The need to think critically about the human problems entangled with the interactive media landscape is growing.
It’s fair to feel skeptical, if you’ve followed recent news about Russian Twitter bots spreading false information or “astroturfing” — manufacturing social support for a cause or individual.
Internet robots (“bots” for short) are software applications that can carry out simple, repetitive tasks. Social networking bots are a spinoff of traditional bots; these automated “users” connect with social media-using humans in conversation, via preprogrammed scripts.
Bots can be used in a variety of disreputable ways, including crowding out opposing opinions by repetitively tweeting false facts, dominating discussions, coordinating spam, or spreading viruses. But bots can “do good,” too. For example, bots maintain Wikipedia and crawl the web to improve search result accuracy.
Students in the Digital Technology and Cultures program at Seattle University’s School of New and Continuing Studies are designing bots to support social justice. For example, students might create a bot, populate its speaking dictionary, assign an image and “let the bot out” onto social media. Students would then write a thoughtful statement for their peers and professor on how their bot is addressing a specific social justice issue, and may even influence it.
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“A Twitter bot can help us think or give us a reason to laugh,” says Miles C. Coleman, the program’s director. A Twitter bot might also be able to quickly identify and counter anti-vaccination discussions, he says, retweeting anti-vaccination messaging alongside “a thoughtful set of counter messaging.”
Many of us get hung up on the automated nature of bots; however, we can “do good” with automation too, as Coleman points out in “Bots, Social Capital, and the Need for Civility” in the July 2018 issue of “Journal of Media Ethics.”
If we’re mass manufacturing supporters for a political cause, Coleman elaborates, it’s probably not ethical. Yet bots can also be used in ways that offer social critique, forcing us to pause and grow — sometimes even asking us to think about how “human” our own communication is.
In the past, students have made bots that address the digital divide, share facts about the accomplishments of Latinos in technology and advocate for animal rights, among other topics.
As the complexity of communication technology grows, so too does the need to think critically about the human problems entangled with the interactive media landscape.
A deeper, more holistic understanding of communication media
The bot project is an example of how Seattle University is combining innovative approaches with the university’s mission and Jesuit values, specifically the precept of cura personalis, or “care of the whole person.” The Digital Technology and Cultures program looks at internet-based communication using a similarly holistic approach.
Students in the program study theory and hard skills alongside classic elements of the liberal arts, including writing prose, making art, and philosophizing. They learn to code in Python, dissect Google Analytics results, visualize data, make digital art installations and write web copy. Research, collaboration, communication, critical thinking and creative problem-solving are among the skills students build in preparation for life in a more digital world.
Students can make simple, but thought-provoking, web applications. They also analyze “digital identity,” how companies present their digital presence to the world, while considering factors such as privacy, social privilege and equity.
Most of the program’s students come from post-traditional backgrounds, meaning they are already working full time and balancing a variety of responsibilities — which fits neatly with the school’s “flipped” classroom model, wherein course content is delivered online, and is augmented by in-person and online discussions.
Career opportunities for graduates with these skill sets are varied but include multimedia designers, social media specialists, technical writers and web content managers.
The internet can be ugly, hateful, and mindless, Coleman says. However, “it can also be beautiful, equitable, and thoughtful — our students prove that every day.”
For more information about Seattle University’s School of New and Continuing Studies, please visit seattleu.edu/ncs.