Sifting through Controversy

Part 2 of America In Context's Series On Media Literacy

As part of a series on America In Context, we are diving into America’s media literacy problem in a new series. Today we’re navigating some of the biggest controversies

sifting through controversy

Cancel Culture... Congressional Republicans apparently did not see the irony of holding a hearing decrying the evils of cancel culture — the alleged mass “canceling” or ostracization of individuals for unpopular opinions — and then removing Rep. Liz Cheney of Wyoming from GOP leadership for speaking out against Trump’s claims of a stolen election shortly after. Still, Republicans are worried about cancelation: Missouri Sen. Josh Hawley saw a book deal canceled over his involvement in furthering those election lies. 

...Or Just the Free Market? Hawley may have lost his book deal, but he still holds his title and a large national audience. Other instances seem to underscore that cancellations aren’t so sticky: When Hasbro phrased out Mr. Potato Head for a gender-neutral replacement or Dr. Seuss’ publishers halted prints of a book accused of using racist stereotypes, conservative critics suggested that cancel culture was running amok. However, the calls on the Dr. Seuss case came from the author’s estate itself. And besides, if companies like Delta, Coca Cola or Major League Baseball want to speak out against restrictive voting laws — as they did in Georgia — they are doing so out of a response to consumer demands that brands reflect their values. “That’s not canceling, that’s the free market,” as Robert Schlesinger, author of “White House Ghosts: Presidents and Their Speechwriters,” wrote for NBC News in March.

Now This is Censorship. Most of the time, actual censorship comes from governments banning content they don’t like. In Utah, Republican Gov. Spencer Cox signed a law requiring phones and tablets sold in the state to ban access to pornographic content. In 2019, BBC reported that nearly 1300 adult film stars their accounts deleted on social platforms despite not actually posting any nudity or sex. “The policing of women's bodies and anything to do with sexuality is kind of terrifying,” adult performer Siri Dahl told America In Context. Financial censorship abounds too: Mastercard and Visa severed their relationship with Pornhub when the New York Times explored the issue of sex trafficking on the platform — a decision that punished legal sex workers for the misdeeds of bad actors. Sex workers are turning to cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin and NFTs to deal with such censorship. To add insult to injury, OnlyFans just made some pretty startling move to move away from adult content...which is an odd business decision. OnlyFans has since reversed its decision.

Faceless Facebook. The social media giant gutted the advertising model that fed newspapers before 2008, briefly showed promise as a major driver of traffic in the mid-2010s and then cut that flow with an algorithm change that made it prohibitively expensive to earn readers through the platform. All this despite news articles, which Facebook allowed users to publish without any money going back to their creators, driving much of the discussion on the site. In February, Facebook promised to pay $1 billion to “support the news industry” the next three years, although it threatened to pull news off its Australian site altogether over a law that promised to make social platforms pay news organizations — only reversing course after international condemnation.

Fakeout Fears. Pretty soon, you won’t even be able to trust your own eyes and ears. An FBI report in March reported that malicious actors will “almost certainly” leverage synthetic content — also known as “Deepfakes” — foreign  influence campaigns. Specifically, nations like Russia and China have already shown a propensity for election interference over social media. Such fears have gripped publishers as well: The Times of Israel ran a piece by Oliver Taylor, a purported student at the University of Birmingham in England, only for Reuters to later discover that Taylor doesn’t appear to exist. His profile was a deepfake, and the actual author is unknown, a particular problem given they accused two people of being terrorists.