Fake News, Cyberbullying, #MeToo: Law, Technology and Culture Director on Living in the Digital Age

Written by: Jesse Jenkins,
Alison L. Lefkovitz, an assistant professor of history and director of the Law, Technology and Culture Program at NJIT, shares her views on fake news, cyberbullying, #MeToo — and the importance of open dialogue on college campuses.

Since 2017, NJIT students, faculty and administrators have gathered for “Talking Back to Hate,” a teach-in about ways to understand and overcome evolving challenges in the expanding digital media landscape, such as misinformation, cyberbullying, trolling and more.

“Fake news is false information that works to divide us into ‘them’ and ‘us,’ and makes us believe that every unhappiness and injustice in our lives is the fault of ‘other’ groups of people,” said the event’s faculty co-sponsor, Nancy Steffen-Fluhr, director of the Murray Center for Women in Technology at NJIT. “Hate and disinformation spread even more effectively through social media like Facebook, Twitter, Reddit, 4Chan and more by individuals with a grievance that can act without consequence, as well as by commercial enterprises large and small who have realized there is money to be made in disinformation. In an era of bots and click bait, hate sells.”

Here, Alison L. Lefkovitz, an assistant professor of history and director of the Law, Technology and Culture Program at NJIT, shares her views on fake news, cyberbullying, #MeToo — and the importance of open dialogue on college campuses.

What kind of challenges does the online environment present to students, researchers and faculty at the university level? 

One of the things that we are good at as educators is teaching students how to verify information and ask questions about things that may seem obvious. Information literacy can be a useful tool against disinformation and confusion online. 

What do today’s hot topics say about the trends and challenges in our digital society?

What’s happening online reflects what’s happening in the world. What kind of brings all these issues together is hate. Whether it’s DACA or online harassment, these things are really united by a discomfort and a hatred for “other” people. This is not only online, but in policy and in people’s everyday experiences on the subway or in schools. Targeting this as an online issue is an example of one dimension of life where our students and our citizens are experiencing it. It is a big task.

#MeToo was Time’s 2017 Person of the Year. What do you find most notable about how fast that movement crystallized? 

I have been impressed by how well the press has managed a lot of these things. For a while it felt like the press had been, and still is, very much in trouble financially. Despite that, [journalists] have become really critical of how information is disseminated. The fact that the public cares about [these issues] is a tribute to the press and the good work they have done. In the case of #MeToo, which is addressing a big problem for a long time, there have been a lot of women who have spoken out before and the press has taken it less seriously. The fact that [The New Yorker] did a series of investigations on someone like Harvey Weinstein, and that it got published and received the attention it did, shows that part of our democratic society is very healthy.

Are laws struggling to keep up with technology? 

Laws against disinformation have been limited for a long time because people are worried about free speech. Even if you roll something back, the fact that you have rolled it back doesn’t mean it disseminates to the same places as the original information. The Czech Republic and Germany have both recently passed laws against fake news. France has also been considering similar laws. The Czech Republic’s version provides resources to combat fake news, rather than laws against it. Germany’s idea is to make it harder to disseminate false information by allowing the state to prosecute it. It is incredibly controversial because a lot of people are nervous about how the state can define fake news and use that definition to censor.

Other laws emerging out of the internet era in the European Union recognize the right to be forgotten. Particularly, in instances of revenge porn, cyberbullying and some other issues, the law mandates that information can be removed so that search engines cannot find that information when an individual's name is searched. This could be considered something that is fundamental to people’s well being as citizens, because if you apply for a job and someone Googles you, search results of revenge porn or an incident of cyberbullying can have a major impact on a person's life. It is a relatively new problem for society. 

Millennials and post-Millennials face various iterations of cyberbullying and online threats that prompt school violence. What aspects of internet or social media law might be considered by policymakers and technology law experts to address these problems?

Younger generations are much more sophisticated about solidarity than previous generations and are joining together to form a united front against cyberbullying. 

As far as school threats, I think there is a range of innovations that can be used to deal with school violence itself. Everything from really thinking about how we should interpret the Second Amendment to requiring insurance for weapons would restrict who has access and the potential effects afterward. But this is a problem that is definitely going to continue. Online threats are also very destructive. I think local law enforcement is establishing a more sophisticated understanding of how online threats work. They’ve had to do this due to cyberstalking. It may actually lead local law enforcement to invest in this in a way that they haven’t until now.

How is NJIT educating students and young researchers to act skillfully and ethically toward their application of science and technology?

Learning to research and verify and double-check information is something we can apply in any classroom, but it is also something we need to do increasingly in real life. Information has proliferated in such a way that you have to check all of it. One thing that is great about this generation is that, in many ways, they are willing to embrace this more than older generations. I think it is easy to feel helpless in the face of all these problems in the world, but teach-ins are a way that people can begin to do something by just talking to other people. Part of the reason that we held our discussions is to generate connections amongst one another and create an environment where people can suggest and exchange different ideas with each other, whether it is connecting with someone else to build an app or organizing an event on campus. What we hope students here take away is not only the tools to do something, but the impulse to act on it.