By Josh Heine
Communications and Membership Coordinator
August 4, 2015
I had the pleasure of interviewing Dr. Bastiaan Vanancker, Associate Professor at Loyola University Chicago, this morning on August 4. Dr. Vanacker is scheduled to be the Social Media Ethics and Democracy panel moderator for the upcoming 2015 Media & Ethics Forum. He is currently the Program Director for the Center of Digital Ethics and Policy and Teaching Chair for the Media Ethics Division of the Association for Educators in Journalism and Mass Communication.
Could you briefly describe your background, such as where you studied and your research interests?
I have my undergrad from the University of Ghent in Belgium or Universiteit Gent. I studied philosophy there and then I did my Masters and my Ph.D. at the University of Minnesota. I had a Rotary Scholarship to come study abroad and a year turned into two more years. So first, I did my Masters at the University of Minnesota and then I did my Ph.D. there as well. I did my Ph.D. dissertation with Jane Kirtley and I mainly worked on issues regarding freedom of speech and the Internet, specifically the regulation of hate speech online in the United States and the European Union. I have to say, as I became a professor these questions of where to draw the line both ethically and legally between what speech can be tolerated in the public sphere, and what speech should be banished from that public sphere and how it can be done without invading our crucial freedoms. This has always been of interest to me, be it hate speech, be it bullying, be it libelous speech, be it offensive cartoons, I find these questions interesting once we go towards a global society which allows people to have different sensibilities about these things. Somehow, we have to figure these things out. Yet, according to the United States, we have certain areas that are more tolerant regarding hate speech and libelous speech, and other parts of the world have different views on this as well.
You mentioned that you studied philosophy in Belgium and that there are different views on ethics of communications, ethics of media. Specifically regarding the European and the United States, what are the differences and are there similarities in how both view social media and ethics?
Well, I think one of the hot button issues right now is the right to be forgotten, which is where European lawmakers basically have said that anything that we do wrong, anything that we say is being archived on the Internet and that might prove to be an obstacle. If you want to move ahead in life, sometimes our past mistakes keep haunting us and the European Union has this right to be forgotten, which give citizens the limited right to not disappear from the internet, but have their search results not show up in search engines. That seems to be something that legally is different from what we have in the United States even though I would say ethically that there is some support for that in the United States as well. I do believe that people care about their privacy a great deal and the United States tends to have laws that support their sensibilities. There is also a more absolutist interpretation of freedom of speech in the United States than there is in Europe, which tends to be a little more pragmatic and balances free speech more with other societal interests. We see this also in how European countries deal with hate speech, Holocaust denial, etc., which tends to be restricted much more severely than it is over here, where there is basically no restrictions. I think in all these legal dilemmas in the United States that the weight of freedom of speech counts a little bit heavier than in Europe. This is one of the differences: it makes it easier to kind of ban speech in Europe than in the United States, even though there is of course freedom of speech, but not to the extent that it is over here. I am not saying that this is good or bad; it is just a different calculation that is being made.
These are some very fascinating topics that we are discussing: ethics, legal issues, and international differences. How did you become interested in this and want to study mass communication, media ethics, and all these different fields?
It is a little bit of my background coming from a philosophy background, coming from Europe and noticing these differences. It became kind of natural to make them my area of study. I just think it is important because with, and that also ties in with the conference, you mention mass media, and it is really media. We all have to make these decisions nowadays: we are all communicating, we are all consumers. Are we going to click on a link where we see ISIS burn a man alive or not? Are we going to put that on social media? Are we going to share that? These are all decision that we have to make as well, so it is no longer that these ethical decisions are just made by some people in newsrooms. With the advent of social media, we all have to make ethical decisions. What are we going to do if a dentist from Minnesota shoots a lion? Are we going to out him, are going to call for people to call his office? Are we going to try to shame him, or are we going to take a different route? How are we going to use the power of this medium? How are we going to exert justice? I think those are fascinating, fascinating questions and questions that appeal to all of us and apply to all of us.
We just talked about these issues like watching videos from ISIS, and obviously, ISIS is going to be a focus with its use of social media. Another focus for this forum is going to be how nations handle censorship. You also mentioned the recent “Cecil the Lion” controversy in Zimbabwe. Looking at all these issues now, what do you think is going to be the future of media in the next 5 to 10 years, and what are some issues that we might see in the next few years?
One of the things that I think and hope this conference will touch upon is how nation-states deal with this new medium. We’ve seen efforts from countries like China that have been successful in curtailing some of the ability of the Internet to really flow information. I think at this conference we will be looking at how nation-states, who see their power threatened by a new medium, will try to “slay that dragon” so to speak it. How will they deal with the subversive nature of social media? I don’t think that battle is over, so there is that aspect. On the other hand, what I think is fascinating about the IS, or ISIS, example is that social media and the Internet is not good or bad: it can be used for evil purposes, or for good purposes, so we need to, so what we have seen especially with ISIS, which is very adroit and very capable at using social media as a recruitment tool. What many of us like about social media has been used for very nefarious purposes, so that is also something that we need to think about. Specifically, I think not so much nation-states, but how will those companies that host the content, Facebook, Twitter, various blogging platforms, enforce guidelines referring to hate speech, terrorist speech? What is their role in clearing the public space of certain speech? That is, of course, an important question: on the one hand, you don’t want freedom of speech to be curtailed. You don’t want the people at Twitter to determine what can be said and what can’t be said. On the other hand, we may want them to maybe step in if there are threats being made via social media. I think that is an important question: how third-party platforms are going to deal with the effects of controversial speech.
Thank you, Dr. Bastiaan Vanacker, for sharing your thoughts on social media ethics and law with us. We at Niagara Foundation are looking forward to hearing you and the other panelist discuss these and other important issues at the upcoming 2015 Media and Ethics Forum on September 29, 2015.