Curriculum  |  ,   |  January 15, 2018

Embedded EthiCS @ Harvard: Facebook, Fake News, and the Ethics of Censorship

Curriculum developed by David Gray Grant.

Module Overview: In this module, we discuss whether social media companies (such as Facebook) have a moral obligation to suppress the spread of fake news over their networks. Students are introduced to contemporary arguments for censoring fake news, as well as John Stuart Mill’s classic arguments against censorship of any kind from On Liberty. Much of the discussion, as well as the follow-up assignment, asks students to brainstorm specific strategies Facebook might use to suppress fake news on its platform, and then evaluate those strategies from a moral perspective.

Connection to Course Technical Material: One thing students learn about in the course is influence cascade models (e.g. independent cascade), which can be used to predict how information and influence will spread through a social network. In one course exercise, students are asked to use such a model to predict whether a hypothetical social media marketing campaign will “go viral.” This module follows up on this material, posing moral questions about how social media companies ought to use these tools in designing their software platforms.

Module Goals:

  • Familiarize students with important philosophical ideas and arguments from long-standing debates about the ethics of censorship.
  • Show students how those ideas and arguments bear on contemporary debates about the censorship of “fake news” by social media companies.
  • Give students practice applying those ideas and arguments to a concrete software engineering problem.

Key Philosophical Questions:

  • Does Facebook have a moral obligation to suppress the spread of fake news over their networks?
  • What distinctions can we draw among different kinds of content that get called “fake news”? Are these distinctions morally significant?
  • How might Facebook suppress the spread of fake news over its platform? Are some of these strategies better than others from a moral point of view?
  • If Facebook should suppress fake news in some way, how should it decide which stories or sources to suppress?
  • Is the suppression of fake news by social media companies a form of censorship?
  • Is censorship ever morally permissible? If so, under what conditions?

Goals, Materials and Implementation information can be found at the module website.


© 2018 by David Gray Grant. Reprinted by permission. Creative Commons License.