Lesson Ideas to Teach Online Censorship
From the 9th July to the 19th September 2019, I had the pleasure of teaching English for Academic Purposes (EAP) for a second summer at the University of Nottingham (UoN).
The UoN prepares international students with the academic skills to be able to study a degree by tutoring how to “write an academic paper on a controversial issue.” Students learn how to write a controversy paper based on a heated debate within their own discipline in order to develop a deep level of criticality, or critical thinking.
This means looking at facts with open-minded objectivity, which in turn challenges us to question our preconceived ideas and perspectives, and this enables us to make informed decisions by forming conclusions based on evidence.
At the beginning of the course, in July, students were introduced to the topic of online censorship, and on the 19th July, students began looking for a controversy in their own subject area to write their final paper on in 10 weeks time.
So to introduce the topic of online censorship and to start a discussion on how to find a controversy in their chosen discipline, I presented students with this 2011 Ted talk I first saw in the film Stare into the Lights my Pretties.
It explains one problem with online censorship that many of us do not consider: algorithms give us more of the same based on what we’ve clicked on the most, and edit out everything else.
As Eli Pariser concludes:
We need to make sure that they [algorithms] also show us things that are uncomfortable or challenging or important – other points of view. We really need the internet to be that thing that we all dreamed of it being. We need it to connect us all together. We need it to introduce us to new ideas and new people and different perspectives. And it’s not going to do that if it leaves us all isolated in a Web of one.
We then explored how to choose the introductory context (the background) for their own chosen controversial topic. First, I presented 5 videos on recent online censorship:
2) OCT 2018 and we find out that Facebook is deleting 100s of Pages from people who challenge the political status quo – The Free Thought Project, Police the Police, Press for Truth, Anti-Media, Right Wing News, Reasonable People Unite, Reverb Press, as well as Rachel Blevins (a correspondent for RT America).
3) JUNE 2019 and pro natural medicine / anti pharmaceutical drugs advocate Dr. Mercola is removed from Google search engine results.
4) Meanwhile, Twitter removes Alex Jones because of an altercation he has with a politician in the real world (outside of the Twitter platform).
5) Finally, Apple is reviewing phone calls and emails to assign users with a trust score, and the government in China has also introduced a trust score app which all Chinese citizens must use by 2020. Low scores can ban people from trains, planes, dating apps, certain schools, hotels and jobs.
Students watched the videos with English subtitles (practising reading and listening) and then we discussed the strengths and weaknesses of the sources: Rachel Maddow (MSNBC), Ben Swann (Truth in Media), and Dr. Mercola.
This is something we go into in much more detail later in the course when we examine how to find valid and reliable academic research, but evaluating online content is also extremely important.
Stanford University calls this civic online reasoning or helping students to critically evaluate “the information that bombards them online” so that they are not “duped by false claims and misleading arguments.” See their 2016 executive report:
At present, we worry that democracy is threatened by the ease at which disinformation about civic issues is allowed to spread and flourish.
Evaluating these videos raises such questions as: who is the author of the video?, who is funding the video?, and is their risk of bias or sensationalism?
Then we explored the ideas presented in the videos:
1) Should governments collect our data?
2) Should social media be removing challenging content?
3) Should social media be removing people because of behaviour outside of the social media network?
4) Should social media and governments be creating trust scores?
Discussions were varied:
One Chinese student said “Governments are more interested in censoring what people say about them than stopping actual online crime like selling weapons and drugs.”
One table of 4 concluded that “The trust score is good because bad people should not be allowed to travel or stay in nice hotels.”
I then provided a text on the topic, serving also as an example of how to present a context and write a background for their own controversy topic.
I explained that the background for their own paper ultimately begins where they feel the context of their controversy begins, as long as all claims that they make can be supported by evidence.
Click here to enlarge the text they received:
Instead of watching the 5 videos together in class, students could also click on links within the text; thus practising evaluating both videos and articles for strengths and weaknesses (while practising reading and listening, as well as discussing the sources with classmates).
The full text with links is available on WUWE here.
Students also used the example background section to help them understand how to construct and write paragraphs.
Good paragraphs in academic writing usually begin with a topic sentence, or sentence that tells the reader what the whole paragraph is about.
Paragraphs may also have a concluding sentence, or sentence that links the content of the paragraph with the next one.
Students identified topic sentences and concluding sentences for each paragraph; then I gave the class a list of common linking words (also called linkers, connecting words, or connectors).
View PDF here
Writing / Self Producing
The Oxford Dictionary defines cybersecurity as “The state of being protected against the criminal or unauthorized use of electronic data” but it also includes protection from the “disruption or misdirection” of the services we use.
As a possible homework, or in class, students can use all of the evidence presented so far (and any other facts they’ve researched themselves) to provide a current ‘final position’ on the topic by answering the text’s concluding questions:
Does government-internet company collaboration increase or decrease public safety and well-being, and to what extent are continual data collection, the deliberate removal of online content and the scoring of people’s behaviour helpful in this regard?
Here is a PDF document of the final teacher’s key.
In a Nutshell
Ultimately, services that use our data and us as the product will not be secure by default in order to access said data, but also, when we as the product are no longer considered useful or desired, we can be expunged at any time.
The solutions is to put our trust in a different narrative instead, in services that keep our data and us safe; services from people and companies passionate about cybersecurity
join the adventure!
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