean that the references are high quality or trustworthy. If a good portion of a page’s references come from reputable academic journals or scholarly works, however, this might be a good sign. This doesn’t give you the all-clear to take the Wikipedia page as gospel, it is merely a step in the right direction. It’d be a good idea to verify the contents of the page in other ways – reviewing the editors and contributors to the page, cross-referencing content with other sources, etc.

The other part of module 10 focused on the blatant fabrication of sources. Rapidly advancing technology like CGI, holograms, photo editing tools, and deepfakes mean that scholars, historians, and the general public will need to work that much harder to determine the veracity of the media and sources they consume. As with the Wikipedia example referenced above, a good place to begin is by answering some questions about the media: Who made this, where did this project originate from? What names (individuals/companies/organizations) are attached to this? How was this made? If this information about the project is not easily accessible – why not? Can this information be provided upon request? If not – why not? Generally, a lack of transparency is not a good sign.

Of course, things become a lot trickier in situations where authentic materials are intermingled with doctored materials, as was the case in the article we read concerning a documentary about Anthony Bourdain. To me, this is a worst-case scenario. The doctored audio clips of Bourdain’s voice were surrounded by authentic audio clips of his voice. The fabricated materials did not make up a significant portion of the audio in the documentary, and the content of the fabrications were relatively mundane. It’s easy to be skeptical of something that is blatantly unrealistic (see the 2014 Michael Jackson hologram). But when a lie is shrouded in truth and authenticity, it makes it that much easier for it to pass as reality. I don’t have a solid solution for this particular problem. The best advice I can give is to reflect on the creator or the origin of the source material. Does the originator have a reputation of putting forth truthful and forthcoming products? Or do they have a reputation of withholding information on the creative process and manipulating or bending the truth? These questions might be a good first step when encountering new material moving forward.

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