50:209:110 Truth and Lies in the Digital World (Fall 2019)

[Photo Credit: "Ceci est une fake news" by Hrag Vartanian]

This course addresses the problem of misinformation, propaganda, and verifying truth in digital environments. It introduces students to how multiple fields and disciplines approach these ethical problems, the historical roots of these questions, the unique challenges introduced by digital environments, and strategies for evaluating information and its sources. The course will address the ethical obligations of those who create and distribute information as well as the obligations of those consuming and sharing information. While the course addresses the challenges of verifying information in digital environments, it also aims to contextualize the problem as not just a product of digital technology.


Professor: Jim Brown
Class Time: TBA
Meeting Place: TBA

Jim's Office: Digital Commons 104
Jim's Office Hours: TBA
Jim's Email: jim[dot]brown[at]rutgers[dot]edu

Course Website: http://courses.jamesjbrownjr.net/110_fall2019

Course Learning Outcomes
Upon completion of this class, students will be able to:

  • Understand how different disciplines address questions of misinformation, propaganda, and verifying truth in digital environments
  • Articulate the problems of misinformation, propaganda, and verifying truth in historical context
  • Analyze the ethical obligations of the producers and consumers of information
  • Explain the roles certain digital technologies play in the problems of misinformation, propaganda, and verifying truth

Ethics and Values Outcomes
This course fulfills the Ethics and Values general education requirement. Upon completion of this EAV course, students will be able to:

  • Analyze ethical debates in terms of their underlying assumptions and implications.
  • Recognize the ethical values at stake in practical, concrete, and/or everyday situations.
  • Apply ethical reasoning toward solving practical problems.
  • Formulate, communicate, and evaluate effective ethical arguments.

Required Books

  • Propaganda and the Ethics of Persuasion, 2nd Edition, by Randal Marlin
  • Network Propaganda: Manipulation, Disinformation, and Radicalization in American Politics
    by Yochai Benkler, Robert Faris, and Hal Roberts
  • The Misinformation Age: How False Beliefs Spread, Cailin O'Connor and James Owen Weatherall

Other readings will be posted to Sakai as PDFs

Course Work and Grades
Undergraduate student grades will be determined based on:

  • Attendance (15%)
  • Writing Responses (15%) Writing responses will be assigned both as homework and during class in order to evaluate whether students are able to understand the readings, apply the ethical frameworks discussed in class, and make arguments supported by evidence.
  • Two Exams (50%) Exams will cover the readings and class discussions. They will evaluate whether students have effectively understood the readings while also evaluating whether they are able to apply ethical frameworks to the problems discussed in the class.
  • Speculative Redesign Project (20%) In groups, students will analyze the ethical assumptions embedded in a specific digital platform, explain how those assumptions contribute to the problem of propaganda, misinformation, and/or the verification of truth, and then propose a redesign to that platform that would address the problem. This project will involve research on the platform itself, and it will draw on class conversations about how digital environments enable and constrain certain kinds of behaviors. Groups will present their proposed redesign to the class.

Grades will be assigned on the following scale:

A 90-100
B+ 88-89
B 80-86
C+ 78-79
C 70-77
D 60-69
F 59 and below

Content Warnings
We may be reading and discussing material that you will want to know about in advance. I will do my best to provide detailed content warnings prior to each course reading. However, if you have concerns about encountering anything specific in the course material, please contact me via email or make an appointment to see me. I will do my best to flag content based on your requests.

Success in this class will require regular attendance, and I will take attendance at each class meeting. In addition, we will often complete graded work in class that cannot be made up. You are required to attend class daily, arrive on time, do assigned reading and writing, and participate in all in-class work. Please save absences for when you are sick or have a personal emergency. If you find that an unavoidable problem prevents you from attending class or from arriving on time, please discuss the problem with me.

If you are more than 5 minutes late for class, you will be considered absent. If there is something keeping you from getting to class on time (i.e., bus or train schedules), please let me know during the first week of class.

Computers, Smartphones, etc.
Please feel free to use your computer or tablet during class. However, I ask that you put away smartphones. If you have a specific reason for using your phone for class related activities, please meet with me to discuss.

Late Assignments
Due dates for assignments are posted on the course website. Late assignments are not accepted.

Technology Policy
We will use digital technology frequently in this class. Although I am assuming that you have some basic knowledge of computers, such as how to use a keyboard and mouse, and how to use the Web and check e-mail, most things will be explained in class. If you don’t understand what we are doing, please ask for help. If you are familiar with the technology we are using please lend a helping hand to your classmates.

Sakai, Course Website, and Email
You should check your email daily. Class announcements and assignments may be distributed through email. The course website will also have important information about assignments and policies. Pay close attention to the course calendar as we move through the semester. I reserve the right to move things around if necessary.

University policies and resources

Academic Integrity
By enrolling in this course, each student assumes the accountability and the responsibility to be an active participant in Rutgers Camden’s community of scholars in which everyone’s academic work and behavior are held to the highest academic integrity standards. Cheating, fabrication, plagiarism, unauthorized collaboration, and helping or allowing others commit these acts are examples of academic misconduct, which can result in disciplinary action. This includes but is not limited to failure on the assignment/course, disciplinary probation, or suspension. All cases of academic misconduct will be forwarded to the Office of Community Standards for additional review. https://deanofstudents.camden.rutgers.edu/academic-integrity

Code of Conduct
Rutgers University-Camden seeks a community that is free from violence, threats, and intimidation; that is respectful of the rights, opportunities, and welfare of students, faculty, staff, and guests of the University; and that does not threaten the physical or mental health or safety of members of the University community and includes classroom space. As a student at the University, you are expected adhere to Student Code of Conduct: https://deanofstudents.camden.rutgers.edu/student-conduct

Rutgers-Camden has a wide range of resources to help you stay on track both personally and academically. The Raptor Cares Report (https://deanofstudents.camden.rutgers.edu/reporting) connects you to our Dean of Students Office and they can assist you with a variety of concerns: medical, financial, mental health, or any life issue that impacts your academic performance. You can share a concern for yourself, a classmate or a friend.

Office of Disability Services
The Office of Disability Services (ODS) provides students with confidential accommodation services in order to allow students with documented physical, mental, and learning disabilities to successfully complete their course of study at Rutgers University – Camden. ODS provides for the confidential documentation and verification of student accommodations, and communicates with faculty regarding disabilities and accommodations. The ODS provides accommodation services, which can include readers, interpreters, alternate text, special equipment, and note takers. The ODS also works with students, faculty, staff and administrators to enforce the American with Disabilities Act of 1990. https://learn.camden.rutgers.edu/disability-services

Office of Military and Veterans Affairs
The Office of Military and Veterans Affairs can assist our military and veteran students with benefits, deployment issues and much more. Contact: Fred Davis 856-225-2791 frdavis@camden.rutgers.edu

Support for Undocumented and Immigrant Students
In an ongoing effort to support all students on campus, Rutgers University has established two offices to support undocumented and immigrant students with questions or concerns related to immigration status. The Rutgers Immigrant Community Assistance Project (RICAP) provides free and confidential immigration legal consultations and direct representation to currently enrolled students. For more information or an appointment, contact Jason Hernandez, Esq., at 856-225-2302 or jason.c.hernandez@rutgers.edu. The Rutgers Office of Undocumented Student Services provides one-on-one case management to assist undocumented students and help them access campus resources including financial aid, career services, health services, etc. For more information or an appointment, please contact Yuriana García Tellez at y.garcia@rutgers.edu.