Literacy and Liberty

Thesis, Intro, & Guiding Q’s
Posted by: , November 18, 2018, 10:18 pm
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Our relationship to the internet as a society today is fundamentally different than it was at the beginning of the century. Rather than being a mere novelty or tool, the internet has become a core and crucial part of our lives as well as the primary medium for social discourse. However this brings with it two major problems. Firstly, the majority of the internet is composed of “private platforms”, websites that are owned by private entities such as individuals or companies. As such the owners of these private platforms are able to impose on the users of their website whatever terms of service they deem desirable. This is a problem because, while previously our public discourse was only restricted by the laws established by the government, now that such discourse occurs mostly on these “private platforms”, our speech is further limited by the rules established by the websites hosting our speech. These rules differ from platform to platform and frequently change with little accountability to the users affected by them. On private platforms, our right to free-speech does not apply. Secondly, while the internet has created a more informed public by allowing for instantaneous and global spread of information, not all of this information is trustworthy. “Fake news”, conspiracies, hate speech, calls for violence, extremist and divisive rhetoric, and other problematic media are just as easily shared and received as trustworthy media. This is a problem because many people fail to distinguish between the two and are susceptible to being misinformed and radicalized. Thus such media becomes “intolerable” and must be combated. However, currently the onus of solving the problem has fallen on the private platforms independently from one another. They have had little success and their efforts have been mired in controversy.  Private platforms such as Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube have been accused of bias primarily against right-wing groups or individuals who simply seek to promote “alternative” perspectives. When measures normally intended to stifle extremists are applied to more moderate voices, it is perceived by affected persons and their followers as constituting unfair attacks on their right to free-speech. To effectively solve the problem, a fair and universal method for classifying “intolerable” speech must be established as well as a standardized way of suppressing it and punishing those who spread it. Furthermore we as a society should revisit the First Amendment and our right to free speech, and consider “updating” and expanding it to reflect today’s online reality.

Guiding Questions:

Overall Question:

How should free-speech be treated online with specific focus on “intolerable” speech?

In-Depth Questions:

  1. What constitutes “intolerable speech” vs hate speech
    • Is all hate speech intolerable?
  2. What measures are appropriate to deal with such speech online?
    • Can a private platform “go too far” when attempting to combat intolerable speech made on its website?
      • If so, what constitutes such an example?
    • Can a “universal standard” be arrived at regarding classifying “intolerable speech” and applying fitting suppressive measures?
  3. How does this apply differently depending on the type of website in question?
    • “Mainstream” private platforms (ie. Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Reddit, etc.)
      • Do they have “the right” to censor and ban certain speech they deem unacceptable? After all it is their own personal platform, that individuals must agree to terms of service before using.
    • Anonymous message/image boards such as 4chan
      • How should these sites be treated differently given their highly anonymous nature and how they cater to hate-speech?
    • Personal platforms/websites (a site you own) 
      • How are you responsible for the statements you make on your own website?
      • Those made by others?
      • Other individuals answering your “call to action”?
  4. How far do the protections of the first amendment reach?
    • Can they apply to speech made on private platforms or are they only intended to protect a person from the government?
    • Should these protections be expanded or “updated” to meet the reality of our “online society”?
  5. Are suppressive measures truly effective?
    • When certain sites are shut down or become too restrictive, people will often create or flock to other platforms.
      • In this manner the internet becomes something of a hydra, cut off one head, another one grows.
    • Given this, what measures are realistic?

Investigative Project
Posted by: , November 7, 2018, 5:56 pm
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The internet has completely transformed communication. Ideas can be expressed, spread, and accessed on a global scale, instantaneously. This has allowed for the development of an interconnected and informed global mass. However this is not an inherently good thing, as social networks and internet forums, such as Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube, are discovering. By necessity, some opinions that will be spread on these networks will be perceived as “disagreeable” or even dangerous. “Fake news”, conspiracies, hate speech, calls for violence, and other content which are considered by many to be toxic and divisive, pose a problem for platform providers. In many cases, these platforms choose to address the problem by censoring such content and silencing the voices that spread it.

Unfortunately, it is not always clear what constitutes hateful or extreme rhetoric. The result of this is that many users which simply seek to promote alternative perspectives are being cast in the same lot as those who produce far more radical content. When measures normally intended to stifle extremists are applied to more moderate voices, it is perceived by affected persons and their followers as constituting biased political attacks on their right to free-speech and their ability to participate in the free-market of ideas. This runs counter to the ideals of inclusivity many such internet platforms are based on.

In light of this, we must ask ourselves difficult questions such as, what is free-speech, what constitutes “intolerable” rhetoric, and how far do the protections of the First Amendment go?


Still Warm
Posted by: , October 2, 2018, 10:58 pm
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It was April 10th, 2016, my sophomore year at Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School. As part of a school project, I was required to visit the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington DC. My Dad offered to take me, saying he had been intending to visit the museum himself. Instead of acquiring more knowledge, I was hoping to connect emotionally to the Holocaust, for the tragedy to “hit me.” In the museum there is a big, empty train box-car. One of the actual units in which Jews were packed like sardines and taken from the ghettos to the concentration camps. I entered it and tried to imagine being squeezed between other sickly bodies, the suffocating heat, the nauseating scent of death and excrement. It was to no avail, I still felt dislocated from that reality. However this was not the case with my father, who refused to enter the box-car. My dad told me he was afraid that he would be mentally transported to the event, afraid to feel the anxiety and fear that it contained. He dreaded achieving the very emotional connection I was struggling to realize.  When I told him this, he said that at the time of his birth, 1950, “the furnaces of Auschwitz were still warm.” The Holocaust was not a far off historical event for him, but one that was very close to his upbringing. No feature in a museum would ever make the Holocaust more “real” for me, as it already was for him.




Tree Trunk or Race? A Balanced Structure or a Housing for Horses?
Posted by: , September 4, 2018, 2:24 am
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Last year I participated in a gap year in Israel called “Workshop” through my youth movement, Habonim-Dror. On Workshop, participants from all over North America live together communally and collectively as a “kvutsa” which translates to “group” in Hebrew. On workshop, the kvutsa is supposed to decide on its Hebrew name, mine chose the name “Kvutsa Geza,”  Geza meaning tree trunk. We chose Geza because we felt a tree trunk best encapsulated our lofty and abstract idea of remaining rooted in our Jewish and Zionist history while growing towards a new vision for ourselves, the movement, and the Jewish people.

The problem was that we were choosing our kvutsa name in English, expecting a simple Hebrew translation. Popping “tree trunk” into Google Translate resulted in “Geza;” We were satisfied, but our “Madrichim” (program directors) were not happy. They told us if we named ourselves Geza, most Israelis would assume we were calling ourselves “race” which was offensive and unacceptable. “That’s so stupid,” I replied, “why would ‘trunk and ‘race’ be the same word?” Then my madrich said, “Now you understand my frustration with English, stable is a balanced structure but it’s also the thing you keep horses in; Hebrew has synonyms too.” At that moment I felt incredibly stupid, both for forgetting about synonyms outside English, and for trusting Google Translate. When I reported it to the kvutsa, we all laughed and amended it to “Giv’ol” or “Stem,” which in Hebrew has no other controversial meanings.