Atlanta University Center: Robert W. Woodruff Library

 

So I decided to do this supplemental post on a trip I took to the AU Center, as a part of the Atlanta Student Movement project (information on the movement can be found here) I was involved in, with Dr. Jeanne Bohannon.

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A photo I took of the inside of the AU Center. The university has spared no expense in providing students with a peaceful environment that is equipped with modern fixtures, artwork, and technology.

 

At the AU Center, we had the opportunity to delve into the history of the Atlanta Student Movement that happened here in our own backyard of Atlanta, Ga where black students gathered, on their own, to lead a movement against segregation in the 60’s. Their major feat being their successful sit-ins at Rich’s department store, that did not want blacks eating in the very store where they spent money.

richs

Rich’s Department Store in the 60’s. Building still stands, in Atlanta.

 

The AU Center staff gave us about a 2 hour long presentation on the movement and allowed us to view primary documents such as hand-written notes, itineraries, and even an original print of the newspaper where the students had their Appeal to Human Rights manifesto printed. Though we were not able to take pictures of the documents themselves, it was still fascinating to see them, in person.

A brief video on the Atlanta Student Movement

 

While we were at the AU Center, we were also able to talk to Dr. Lonnie King, who was one of the organizers of the movement. he was supposed to meet with us in person, but he had unfortunately been injured and unable to. All-in-all, hearing him speak on his experiences probably had the largest impact on most of the students who went with me. His efforts, along with others around our own ages, led to changes that swept that state of Georgia, in relation to segregation and equal treatment, under the law.

Though we were unable to take photographs of documents, we were able to take some of the people on the wall.

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Johnny Parham was one of the men involved in the movement. I took his picture because his last name struck me, being that it is similar to the name of my late great grandmother. 

 

Here is a video provided to us by Dr. Bohannon. It is of an interview she did with Dr. Lonnie King, where he answers questions on the movement. It is quite long, but is incredibly useful. Lastly, if anyone is interested, feel free to check out the podcasts some friends and I did, on the Atlanta Student Movement. They are all short and give brief histories, with a bit of commentary from the group.

Podcasts:
Interview With Dr. Bohannon
Arlington to Atlanta
Rich’s Sit-ins
Secret Chamber of Commerce Meeting

 

Annotated Bibliography

Benjamin, Walter, et al. Reflections: Essays, Aphorisms, Autobiographical Writings. Schocken Books, 2007. Essay: Critique of Violence

Walter Benjamin’s Critique of Violence is critical to my thesis, if it is taken in its entirety. Well, critical if I decide to go the route of arguing that the intentional proffering of untruth, by media outlets and public officials, is a form of violence against the people. His analyses of the varying types of violence could help me to flesh out my own initial thought of speech suppression and media need-to-be-first mentality being a form of violence against the citizenry. His concept of a cause being violent only when it bears on moral issues, also is a lynchpin of sorts, for my entire argument to follow a justifiable logic. Though I may or may not touch on his views of illegitimate vs legitimate forms of violence, that too sort of shapes my thinking for the arguments I want to make, in my own paper. Benjamin’s essay allows the connection from Plato’s views on truth and goodness, to morality as is the implication of goodness. From there I am able to, I believe, bring the point to its logical completion.

Bizzell, Patricia, and Bruce Herzberg. The Rhetorical Tradition: Readings from Classical Times to the Present. 2nd ed., Bedford/St. Martins, 2001. Pg. 80-86; 138-155

The Rhetorical Tradition textbook has served a major role so far, for the research for this paper. It is the foundation and a sort of catalyst, for the entire thing. Within the textbook, I probably used about 3 sections. The one that has lent the most credence to my research is the section on Plato. My entire thesis centers around Plato’s rhetorical theories of truth and goodness being the foundational principles in gaining knowledge and understanding. His comments on rhetoric being pernicious, instead of morally neutral, also connects to one of the quotes I found from Walter Benjamin. I also used Frederick Douglass’ quote of speech being the way through which “interesting thoughts” in one’s own mind gives birth to what is in one’s soul. This merely serves to supplement the importance and intimate nature of speech that is allowed free expression from thinking individuals. It serves as a nice addition to the paper, I believe.

Caplan, Lincoln. “Stress Test for Free Speech: SOCIAL MEDIA ARE DESTROYING THE DEMOCRATIC CULTURE THAT THE FIRST AMENDMENT IS MEANT TO PROTECT.” American Scholar, vol. 87, no. 4, 2018, pp. 20–35. EBSCO Host, eds.a.ebscohost.com.proxy.kennesaw.edu/eds/detail/detail?vid=1&sid=21f864e0-d138-449f-a886-d11e198aa919@sdc-v-sessmgr05&bdata=JnNpdGU9ZWRzLWxpdmUmc2NvcGU9c2l0ZQ==#db=lfh&AN=131414739.

This source is simply one I am using as a catalyst for my own thinking. In fact, the first page is all I read from it, because it sparked so much thought for potential places for my paper to go, that I realized I didn’t need to take it any farther than that.

CNN. “Twitter CEO: ‘We Are Not’ Discriminating against Any Political Viewpoint.” YouTube, YouTube, 19 Aug. 2018, www.youtube.com/watch?v=Cm_lmWWKDug.

This is a YouTube video where Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey is being interviewed by CNN’s Brian Stelter. In the interview Dorsey answers questions about the nature of his company and its goals in the public forum. He also speaks to what he feels Twitter must do better, which ends up seeming to simply be ways that police the users, through usage of complex algorithms. This source is mainly for the purpose of giving my claim ethos, as well as a more immediate way some of my representations can be checked by anyone who reads the paper. The other application of this source will be in using it to supplement how social media sites have allowed false information to spread on their platforms, though they claim to fight against it. This is important also in relating to the overall point of truth.

García Martínez, Alejandro Néstor, et al. Natural Law: Historical, Systematic and Juridical Approaches. Cambridge Scholars Pub., 2008.

This source is probably also one that will not be used in any notable way either. I have simply used it to put more context around a concept I have already had in my head. In relation to the topic, however, I am using it to support the long-held notion that humans— particularly those of us in the West who have already negotiated such outcomes on the outset of our republic— have natural rights that transcend impositions of arbitrary rules. These lateral rights, given by a natural and universal law, are therefore unable to be infringed upon, without an undue burden being placed upon an individual’s own rights and ability to freely express themselves. I may or may not take the paper in this direction, but it seems an interesting path to take, rhetorically. Especially in figuring how it would work into this topic.

“Federalist Papers No. 10.” Federalist Papers No. 10, Bill of Rights Institute, billofrightsinstitute.org/founding-documents/primary-source-documents/the-federalist-papers/federalist-papers-no-10/. 1787

The Federalist Papers No. 10, written by James Madison could be used to further support the notion of natural rights –if the paper goes in this direction—especially to that of free speech and expression. This timeless document could be fairly integral, or rather immensely supportive in my view, to the setup of the importance the paper would place on uninhibited discourse. Madison speaks in No. 10 of the tendency of man toward baseness and carnality, and toward seeking his own ends, which connects directly to many of Plato’s statements. His comments on factions is also integral to connecting directly to Jack Dorsey’s underlying comments on making Twitter a “safer” environment, as Dorsey mentions the prevalence of echo chambers and of “coordinated group attacks”. I believe Madison’s comments on factions add support to my paper that I would not have otherwise found, had I not decided to look up Federalist No. 10.

 “The Twitter Rules.” Twitter, Twitter, 2018, help.twitter.com/en/rules-and-policies/twitter-rules.

This source is purely to give context to Jack Dorsey’s comments from the U.S. House Committee hearing on Energy and Commerce. His comments on “abusive behavior” cannot be adequately analyzed and reasoned without looking into the source material from whence this rhetorical selection came. Using the twitter terms source page, I am able to understand my own argument better, as well as see the ambiguity of the guidelines, and how they have led to the very public banning of many public figures.

“United States House Committee on Energy and Commerce.” 2018. https://d3i6fh83elv35t.cloudfront.net/static/2018/09/Dorsey.pdf

This source is the full transcript from Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey’s testimony in front of the House of representatives, last year. It was the foundation for my rhetorical analysis of his own comments. This is the primary source from which the oppositions within my argument could come from. In it, he speaks of making Twitter safe from the same “abusive behavior” that was aforementioned. It is also here where he refutes any bias due to political ideology, but also admits that “unintentional” bias can indeed happen with the behavioral algorithms they employ. The transcript is instrumental in allowing me to analyze, itemize, and refute. It is also the source that has caused me to completely shift the original focus of my paper.

Reflections: Ethical Footprints in the Digital Space

 

When we think about ethics, it seems that we generally think the concept is relegated to realms involving shuffled papers and brokered back-room deals. We sometimes think of ethic as merely an ideal that we may pick up or may not, instead of having it as a sort of guiding force behind everything we choose to put into the world, whether written or otherwise. Fortunately, or unfortunately depending upon the perspective, our world has expanded what is seen as “written” and with the rapid accessibility of information, so too has the weight of what it means to be ethical. As our rhetorical stages have expanded into the digital, it is imperative that our ethicality be reflective of rhetoricians who seek truth at all costs. Truth, and I believe there is such a thing, must be preeminent. At the very least, the willingness to seek after it, must be. Truth, in the larger sense of the word, has no “side”. It has no ideology, no affiliation, and no banners. It simply is and our imperative, as reasoning rhetorical people, is to use that ethic toward a worthy advantage.

Part of how we accomplish the goal of reaching worthwhile outcomes, within our growing digital society, is in analyzing how we interact with our various audiences, in any given rhetorical situation in which we find ourselves. On any given moment there is invariably someone who is reading or listening to the words we use, the cadence with which we convey them, and the attitude that portrays them. There is an old adage, that has become a sort of colloquial cliché, that says, “you catch more flies with honey, than with vinegar”. While I know of no one who wants to spend their time catching flies, the phrase holds true. The part of our rhetorical identities in the digital space that I believe will have the most lasting impact on giving any audience the agency to step toward truth, is in how we communicate our various ideals and goals to those audiences, or to those individuals, that view our work. The loudest voices do not win over ethical audiences. They may encourage the news cycle of the day, but they do not guide people toward truth. The calm and collected are the ones who are in the best position to use their rhetorical strategies to guide, rather than prod, to better rhetorical situations and to truer outcomes for society, as a whole.

This is my own goal for my place in the digital space: to represent a voice that always aims toward truth and seeks it out, regardless of where it leads. In order to truly embody ethic, we must be open to being able to always put forth the truest information we can or, at the very least, be willing to analyze ourselves enough to study our own motives and correct them toward truthful outcomes.

No human being holds within themselves all components of rightness. No human being fully embodies what it means to be ethical, and thus we must also seek to be truthful, honest, and to have motives that are rhetorically sound, or else we can not hope to get close to some semblance of rightness or ethicality. This must be done within ourselves. This will allow for us to be both ethical rhetoricians and members of ethical audiences: on the one hand as disseminators of information, and on the other hand, as receivers of it.  The benefit of learning how to better navigate the digital spaces, through creating blogs and websites, or videos and media, is that it shows us just how lacking we all are and how much further we have to go, to leave an ethical footprint worth walking in, for our posterity.

 

 

 

Truth in Conclusion (p.6)

 

Truth is the beginning of every good thing, both in heaven and on earth and he who would be blessed and happy should be from the first a partaker of truth, for then he can be trusted. -Plato

 

True outcomes cannot be achieved if speech is policed. Understanding cannot be reached if people are not allowed to reach their own conclusions or allowed to misstep in the effort to finding civility and knowledge of one another. People cannot learn to deal with opposing viewpoints if those viewpoints, no matter how absurd, are not allowed to be freely expressed and reasoned. After all, it is in the expression and exchange where the rhetorical process thrives. Individuals may approach topics of discussion from varying, “realities” or perspectives, but this is the entire point of persuasion, understanding, knowledge, and negotiation. Being able to persuade an audience of the same mindset and ideological tilt as oneself is no great feat. On the contrary, it belies a fecklessness in the rhetorician who seeks such a route. The skillful rhetorician persuades through understanding those to whom they speak, understands by being open to their own mind being changed, and becomes open by desiring to seek such outcomes, in truth. Rhetoric, in and of itself cannot be adequate in negotiating true and worthwhile outcomes, because as Plato stated, rhetoric for its own sake— as is the human inclination— seeks self-advancement, rather than knowledge. Therefore, seeing or hearing information, and being allowed to critically sift through it, allows the individual to decide for themselves what are acceptable ends. From this standing, the individual can then, in concert with other individuals of both like and different minds, decide as a freely reasoning community, what are acceptable outcomes for the society as a whole.

This is precisely why the imperative of news organizations, for instance, should never be on who can be first to gain information or on interjecting pure opinion and speculation into news. In my estimation, the focus should always be on putting forth what is empirically demonstrated and tested from multiple sources, rather than allowing the common practice of speculation, of probabilities, to guide conversation away from truth. This again is also why the imperative of social media organizations should be on allowing all discourse, within the public forum, to continue unimpeded. This is how truth is sought. The power in seeking truth in this way, comes from each individual person giving themselves the agency to plot their own course, rather than being told what is acceptable to be thought, and what is not. The fallacy that comes with attempting to control, police, or influence certain types of speech or “social behaviors” comes from the idea that forced morality, or the imposition of means that seem to lead toward just ends for some, is an inherent good. This view still discounts the fact that there will still be some who are displeased, and displaced, by the outcome. The dynamic has merely arbitrarily been shifted. The thinking behind this viewpoint seems dubious, as goodness that leads to truth cannot be imposed. It must be reasoned, realized, and experienced as one determines to traverse the world wisely and honorably.

Because this entire topic hinges around a level of rhetorical theory, it is important to consider that, in relation to this topic, Plato had important insight. Many of the rhetoricians of his day, not unlike our own, did not believe goodness to be attainable within oneself, yet his entire rhetorical philosophy centered around goodness and truth and how one navigated this carnal natural world, in search of it. Goodness that leads to true outcomes, to Plato was found in the virtue that served others and that guided others toward the transcendent. He believed that every human possessed transcendent truth, within themselves from birth, and that finding truth is only difficult because it requires us to first remember what has been shrouded by our carnality. To Plato, the critically-thinking individual’s entire purpose, was to assist others in remembering that seed of the transcendent that was placed in them at birth, by helping them to clear away the worldly debris of their lives; a feat accomplished through verbal exchange and the quest for truth. This action, of helping others, is altogether different from one using their rhetorical ability to impose upon people that which one selfishly deems as more important for the well being of society; discounting and undermining the republic itself, in the process. In this era of rapid informational advancement, it is now, more than ever, imperative that truth be sought. Humans, as has been seen throughout history, lend themselves toward self-preservation, which does not allow room for truth to prevail in the public spheres, if not freely challenged with self-imposed goodness and with differing points of view. Media has a role in purveying knowledge and rather than seeking to police it, should seek to allow discourse to be had, in every form it may take. In addition, media of course ,rather than seeking to sway minds to particular points of view, should seek to allow only what is known to be true—through empiricism— to be spread; not what is probable. This age, more than any other, is a rhetorical one. And rhetoric for rhetoric’s sake will not alone allow us to reach acceptable outcomes. Rather truth, empowered by good and self-imposed moral rhetorical strategies, will better equip Western society to reach good and true outcomes that allow all citizens to gain knowledge.

 

I think a man’s duty is to find out where the truth is, or if he cannot, at least
to take the best possible human doctrine and the hardest to disprove,
and to ride on this like a raft over the waters of life.
-Plato

 

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Free-flowing Discourse and the Violence that Prohibits Truth (p.5)

 

If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.
-George Orwell

 

An aspect of life that humans have known since they could reason, seems to be that unfairness in life is to be expected. It is in unfairness being allowed to exist, without forced impedance, that our own sensibilities are refined and our own ideas are sharpened— and if we are receptive to listening to harsh criticisms, allows us to understand and peer a bit more deeply into truth, because truth is sometimes found in our own opposition, or perhaps somewhere in between the opposition and the alternate view. What Dorsey seems to genuinely want to combat, though fallaciously, are the prevalence of factions within the public global forum, in an effort to make the Twitter environment less offending to some; perhaps even less violent. The problem with this, however, lies in factions being a side-effect of freedom. Fee exchange, with the risk of offence, is another. James Madison, not entirely unlike Plato, spoke of this phenomenon in Federalist Papers No. 10. Firstly, he recognized that the tendency toward factions exists as a result of the nature of man— as in the species of man— toward seeking one’s own self-interest and the moments those interests are set up in opposition to another individual, or another group, factions are created. Now, in relation to factions Madison said,

There are two methods of curing the mischiefs of faction: the one, by removing its causes; the other, by controlling its effects. There are again two methods of removing the causes of faction: the one, by destroying the liberty which is essential to its existence; the other, by giving to every citizen the same opinions, the same passions, and the same interests. It could never be more truly said than of the first remedy, that it was worse than the disease. Liberty is to faction what air is to fire, an aliment without which it instantly expires. But it could not be less folly to abolish liberty, which is essential to political life, because it nourishes faction, than it would be to wish the annihilation of air, which is essential to animal life, because it imparts to fire its destructive agency (Federalist 10).

Madison is speaking to something I believe is relevant in the conversation of media’s tendencies toward manipulative rhetoric and controlling behavior. Liberty, is the cornerstone of successful societies that survive the test of time. And as also noted by Madison in the same essay, the curbing of liberty and of free exchange, are the reason for the fall of many democracies— as well as a portent of our own republic’s failure, should it travel down such a road. Twitter, and by extension other forms of media that have come into the public eye under scrutiny for curtailing liberty, is a perfect example of what Madison expressed as fallible man and his liberty to exercise that fallibility. The problem of course comes when that fallible human nature, is allowed to preside as a governing body over the free exercise of individual liberty, on a public platform built out of the freedom of such free expression. The auxiliary concern obviously being: whether or not it is moral for social media sites such as Twitter, to effectively censor individuals; whether it may be for a greater good, or not.

Though it goes against the democratic nature Twitter purports to operate under, it is indeed their right as a privately-owned company, not associated with government in any official capacity, to limit or promote speech that follows their own factional associations— as admitted, by Dorsey, to exist. But when the power of a right is expressed upon individuals through forceful means, or rather when Twitter uses its right to free speech to set rules that limit free speech, it brings about a moral consideration. In his essay Critique of Violence, Walter Benjamin states, “for a cause, however effective, becomes violent, in the precise sense of the word, only when it bears on moral issues” (Benjamin 2007). Of course, much of Western society is in a time when critics of free rhetorical exercise have deemed and determined it as offensive to some and is seen as hate speech, or even as violence in certain cases, to others. It is not, however, entirely convincing that words themselves can be violence at all, because it does not seem clear that they can indeed bear on moral issues, in and of themselves.  What I mean by this is there has to be a known— and empirically demonstrated— foundational belief behind the words, in part, because without corresponding action that reflects the fervency and belief of the words, their meaning cannot truly and objectively be gleaned, as words themselves do not speak to intent; only to perceived intent, which of course is not an effective representation of objective truth. Words, especially intentionally rhetorical ones, can be perceived as being right, yet not be righteous in intent and on the converse, can be perceived as having malicious motives yet have a virtuous intent underneath. Intent itself, is a reflection of what is in the heart of man— that which no other man can truly know without seeking to understand; without seeking truth. Plato addressed this phenomenon specifically when discussing the tendency of people to follow what seems to be true, as set up by belief and the probable versus what is true knowledge, grounded in the transcendent. He suggested that, as a result of this, rhetoric, if moral at all, is morally neutral at best and morally pernicious at worst (TRT 84). But such a task cannot be sought when every thought is relegated to being shielded by the partiality of one’s own factional identities. Instead of arguing that words themselves can be violence which—as mentioned, does not seem to be the case— I argue instead that the limiting of free and open discourse, in all its forms, and the willful proliferation of false or unprovable speculations, is violence. Again, taking Benjamin’s framework: action itself seems to be what gives intent a truer demonstration of some tangibility for violence to have expression. For violence to occur, there must be a cost to one’s physical status as an individual person with the natural right to have rhetorical expression in the way the individual sees fit; pernicious or otherwise. Again, there must be a cost. One that confers an inability to give oneself full expression from within the framework of the transcendent umbrella of natural law (Garcia 2008).

Benjamin questions whether violence can be a means to a just or unjust end. The question then arises, just and unjust for whom? Because when there exists a powerful entity that is in control of the knowledge and expressions of millions of individuals, and when this entity embarks on efforts to change the rhetorical climate that has resulted from the free exercise of human will, through force— shadow bans, censorship, unchecked bias etc.— on platforms that, for some, provides their primary opportunity to gain knowledge or express true and honest views, there exists violence in action. All that is needed to further demonstrate this is to superimpose the entity of Twitter from the 300 million users over which it presides, to an entire government, and imagine the effects of it imposing such rules under that sort of paradigm. Historically, we would not have to look so incredibly far, as to regimes such as Kim Jong-Il’s North Korea, Stalin’s Soviet Union, Hitler’s Nazi Germany, or more recently Putin’s Russia, in order to demonstrate this. To be fair, Twitter is far from the likes of regimes that have killed millions of people and had almost completely sought to do away with human rights of free expression altogether. This illustration is used merely to illustrate the slippery slope of such actions, as seeking to limit certain speech in public spaces, because any justification for a conglomerate such as Twitter, can also be used, in relation to news media or to a government, as they can operate in similar ways. There is an imperative here, to be cautious in the willingness to create laws or rules for individuals to follow. With that power comes the need for action that aims to protect expression and the free exchange of ideas, at all costs. As Benjamin states in his essay, “law-making violence, is power making, and, to that extent, an immediate manifestation of violence” (Benjamin 295). So the imperative comes with the realization that laws themselves can be violent, because with them comes the implied use of force and punishment for not following them, as well as the reality that not following them can mean a real world cost. This caution also of course relates to media organizations, as a whole. In relation to news, the caution should be in the quality of information that is relayed to the people, as a lack of caution can spread like wildfire, leading people to develop mindsets or start movements, from the information they see and such information could later prove to be lacking truth.

And of course, the intention is not to place “freedom” in a monolithic ambiguity, but rather as a representation of what is already recognized by our governing bodies— and thus has already been negotiated by the collective people in this republic, and continues to be so negotiated in the legal realm rather than the digital, though that argument too can be made— as acceptable ways of expressing our natural rights as citizens. It stands to reason that, if we are to have free and uninhibited rhetorical expression— not counting the unprotected nature of calls to action— that all speech that is allowed under our Constitution, would also be allowed in our public spaces. Freedom, for the most part unrestrained, is the tried and true test of a functioning society. Now, in saying unrestrained, there is no underlying call to some sort of anarchistic move here, as rules are indeed needed for a functioning society. There is a difference however, in rules that protect against calls to violence against one’s person and rules that are arbitrarily determined so certain individuals do not encounter offence. Surely, any discourse worth having, any rhetorical leap taken, risks itself being offensive to another. That is the essence of rhetorical speech and of action. This risk of offensiveness truly is representative of a republic, or rather representative of true and honest rhetorical interaction that seeks to find its truest representation.

 

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Truth in Social Media (p.4)

 

I thought to myself: I am wiser than this man; neither of us probably knows anything that is really good, but he thinks he has knowledge, when he has not, while I, having no knowledge, do not think I have.
-Plato

 

As has been laid out, speech has for centuries been the tool by which individuals could, as Frederick Douglass once said, give tongue to interesting thoughts within one’s own soul that would otherwise die from lack of utterance (TRT 1073). Rhetorical speech, more importantly free rhetorical speech, has been the cornerstone of what the founding fathers termed: the great experiment called the United States of America; a country where free speech is built directly into the founding documents so as to avoid curtailment by Governmental entities that are built around power and are run by men afflicted by the human condition, as we all are. In any republic, where the people are foundationally involved in promoting its longevity, the many open forums within give opportunities for the people to engage in open exchange of interesting thought and expression, employing the persuasive nature of rhetorical discourse. The very point of rhetorical discourse is to use speech, syntax, and even sentence structure and presentation to influence the beliefs of someone else, to bring them to one’s own side or to negotiate mutually beneficial outcomes for society as a whole (TRT 5-7). That is an acceptable operation of rhetoric; to employ influence. Though Plato would be critical of that fact, it bears pointing out that in a modern society, one must be versed in using the rhetorical power at their disposal, for good negotiation societally. And it is perfectly correct to say that we of the citizenry are in a continual rhetorical negotiation with one another on a daily basis.

Both in the time of Plato and in the time of America’s founding, rhetorical negotiation was lauded and allowed to flourish (TRT 80). There was a recognition that only through discourse could outcomes be determined or could ideas be shared adequately; but only if speech was left unimpeded. It is ideas of this kind that have led to the proliferation of social media conglomerates of the likes of Facebook, Twitter, and others as compliments to the more traditional news media formats. These platforms, that have flourished as a result of the freedoms offered almost exclusively in America, appear to all allow the misuse of rhetorical practice to go unchecked, on their own. News media using rhetorical freedoms to misdirect, while social media companies seem to all go the route of limiting that free exercise of rhetorical speech, rather than allowing it to flourish freely.

In a way, they operate as sort of quasi-democratic governments, with leaders at the helm who impose rules and force desired behaviors upon the online communities of users— a sentiment Twitter CEO, Jack Dorsey, himself has acknowledged (United 2018). Now, to truly put this statement into the proper framework, we will look to Dorsey’s statements in front of a United States House Committee on Energy and Commerce, on September 5, 2018. In his statement to the committee, Dorsey touched on a few rhetorical points that deserve some analysis, in relation to the topic of speech expression within the platform: promoting health, openness, and civility of public conversation; not using political ideology to rank or prioritize posts; and Twitter’s four principles for a healthy public sphere. Dorsey expresses an intent to provide, through machine learning and custom-tailored algorithms, an online environment or “public square” where individuals can have safe engagements that encourage healthy debate and critical thinking. At one point he says,

We acknowledge that abuse, harassment, troll armies, manipulation through bots and human-coordination, misinformation campaigns, and increasingly divisive echo chambers occur… Historically, Twitter focused most of our efforts on removing content against our rules. Today, we have a more comprehensive framework that will help encourage more healthy debate, conversations, and critical thinking” (United 2018).

This statement sounds acceptable at first glance, and perhaps even Plato might agree. Where he would not agree, however, would be in the powerful imposing upon the people. He would encourage discourse, at all costs. In the age of information leading to knowledge, and knowledge being power, it stands to reason that whoever controls the flow of that information, can wield that power in any way they see fitting, as represented by Dorsey. He repeats this sentiment on more than one occasion and it is interesting that he does, in one major respect: echo chambers. From Dorsey’s own words, he aims to eliminate these echo chambers— or small spaces where similar beliefs are amplified and reaffirmed— and yet he undercuts that very goal by creating such chambers through use of his own algorithms and through what he calls his principles of a healthy public sphere, which he states only a few lines after this previous statement. The solution, is everyone on the platform having “shared attention, shared reality, variety, and receptivity” (United 2018). The verbiage Dorsey chooses to use here raises some questions for anyone who aims to think critically.

Firstly, if everyone has a shared attention and a shared reality, there can never be any true variety in the thought being discussed. Secondly, no one can possibly learn to be receptive of differing points of view, if they are never exposed to points of view that come from those whose “reality” does not match their own. This means the civility and honest discussion Twitter wishes to promote, suddenly becomes an impossibility. It seems that this is exactly how echo chambers are created, but this is not the only proof of this within Dorsey’s testimony. Dorsey tells the House committee that Twitter algorithms, “show individuals using the platform the most relevant information for that individual first… Twitter has also employed technology to be more aggressive in detecting and minimizing the visibility of certain types of abusive behaviors on our platform… Twitter strives to show content to people that we think they will be most interested in and that contributes meaningfully to the conversation” (United 2018). Another aspect to this is his reference to “abusive behaviors”. When looking into such behaviors on the Twitter terms of service page, as a rhetorical document, these behaviors are summed up by “behavior that is targeted at an individual or group of people, report has been filed by the target of the abuse or a bystander, the behavior is newsworthy and in the legitimate public interest” (Twitter 2018). What is concerning about this is, the word choices are somewhat ambiguous here. It is unclear what precisely Twitter deems as abusive behavior, leading one to believe that any action either reported or flagged by Twitter algorithms, would be subject to their subjective discretion of what they deem to be “abusive”. Twitter, according to Dorsey, heavily depends on behavioral signals to track how certain accounts behave in relation to others. Further, tweets that do not contribute to “healthy” discourse on the platform are thrown to the bottom of the “relevant content” list or removed from the site altogether (United 2018). The problem here is, and I believe Plato would agree, it should be left to the people to rhetorically negotiate what is acceptable to them, which is essentially done on other sites, through mechanisms of down-voting or disliking posts. Posts can also be scrolled past or ignored.

What is most interesting however, is Dorsey told Congress that the behavioral models that Twitter employs do not take political views or ideology under consideration when ranking posts on the site (United 2018).

In an interview with CNN  he had this to say:

 

The problem with this is three-fold. Firstly, the CEO himself admitted to his own company’s political leaning in the interview, which is not in and of itself a problem unless there is a pattern of that bias being used against certain people. Secondly, in his testimony he says,

“We recognize that even a model created without deliberate bias may nevertheless result in biased outcomes. Bias can happen inadvertently due to many factors, such as the quality of the data used to train our models. In addition to ensuring that we are not deliberately biasing the algorithms, it is our responsibility to understand, measure, and reduce these accidental biases” (United 2018).

What is interesting here, is the phrase “quality of the data.” The quality of the data in any given algorithm is only as accurate and impactful as the human beings inputting such data, which leads into the third and final point which is this hearing came on the heels of public incensement from many individuals that Twitter, as a company, was intentionally silencing their voices, or shadow banning— that is, purposefully limiting the visibility of certain posts—because they may have held a political ideology or viewpoint on certain social topics that did not align with Twitter, as a company. In fact, prominent public voices have purportedly fallen victim to this, which was one major cause of the House Committee hearing (CNN 2018 ). What is striking here is Twitter, as a company that offers a service, believes it is its job, or rather its imperative, to take upon itself, the lofty goal of policing fairness. Twitter believes they are uniquely positioned, and perhaps they are, to influence the nature of civil discourse. Jack Dorsey himself commented on Twitter’s entire goal being to, “preserve their democracy”. The problem arises, however, with the idea that fairness can be achieved at all, in any meaningful way, that does not elevate the rights of some, but limit the rights of others. It seems impossible to ensure that everyone is content with the rhetorical discourse around them. In reality, this approach seems to encourage the proliferation of echo-chambers, mass blocking lists, and shadow banning— which Dorsey admits to existing on his platform, though fervently denying its perceived bias.

 

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