The Trek Episode 19 on Freedom of Speech: Civics Unplugged discuss freedom of speech and censorship on social media platforms – in collaboration with Humanity 2.0

Contributed by: Show Editorial Team

Gary Sheng, Madison Adams, Julia Terpak, Ashley Lin, Maryam Tourk, Jonah Zacks, Brycelyn Turner and special guest Kenneth Ng, discuss freedom of speech on this week’s episode of The Trek


  • Civics Unplugged hosts Trek Session with Gen Z community on freedom of speech and censorship on social media platforms
  • Prominent Gen Z figures discuss big tech companies censoring users and how it affects freedom of speech
  • Future leaders of America discuss freedom of speech amidst Presidnet Donald Trump being banned from Twitter



Brought to you by: Humanity 2.0 – a Non-Profit (Non-Government Organization) focused on identifying and removing the most significant impediments to human flourishing through technology and thought-leadership in collaboration with the Holy See (Vatican).

Special consideration; to CommPro Worldwide for their PR and media support

INTERVIEW TRANSCRIPTS: Gary Sheng, Co-Founder/COO at Civics Unplugged, Madison Adams, Director of Dialogue at Civics Unplugged, Julia Terpak, Founder of Gen Z Connect, Ashley Lin, Founder/CEO of Project Exchange, Maryam Tourk, Co-founder of CU Summer Camp, Jonah Zacks, Steering Committee Member at Civics Unplugged, Brycelyn Turner, 2021 Fellow at Civics Unplugged, and special guest Kenneth Ng, COO at eduDAo

Madison Adams – Director of Dialogue, Civics Unplugged: 00:00:08

Hello everyone. And welcome to the Trek. The Trek is a new Civics Unplugged series where community members participate in meaningful discussions on topics that are too often neglected when thinking about building in the future, through prompting questions and provocations. We venture together into complex, but important conversations related to building the future and democracy. We understand that this work requires ongoing dialogue, but it’s a journey worth trekking through. My name is Madison and I’m a high school senior from Verges Oklahoma and joined by some of our amazing community members. And we’re going to go ahead and get started. Today we’re going to be talking about freedom of speech and we first start our conversation with a word association. So if we can go in the order of the names listed here, you all can say your one to three words, explain them. And before that I give a brief introduction. Jonah, do you want to start us off?

Jonah Zacks – Steering Committee Member, Civics Unplugged: 00:01:09

I’m Jonah. I’m 18 years old. I’m a high school senior from St. Louis, Missouri. I was trying to come up with a way to make this fit inside the rules. And I’m just going to give up and break them again. A fire in a crowded theater. I can’t remember what but it was the Supreme court was the standard that the Supreme court set for when you exit the realm of free speech and enter the realm of just dangerous stuff that you don’t have a right to say, like, where do you think considered speech anymore?

Maryam Tourk – Co-founder, CU Summer Camp: 00:01:57

Was it shank versus the United States?

Jonah Zacks – Steering Committee Member, Civics Unplugged: 00:02:01

That sounds right to me. 

Julia Terpak – Founder, Gen Z Connect: 00:02:20

Hi, I’m Julia. I’m 23 years old. I’m currently living in Pennsylvania. When I think of freedom of speech, I think of choice and silenced, I would say. Choice, I guess the more choice people have, the less limitations that they feel are put on them. And I would think freedom of speech really aligns with people feeling like they have some type of choice. And silenced, if people feel constrained by others in their words they feel like they’re being silenced obviously. And people get suspicious of that. And also triggered by that.

Brycelyn Turner – 2021 Fellow, Civics Unplugged: 00:03:01

Hi, I’m Brycelyn. I am a freshmen from Florida and when I think of freedom of speech, kind of the first word that comes to my mind is necessary because I’m a very vocal person. And if we didn’t have freedom of speech, I would probably be locked up every single day for the rest of my life because I just speak my mind constantly. So that’s the first word that comes from brain. Alright. 

Maryam Tourk – Co-founder, CU Summer Camp: 00:03:38

Hey everyone, I’m Mario. I am a senior from the suburbs of Chicago. And the thing that immediately comes to mind is safety versus Liberty, because I know that’s a discussion that comes up a lot surrounding freedom of speech, and often comes up in terms of one it’s appropriate to limit freedom of speech, if at all. So that’s definitely something that comes up a lot.

Ashley Lin – Founder/CEO, Project Exchange: 00:03:54

Cool. Hi everyone. My name is Ashley. I am a high school senior in Vancouver, Washington. When I think about freedom of speech I think about identity. I feel like a lot of free speech is associated with how we express ourselves and how we want to bring ourselves into the world. And then I think about truth. I think there are a lot of different versions of truth that exist.

Gary Sheng – Co-Founder/COO, Civics Unplugged: 00:05:01

I want to put power and feedback loops. Okay. And we’ll talk about those questions or topics through the questions. 

Madison Adams – Director of Dialogue, Civics Unplugged: 00:05:14

Okay. I’m going to put polarizing and democracy just because freedom of speech has become a more polarizing issue than it previously was in democracy, because I think free speech lays the foundation for democracy, and there’s a reason why it’s the first amendment and it’s what sandwiches us from so many other places around the world. Does anyone want to start us off with a question or provocation? 

Maryam Tourk – Co-founder, CU Summer Camp: 00:06:28

I’m interested in hearing more about Gary, your answer of like feedback loops and how that ties into freedom of speech.

Gary Sheng – Co-Founder/COO, Civics Unplugged: 00:06:35

Kenneth is here. Do you want to so just introduce yourself, you’ll quickly see how this goes. It’s kind of a free flowing, only lightly structured dialogue on freedom of speech. We started with a word association. Do you have one to three words that come to mind when you think of freedom of speech and then just introduce yourself very briefly word association.

Ken Ng – COO, eduDAo: 00:07:10

Freedom of speech means less censorship resistant. 

Gary Sheng – Co-Founder/COO, Civics Unplugged: 00:07:48

So Maryam, to answer your question one thing that comes to mind is how let’s say you censor someone it fuels the censored person’s fire, right? It makes them go to more extreme routes that go beyond a speech because they have no speech anymore. It’s like pouring gasoline on a unstable kind of chemical compounds, right?

Maryam Tourk – Co-founder, CU Summer Camp: 00:08:30

Yeah. That makes a ton of sense. I guess that isn’t even somewhere that my mind just naturally goes when I think of freedom of speech. So it’s interesting to think about how suppressing freedom of speech can actually feel things that people are trying to stop. That’s a really good point.

Jonah Zacks – Steering Committee Member, Civics Unplugged: 00:09:11

I guess if you look at me off it in the opposite case too, that could be a thing. So for example, if you just don’t let anybody talk then what you have, and that’s like the founding ethos of social media sites, like parlor, gab and whatever, then you get everybody just spewing random stuff and truth gets kind of drowned out in the noise because all that is required for something to have legitimacy is for a lot of people to say it. And that’s why you see things like parlor and gab turning into these platforms for the far right. Which is just you can democratize a lot of things. That’s what we’re trying to do here. But there are certain things that are just true, whether people like them or not.

Julia Terpak – Founder, Gen Z Connect: 00:10:03

Yeah. And to Jonah’s point, if let’s say all these polarizing conversations are kind of being pushed to different platforms, like different sides of the conversation, then tie it back into feedback loops, other people within that realm, aren’t seeing the ideas and opinions of the other side or whatever it is. So they’re not receiving any feedback and it just, again, like to Gary’s point fueling the fire of their side. 

Brycelyn Turner – 2021 Fellow, Civics Unplugged: 00:10:38

I think that’s something else we can know about feedback loops is that if you’re having a conversation with somebody and you’re telling them not to say whatever they’re saying this is kind of similar to Gary’s point, but just if you’re giving them evidence for why they shouldn’t be saying whatever they’re saying, even if they can see your point, a lot of the time stubborn people will still continue to say the things that they’re saying no matter what, because feedback loops can get very heated if they go the wrong way. I just think that it’s important to know how emotions can kind of blur feedback loops.

Ashley Lin – Founder/CEO, Project Exchange: 00:11:07

I was reading something that was kind of depressing, but it was like, even if you give people the full spectrum of information, on both sides, people still self-select for whatever information they think is more correct. And don’t think that is accurate. And so even if people all started off with the same information, you’ll still end up having polarized points of view because people want to be their natural inclinations for what they believe is right. And what they believe is true. And then it just divergence from there.

Ken Ng – COO, eduDAo: 00:11:54

I like that a lot because the truth is sort of the social construct, right. In a lot of cases, social construct and social contracts are what determine what is technically true in your world, right? Someone who is blind doesn’t know color. So telling them what color and describing what color is, is a very different concept. So you know, what freedom of speech, technically, truth is really subjective in terms of what your echo chamber or what it is that you’re hearing and sort of your own microcosm of the macrocosm of the world. And you see that as the truth. And so that’s what you hold as your truth. It doesn’t necessarily mean that that’s factual or an opinion. But that is still the truth that someone else believes.

Gary Sheng – Co-Founder/COO, Civics Unplugged: 00:12:54

Like how do you tell someone that that feels like this is dangerous, this is evil. That is not true because those are just mushy terms already. I mean, there’s no like widely agreed upon measure of evil or good, so that’s why politics it’s so easy to just confirm what you already believe.

Jonah Zacks – Steering Committee Member, Civics Unplugged: 00:13:34

One thing that’s interesting is that people, depending on different mediums that people see it, I don’t mean media as in media companies. I mean, media isn’t written verbal video, whatever depending on what medium people use to learn something that has a big effect on what they remember about it, whether or not they remember it. So you might learn something that you believe to be true and then later hear, Oh, that’s false. And in that moment, you’ll realize, Oh, the source that’s contradicting, this thing is better, more accurate. I’m going to believe that source. But then a little bit later, if you’re asked to remember which of the true thing, which is a false thing, you’re more likely to remember certain media more than you are to remember. True story. If you see something in a video, you’re more likely to remember it than if you see it over text. 

Gary Sheng – Co-Founder/COO, Civics Unplugged: 00:14:32

You ever heard of the phrase, the medium is the message? It’s a brilliant phrase from this sort of philosopher, a guy from the late 1900’s Marshall McLuhan who predicted that humans would not be able to deal with the rapid advancements of communication technology like TV and the internet just, it affects us in ways that we, we barely understand or don’t understand. I guess I challenge Ken to say more about censorship resistance. I guess that’s the provocation.

Ken Ng – COO, eduDAo: 00:15:37

Yeah. So censorship resistance is it’s polarizing at both ends. It’s something I feel like this is already been talked about, but when you’re pushed to one side or the other, you’re going to sort of try to swing a pendulum, right. The way that the pendulum works, it always goes back and forth. And so every time you push it in one direction, always kind of flips back to the other side. So thinking about a feedback loop of how this can polarize, you can think about like, governments, think about policies and how someone is going to react to you know, being told they can’t do something or that they have to do something. It generally tends to either suppress or oppress different demographics to have to confine or to be contained in that oppressive government, I guess, rule or the opposite of wanting to do anything possible to get away from it. And you see that a lot today in even in Hong Kong, right. You know, the more you push away from it, the more you, you know, arrest the, I guess the democratic leaders you’re going to have a larger groundswell of people who want the opposite because they see what’s going on. And the, the harder you kind of knock them down the more people start to like get galvanized because of that.

Gary Sheng – Co-Founder/COO, Civics Unplugged: 00:19:44

Ashley, any thoughts? 

Ashley Lin – Founder/CEO, Project Exchange: 00:19:54

How do you make something censorship resistant? 

Ken Ng – COO, eduDAo: 00:20:05

In general, how do you make something censorship resistant? I mean, it’s a good question. Looking at Twitter, right? Twitter is this tech platform that lets us sort of say whatever we want and in theory, it should allow us to but when you stop someone like Donald Trump from saying whatever it is that he wants to say for the, I guess the better of the country I think most people see this as like, yes, you’re stopping him from inciting violence and inciting sort of like this crew of people or this minority of people who really truly believe that, you know, something is wrong and they have to do something. But that doesn’t do it. I think the intention there is for me, what I believe, but for the opposite, right, there are for every one of me, there’s another you know, alternate universe me that says this is actually really bad because if you can stop Trump from saying something who’s to say that, you know, Jack Dorsey just doesn’t have some other inclination to say, I’m going to permanently ban you know, Barack Obama from trying to do, you know, XYZ. You know, where is there an actual sort of bound where you can or cannot do or say something. But if you look at something like a peer to peer system where you can, there’s little to no moderation like a fortune you have this very open world to say or do whatever it is that you want to but it doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s right or wrong. Right. It’s something subjective that someone else kind of posits on it. But there are systems that even if you do that, the question is, how far can you go? Right. There’s always that pendulum of just because it’s completely resistant, is that really what you want to hear? And that’s, that’s sort of the same question behind my parlor. Just because it’s allowed and just because you can do it, should you?

Julia Terpak – Founder, Gen Z Connect: 00:22:29

Yeah. To bring up that point, I brought up to Gary earlier, talking about boundaries and such, just in my childhood neighborhood yesterday, along with the president getting suspended, there was like four neighborhood moms who got suspended on Twitter just cause they retweeted obviously something that was insinuating violence or I don’t know what it was something that had to do with what Twitter is putting guidelines on. Just in my suburban neighborhood, four moms got kicked off Twitter, which is interesting. So thought that was also a point to bring up.

Ashley Lin – Founder/CEO, Project Exchange: 00:23:03

Yeah. I guess I just want you to think about like, yes, I do see a line and I don’t think the solution is necessarily to restrict speech. I think about the need to build a system where you don’t have to guess the credibility of a source while you’re trying to learn about a topic. Like, because people aren’t going to just balance it out. There’s you own decide, but then another 10 on the other side, like the opposite thing. I don’t know how this would work, but it needs to be okay to be wrong, but if you’re wrong, what if someone is usually wrong? Like that information should be conveyed and people should be able to know that.

Gary Sheng – Co-Founder/COO, Civics Unplugged: 00:24:08

Yeah. So I want to pose a question related to that. Thank you, Ashley. What might need to exist in order for free speech to work advance human flourishing. And so we can put here the first one, some kind set of systems that keep an account of credibility, probably across many dimensions.

Julia Terpak – Founder, Gen Z Connect: 00:25:05

This is just a point that on initiative on social media and such lately that at first it was kind of what, but it’s a good way not to silence people, but to warn people about the information that they’re taking it in on Twitter and on Instagram, just those I can’t think of the word, just those little messages under posts saying if something is possibly misinformation or something of the sort, those were helpful on make people look deeper into the information that they’re reading.

Jonah Zacks – Steering Committee Member, Civics Unplugged: 00:25:51

I also have a question for Julia, which is that if you have these warning labels for people we got to be, we should be thinking about this. Shouldn’t you be taking pretty much any information you take in, you should be giving it that extra level of criticism or not criticism, I guess, with scrutiny. And then at that point, how do we avoid just desensitizing people?

Julia Terpak – Founder, Gen Z Connect:

I mean, we would hope that’s the way, but it’s just not how people intake information on the internet. I think all of us here probably do, but a lot of people, I know, just read something they’re like, Oh, did you see this? And like that was an onion article. Like that was satire. Some people just don’t realize the difference and they just read something and take it in completely. 

Gary Sheng – Co-Founder/COO, Civics Unplugged: 00:27:07

So I got banned from Facebook for a month because I posted a joke making fun of white supremacists. And they thought that I was supporting white supremacists. So jokes don’t do very well in the censorship prone environment.

Julia Terpak – Founder, Gen Z Connect: 00:27:31

You can’t think that everyone has, first of all, the same sense of humor as you to even understand something online that you’re posting, like maybe your friends or whatever can obviously see that’s sarcastic or whatever, but other people could maybe stand behind that as a truth post. 

Gary Sheng – Co-Founder/COO, Civics Unplugged: 00:27:54

You know what this is making me realize is that speech is so important, but also we play so much emphasis in our politics about what people say and not what they do and not what they build. So I think it’s really important that we continue to use the word builder to describe our community members. We’re not talkers, we’re figuring things out right now. We’re dialogue-ers, and we’re builders. We’re not just posting tweets and trying to win petty little battles. So I just wanted to call that out. Right. It’s almost like, okay, well, it was kind of goes in line with it’s really holding hard to be a social media executive right now. You can’t just fix democracy by just talking about it.

Ken Ng – COO, eduDAo: 00:28:46

I do want to add one caveat though. I think that when we talk about movements, especially social impact movements, anything about any change, I think there is a role for everybody. And although you know, this group directly is not just talkers or doers. I think there is still a role for people who are talkers. And I think it would be wrong for us to sort of talk down on people who are just the talkers. I think there is still ruminants is still impact given provided by people who are the keyboard warriors. I think there’s sometimes where it’s probably too much. But I do think that every little bit helps and I think the most important thing to always remember is that there’s a role for everybody in these movements.

Madison Adams – Director of Dialogue, Civics Unplugged: 00:29:39

Yeah. That’s a really good point. Something that happened in this conversation, Julia, you were talking about how probably all of us check our sources or wherever, but I definitely think it’s impossible with how much we consume on a day-to-day basis. I follow accounts on Instagram that posts about the news and it’s for every single thing I scroll through, it’s literally impossible with the amount that we consume. And Gary, what you mentioned on this question, I was going to make some sort of response around part what we need is clear lines about what the limitations are produced EHR, especially on social media. Like for instance, I know Twitter and Facebook also meta platforms have guidelines. They don’t really strictly follow most of the time, but what you brought up your story, maybe realize that that’s probably not the solution either because if they were to do that, they would just censor certain words. And that wouldn’t always mean that it was worth censoring. So I think that’s just showing me how much more complex the issue is than I originally thought.

Gary Sheng – Co-Founder/COO, Civics Unplugged: 00:30:50

I’m not super caught up today on Chinese censorship. I don’t think you can because they’re updating it every day, but they ban the abandoned Wane Fu because people are making fun of the president for looking like Winnie the Pooh. They’ve banned certain uses of numbers basically anything that people can encode as a symbol of resistance they would ban, so they just started batting all sorts of actual words that could be used in other circumstances. Right. So part of me wishes we could fast forward in the future and to see how you can’t like, I hope that it’s true that you can’t just keep banning every sort of symbol. But it certainly seems like that’s an approach they’re taking.

Jonah Zacks – Steering Committee Member, Civics Unplugged: 00:31:54

One thing, kind of a necessary outgrowth. I think of the discussion of what is censorship and what can you regulate before it becomes censorship really, in order to ask that question, you have to decide what is speech and what constitutes speech. So we have in the United States, we have the citizens United ruling, which says that money is speech. And personally, I think that’s really probably, I think that is logically flawed, just because it isn’t like you can’t do anything basically now all of a sudden that regulating speech. So what other things here, you talked a little bit about symbols could constitutes speech.

Madison Adams – Director of Dialogue, Civics Unplugged: 00:32:51

Yeah. And to jump down to your question, Gary, about it’s really hard to be, or I guess provocation. I think that if this is especially true with cancel culture like there’s a lot of things that are so off limits now, or even if you don’t perceive them to be as off limits it’s really hard to project what you’re going to be canceled for. My mind goes to what happened with Ellen? Like the particular instance about the joke she made about quarantine being like prison. I didn’t think that that was as big a deal everyone made it. Obviously she lives in a nice house, but it was clear that she was making a joke, she’s a comedian and I’ve seen other comedians who have gotten away with like 9/11 jokes and not any sort of people haven’t criticized them for that. And so it’s just really interesting because a lot of times you don’t even know what to expect from the content that you put out there. And so I can imagine that it’s really hard.

Gary Sheng – Co-Founder/COO, Civics Unplugged: 00:34:05

So when you meant social media, were you saying someone that’s posting on social media? I just wanted to clarify. I mean it’s true what you said. I mean, is it related? It’s all related to speech and I’m saying like Zuckerberg, Dorsey, his staff. So does anyone want to put on your defend that sort of role and defend why might it be hard right now? 

Julia Terpak – Founder, Gen Z Connect: 00:35:03

Well, I think it’s like if you’re silencing misinformation or what is being deemed as misinformation or whatever it is right now, insinuating violence, you’re taking these people off of one of the biggest platforms in the world on social media, but then they’re all going to a platform like parlor. And again, back to the fueling the fire point earlier it’s like, is it counterproductive? Is it starting more of an issue because all of these people were then ganging up on a different platform where they’re only, again, they’re not getting a feedback loop. And is it fueling the fire more by doing that? Or are you actually helping the situation? It’s a weird thing to navigate.

Maryam Tourk – Co-founder, CU Summer Camp: 00:35:38

I also think in this discussion, a huge part of why it’s so difficult is because of precedent because social media is a relatively new phenomenon. And although it doesn’t seem like that for me and for a lot of people who use social media avidly, it definitely is something that there aren’t a lot of laws and regulations about. And so, for people who are starting to say, okay, this person we’re going to suspend their account or do all of these things. It’s pretty new in the span of what they’re allowed to do. And because there aren’t any legal regulations on social media, it’s kind of up to them to set the precedent for what is going to be acceptable later on. And once they kind of start making these decisions, that’ll kind of set the trend for what people follow. So, it is hard to balance this. And like Julia said, if you just ban them, it’s not going to stop them. They’re not going to stop thinking the way they’re thinking, because they’re removing one source, but then you also have to recognize that that source was inciting a lot of violence. And at some point, it’s irresponsible to let them continue posting on social media because we’ve seen multiple times, what results from the postings that our president has put out there. So it’s a very fine line to balance. Which is again why we’re having this discussion in the first place, but it’s hard just because it is so new and there’s a lot of navigation to do around it.

Brycelyn Turner – 2021 Fellow, Civics Unplugged: 00:37:20

I feel like it’s also probably difficult to be an executive in any social media company right now, because it’s very difficult to keep your opinion out of the regulations that you’re setting. And it’s really difficult because if you’re a social media executive, and you’re on whichever side of the spectrum, it’s really hard to not try and just stop people on the other side of the spectrum from saying things that you perceive as dumb, but to them, it’s their truth. Kind of tying it back to what we said earlier. So I know that I would have a really difficult time with that and I’m sure that most people would.

Jonah Zacks – Steering Committee Member, Civics Unplugged: 00:38:01

Okay. So I’m ready to go back on we shouldn’t have sympathy side for him because like, yeah. Okay. Sure. The job, no doubt, the job is challenging. It’s whenever you’re dealing with a decision that affects that many people, if you don’t think that decision is difficult to make than you are a terrible person that’s the first thing. But also at the same time we have these massive corporations, Twitter, Facebook name, just two of them, Google also that very deliberately set themselves up as the sole definitive organization on the internet. They deliberately went out of their way to create a monopoly and just own the entire internet. And the result of that means that they now have to make decisions that affect the entire internet. And that was something they chose to do. They went out of their way to get all kinds of power early on and all kinds of money because they thought it would enrich themselves. And now what they’re struggling to do, they’re not struggling to make decisions in a way that will be best for the future of humanity and best for democracy. They’re struggling to make decisions in ways that will be best for them to continue to protect their business model. And I don’t have a lot of sympathy. If you are finding that decision difficult to make, if you’re trying to figure out how what’s the easiest way for you to make money and that’s hard for you, fine.

Gary Sheng – Co-Founder/COO, Civics Unplugged: 00:40:06

Basically you should have thought about this like 10 years ago, before you went on this path.

Jonah Zacks – Steering Committee Member, Civics Unplugged: 00:40:08

Exactly. Zuckerberg said Facebook shouldn’t be the arbiter of truth. It’s like, okay, well, if you don’t want to be arbiter of truth, you shouldn’t have crushed volume bought Instagram, right? Like there was a solution there and now this is your job. So do it.

Ken Ng – COO, eduDAo: 00:40:32

I have a question. So this has a lot of complexities in terms of intersectionality and then thinking about how all of these kind of tie in together, but what happens when you have a well-meaning organization, advocacy group? I mean, there’s a ton out there. So I won’t name any specifically, but you know, if they take money from large corporations that have monopolies or they do things that are not great, for example, an anti-smoking organization that tells people, you shouldn’t smoke. It’s really bad for you. It gives you cancer. It kills you. You know, obviously there’s so many bad things. So many studies done that this is bad, and they’re funded by large tobacco, where then is the moral obligation to continue doing one or the other. And what happens when they stopped funding? What if you do something so much so that they actually stopped giving you money? When the people who are giving you money, are the people who put you in the place to be able to do what you are supposed to be doing.

Ashley Lin – Founder/CEO, Project Exchange: 00:41:55

This why I don’t really like nonprofit work, because what you do is so dependent on people willing to fund you and that messes with your values. But I mean, I think if you’re going into this work, you’re doing it because you believe in something and you know what needs to be done to make things better. I don’t think you should compromise your values in order to, because if you’re taking money from those companies and if you’re not able to do what you intended to do, what is the point of you still doing any of this at all?

Gary Sheng – Co-Founder/COO, Civics Unplugged: 00:42:38

Well, the argument is simple. It’s just like, Oh, well, at least we’ll do 80% of it. It was 20% I can’t talk about, but I can do 80% of it. And this happens a lot. A funder will say, stop doing think tank stuff on this topic. You have all these other topics. It’s going to be this topic, not defending it at all. That just literally the calculus, that’s how people sleep at night.

Ken Ng – COO, eduDAo: 00:43:12

But it happens constantly, like the no smoking, the smoking cessation, things like that. That is a real thing where the more they talk about not smoking, because there was this whole, I think marketing, stunt developed, smoking doesn’t make you look cool, but then they like to have this 30 second commercials, like Rihanna smoking and all these celebrities smoking and yeah, it looks really cool. I would want to smoke if all these people look up to are smoking. But your goal is to stop people from smoking, but the people who are paying you and making sure that you have a budget to get a Rihanna here, just to actually be able to do the things that you think are good, actually do the opposite for other people that actually gets that 20% of the population to say like, Oh wow, this had the opposite effect that you were intending and now I’m going to smoke. And that’s what they’re banking on. So what then? Because even if your intention is good, even if the things you’re doing is still good and 80% of the way there, you’re still doing that because you’re taking money from bad people. But without that money, you can’t do anything at all. Then what? I don’t have an answer. I’m curious to hear everyone’s thoughts. 

Jonah Zacks – Steering Committee Member, Civics Unplugged: 00:44:32

Yeah. I think an example, I think the 20% left on Don, wasn’t just 20% of the task that you didn’t do. It was 20% of the tasks that went the other way. And then I think that example, you did more harm than good there. And I think as long as you’re doing more good than harm, you should keep doing that thing because in the aggregate, right. If everyone takes an action that does more good than harm than you, and you just repeat that intranet, then you eventually infinitely are doing good. Obviously the more you can do the better. So if you can do more good by not taking that money from an organization, go for it. But I do think that in the aggregate doing more good than harm, no matter what.

Gary Sheng – Co-Founder/COO, Civics Unplugged: 00:45:24

Okay. I think the smartest thing that I know that there’s tech billionaires that have that donate to every think tank that would write opposition research against them. And it’s really cheap for them. It’s like a PR budget. So if every think tank is not talking about a single issue well I think you get what we’re in right now, which is we’re only talking about it because it’s too late and I’m not going to talk about which donor did this, but one day one tech guy said, if you don’t cease your anti-monopoly research, I’m going to stop funding you.

Ashley Lin – Founder/CEO, Project Exchange: 00:46:29

I guess where my head goes to we need a better way for these small organizations to communicate and coordinate, to identify where are these gaps. And then find ways to find people pursuing whatever gaps. Like you need a way to take all that money and invest it into new world things. Like, refusing money is the answer, right. Nothing is going to get done, but it’s the researching money, if the researching monopoly work, isn’t going to be funded by monopolies, it needs to be funded by ordinary people and more grassroots coordination to make sure important things happen.

Jonah Zacks – Steering Committee Member, Civics Unplugged: 00:47:30

So there’s another thing I want to have, but I just thought it that it builds off of what Ashley was saying. And it’s all the best questions. Star Trek has an answer for this one. And in this case, it’s in star Trek Picard. And so it said in the future after next gen, if that means anything to you, I don’t know if it does, but if it does, that’s the timeframe. And basically what happened is an alien planet got blown up. And so all the inhabitants of this planet suddenly turned into these space refugees trying to flee. And the Federation decided, no, we’re not going to help them. And Picard was trying to get the Federation to help, they said fine, we’ll give you a couple of ships and that’s it. But we’re not going to have a whole massive thing to help all of them the way we should. And so in response to that, Ricardo was just like, all right, you guys are horrible. And then he’d since years rapid guilt, because the line that they have in there is you couldn’t save everybody. So you decided to save nobody. And that’s not a decision we should make. Just because we can’t do a hundred percent of what we wanted to accomplish, doesn’t mean we should do 0% of what we want to accomplish. That’s what Ashley was saying. Like, if you don’t take any money nothing’s going to get done.

Gary Sheng – Co-Founder/COO, Civics Unplugged: 00:49:12

Also. I’m just so happy that we’re talking about this, because the more that we talk about, the more courage, I think we’ll have to continue talking about it and having the kind of collective virtue too, or just work ethic to find donors that don’t force us to compromise our values. I don’t know if I’ve heard this. don’t just watch like nonprofit philanthropy panels for fun, but I’ve very rarely heard this conversation being had. 

Ashley Lin – Founder/CEO, Project Exchange: 00:50:04

I feel like within well-meaning orbs, there needs to be a system set up, where people are getting money are different from, or at least there’s some sort of barrier between the people getting money and the people figuring out what to do next. So things don’t get mixed up because I think what gets really dangerous is when we started seeing other people and then you start being yourself.

Maryam Tourk – Co-founder, CU Summer Camp: 00:50:36

I completely agree, because I think that like we were saying, it’s important to take this money because we do need money to do all of the things that we need to do, but don’t consumers have a right to know that, the message that they’re being broadcasted to is also funded by a certain person other than the organization and how that might impact the message. And then when people are taking that money, when we talk about like, Oh, overall, it’s good versus overall it’s bad. That’s super subjective. And then could you rationalize it to yourself to be like, Oh, well, I think it’s good. Just so that you can say, Oh yeah, I want to take this money so I can rationalize it to make it seem like it’s good. And then you kind of get into a hotspot because good versus evil is extremely subjective. So it’s hard to kind of find a way to streamline that in order to make it still ethical in the non-profit world. And when money’s tied into all of it, it just makes it a thousand times harder to kind of figure out.

Brycelyn Turner – 2021 Fellow, Civics Unplugged: 00:51:41

I feel like a lot of what we’re saying is super subjective. And it’s really based on a lot of morals that are out there. And we kind of touched on at the beginning of this conversation, like, well, we don’t really know what the line is to be drawn for morals. So we’re also talking about doing more harm than good. So I just want to put it out there to you guys. Not necessarily as a question or provocation, but just something to think about if every single organization, every single person, whatever had a network of the good that they’re doing versus the bad that they’re doing. Do you think that the world would be different if we looked at it as a whole, as a network, as opposed to like, Oh, this person or this organization said this thing one time, so I don’t support them now kind of cancel culture. Like how do you think looking at it as an overall would change things?

Gary Sheng – Co-Founder/COO, Civics Unplugged: 00:52:34

Totally. A big push that, I mean, it’s really hard to implement, but we don’t really kind of penalize corporations for the externalities that they produce. In other words, when they destroy the rainforest it’s not really built in our system to track these sorts of things. So a hundred percent, right. If you could click on some corporation and see how much rainforest they destroyed or how much biodiversity they destroyed, no one would purchase stuff from them. Right. And similarly, if I could give my time or a micro grant to some high schooler, right? How did that shift their trajectory over time and what are all the people that they impacted over time? And so I can see like a tree of the influence, right? And then you’re incentivized to keep doing good. Cause it’s the negative scope of me and hit, instead of the dopamine hit being like retweets and likes, it’s actual civic contribution.

Jonah Zacks – Steering Committee Member, Civics Unplugged: 00:54:03

So my question, I think that would be a cool thing to do. If you could figure out how to compare different goods, like certain goods could definitely outweigh others, like saving somebody’s life versus pulling them out of the way of a speeding bus versus saving somebody five minutes by keeping the bus from leaving without them, those are things you could compare, but there are others where it’s harder and you can’t really say, well, I think this is good is definitively better than that. 

Gary Sheng – Co-Founder/COO, Civics Unplugged: 00:54:38

Yeah. Cause the feedback loops, because you don’t know if something that might be good for you, in the near term, can actually cause downward spirals for all sorts of things. You should check out Jonah, I think you would like this site slash publication, 80,000 hours. So you have the idea that you have 80,000 hours in your life to do work.  I’m sure they referenced some sort of tens of thousands of hours. And that’s really important to think about. Cause what is your U shaped holes such that you actually have a net positive impact, but also you have to figure out your own philosophy and almost metaphysics about what good is. And does anyone remember talking about that with their teachers? And if you did like congrats, that’s extremely lucky.

Ken Ng – COO, eduDAo: 00:55:55

I guess just to very briefly talk about social type work that I’ve done in the past. It’s really hard to sort of because it’s very tricky when you start to say that, the good that I do is better than the good that you do for X, Y, Z reasons. When all we’re doing is trying to have some sort of positive impact. The way that I like to look at it and the way that I compare it is fruits that you can come like apples, oranges, bananas are all three different fruits, but they’re all sweet, right? So you can compare relative sweetness to each other, but you can never actually say that like, Oh, this Apple is so much sweeter than your banana, but I can say that my Apple is relatively sweeter than other apples that I’ve eaten. And this banana is also very sweet, but all these fruits are still sweet. Like you’re still contributing positively just in different ways. But it is really hard to look at it from a longitudinal scale of it’s good now, but what happens 10 years in the future? I had half this Apple now, but 10 years in the future, this Apple is not going to be good. It could actually be left there and it could be really bad. And we look at that the same way that I guess I make that example because you will get plastics and the way that plastics are looked at as so great now, right? Like we have recycled plastic, like these are BPA free. Like these are recyclable plastics, but they’re not really ready. They just kind of sit there and it takes like a hundred years to degrade. It’s not truly biodegradable the same way you throw it in the soil and you know, you can use it. It takes a long time to be done. It’s better than the status quo, but it’s not.

Gary Sheng – Co-Founder/COO, Civics Unplugged: 00:57:39

Maybe right. Maybe because it could make people complacent. You wouldn’t even know if it’s better. So I guess one of the takeaways is that we have to be really humble when we think that we’re doing good. And when we’re complacent about just our impact of others kind of rightfully skeptical about organizations that really talk about their impact as well. I want to be mindful of the time. This was such a good question. Kind of clearly we have a lot to talk about anyone want to talk about anything else before we go to reflection.

Julia Terpak – Founder, Gen Z Connect: 00:58:26

I think one more point I wanted to add to the social media execs section, I think a tough thing right now to set boundaries on is ominous statements. I feel like these have become increasingly popular over the past year or two, like the truth will come to light or they don’t know what’s coming. I feel like I see all that. And I’ve just over the past year or two, I just see it so much more of course, on Facebook. But it almost feels like people being brainwashed to feel threatened at all times or something. I don’t know what, but like an example, it’s kind of a morbid example. Like a few years ago there was a kid at a high school that I went to growing up. And he was one planning some type of bombing or school shooting thing. And he was tweeting these ominous statements, obviously someone that deserves to be reported and get their Twitter platform taken down. But when it’s like these people nowadays, because these statements have become increasingly popular. And it’s not in a violent way. It’s more like, Oh, I know information that you don’t, whether it’s political or world information, that’s going to come to light and they’re being taken off platforms. Is that the same thing? Like it’s a weird thing to navigate that. Like a lot of people yesterday got taken off Twitter for.

Gary Sheng – Co-Founder/COO, Civics Unplugged: 00:59:50

Really good stuff. Anyone else have anything before we wrap up?

Ken Ng – COO, eduDAo: 00:59:57

I guess the last thing is adding to what Julia just said. It’s not just suspending, but do you now action? Like, what is your moral obligation to actually do something about it? Someone who has seen it before was suspended or as the social media site, are you supposed to now alert the authorities and which authorities do alert and how does that actually infringe upon what we think is freedom of speech, right? Cause you could say something that could just be satirical. You could be saying something which in that case, obviously it was not. But you could be saying something that’s facetious. You just can’t tell them in writing, you can’t tell them text of is that a joke or not. And it’s the same thing on the other side of the law, when the FBI or the CIA pulls your transcripts, they don’t look at it and say like, Oh, that was clearly a joke. They look at it and say that was not a joke. You clearly meant that you were going to X, Y, Z. It’s like, why did you say that? So there’s two sides of just this idea of being able to track everything what’s said and what someone does with that information is still subjective of is that right or wrong?

Madison Adams – Director of Dialogue, Civics Unplugged: 01:01:19

Great. So I just dropped the link in the chat to these notes and you all can take a moment to look over them and then you can shout out your reflections. We don’t have to go in this order. And then don’t feel limited to just speak where your name is you can respond to what other people are saying as well.

Jonah Zacks – Steering Committee Member, Civics Unplugged: 01:01:45

One thing I’m just realizing is we started on freedom speech and we ended up talking about the nature of relative good, which I don’t even know if that’s a word, but that’s really interesting.

Gary Sheng – Co-Founder/COO, Civics Unplugged: 01:02:01

On that note a question for all of, is can we meaningfully level up democracy without starting to define some of the words that we take for granted? Like all these words we take for granted good, bad progress. I guess one thing that this is really cool actually, one thing that this Trek reminded me was why this Trek format is so great, because I would imagine that all of you learned a lot about this topic today, certainly at least where other people are at about this topic, which is just so important for democracy, because it’s so much about symbols and symbol warfare and clashes and lack of coordination. So if we don’t define our words really clearly, we’re not going to get anywhere.

Ashley Lin – Founder/CEO, Project Exchange: 01:03:29

I think something that kind of, I got from the trek was I just feel like so much of conversation around free speech is about what other people can and cannot say. So it’s not censorship, but I like how our conversation kind of went against that. And we talked a lot more about looking at ourselves and the technologies we use and thinking about the skills that we would need to develop to be a more discerning audience or I feel like a lot of challenges with free speech blamed on other people instead of looking at ourselves and thinking about, well, how exactly can we change or how can we grow to better deal with what currently exists.

Gary Sheng – Co-Founder/COO, Civics Unplugged: 01:04:34

So well said. And on that point about we see fault in other people that we don’t see ourselves, I guess. And I realize a moment in my head at some point in the last couple of years when I was like, ha look at these people that are so un-empathetic, and that’s just a paradox, right. It’s actually like a parent. Like, you’re not empathetic. You’re actually not empathizing with the people that I guess in at least one sort of aspect, we’re not your level of empathy. Well this happens all the time. Right. People see the phone on other people and they’re exemplifying the problem themselves.

Brycelyn Turner – 2021 Fellow, Civics Unplugged: 01:05:32

Yeah, I agree. Another thing that I liked about this entire trek was that it’s, so obviously all the treks are kind of based on how can we make our society better when we’re looking at these topics? And I like how it wasn’t necessarily, we ended up talking about big corporations because they do genuinely influence our society so much. So I like that we were able to subconsciously recognize how affected we are and how affected our society is by like social media corporations and things like that. And I also liked how we were all willing to admit what things are objective and what things are subjective.

Maryam Tourk – Co-founder, CU Summer Camp: 01:06:22

I definitely agree with that. And I think that, in terms of charting my own next steps, this conversation has really prompted me to think a lot more about how corporations or governments or things like that can really influence things. Because I don’t know if you guys have heard of the social dilemma on Netflix, but when I watched that, I was just like, Whoa. And I keep learning, especially this year. Like I just keep learning more and more about how big, overarching, institutions have influenced the way, that we go about life and what’s quote unquote normal. And I think I take a lot of that for granted, because I just assume that it is normal when in reality, it doesn’t have to be that way. And more and more I’m thinking about how we can change the status quo and how it can be different. And a lot of these treks forced me to reflect on different aspects of society that we can change or that aren’t functioning optimally. So I definitely want to look into more of that. And especially through the lens of governments, because I do have a lot of family in Kashmir, which is under lock down. And so, they’re not able to communicate a lot and they face a lot of censorship. And so I think challenging these systems that we’re currently operating in and seeing how we can create better ones is really important.

Madison Adams – Director of Dialogue, Civics Unplugged: 01:07:07

So, yeah. For my reflection, I’ll just say, this helped me realize how complex the issue is, especially in terms of censorship. And back to was saying about defining words, because I think that there are a lot of solutions out there that sounds really simple and agreeable, but when you get to the root of them, they aren’t. So when Jonah was like, yeah, you should be doing more good than harm. I was like, yeah that’s what you should be doing. But then Maryam was like, well, it’s hard to know, when you’re doing more harm than good or more good than harm, or and then it’s also like, you could really be guessing yourself about trying to rationalize what you’re doing, just to continue doing what you are to keep your job. And so just realizing that there’s a reason why this is such a big issue, because it’s so incredibly complex, especially when it comes back down to subjective things, like good versus bad.

Julia Terpak – Founder, Gen Z Connect: 01:08:59

I’m so bad at reflections. But I think these just get better every time. And they’re always really enjoyable. So just like to say that.

Ken Ng – COO, eduDAo: 01:09:15

I don’t even know I’m just amazed that this conversation is happening. And I’m thinking like five years ago I haven’t been able to articulate everything that everyone else has a tricky related over the past hour and probably the answer’s I have been tool to the vocabulary or at least even the necessary I guess, worldview to be able to have said everything that was said. I mean, I’m just amazed. I have really nothing to add. This is awesome. I’m so glad that it’s happening. I’m glad that there’s more things in the future. I’m even glad that these questions are being asked because I think when I first started, you know working in social data, I never thought about these things of like, what is good or bad. I only thought what I’m doing is good. You know, even if it’s a little good, it’s better than what was done before, without considering the consequences of what are the second order effects here? Like, what if I took money from X, Y, Z, you can always rationalize everything that you do. No matter what it is, you can always rationalize it. So I mean, it’s amazing to think about, you know, to even have the ability to play for DHS with yourself.

Gary Sheng – Co-Founder/COO, Civics Unplugged: 01:10:47

Yeah. I mean, our community is really amazing and it’s also like these are really simple processes, as you can see, and every time we’ve done this, we’ve changed one thing and it just keeps getting better and better. And so I can imagine young people everywhere. Even intergenerational groups everywhere doing this, like measure millions of these conversations happening a month, even right. In several years from now, you know when one way that we sort of think about what we’re doing is we’re incubating people know, projects, processes, ideas that are relevant to building the future. So what allows for these questions to be welcomed, right? It’s these sort of environments, these sort of practices that enable that, and hopefully more and more people will see what you’re seeing. And this will just spread like wildfire. 

Ken Ng – COO, eduDAo: 01:12:18

Yeah. I mean, I think the question for me is, I always wonder, what is the right incentivization here? Because there’s clearly something driven more than financial motivators. So what is it that actually continues to push this forward and multiply? This is super cool.

Madison Adams – Director of Dialogue, Civics Unplugged: 01:12:50

And so I just want to thank you all for coming. Thank you, Kenneth. Again, it was lovely to have you, and then we can have you on again in the future.

Gary Sheng – Co-Founder/COO, Civics Unplugged: 01:13:06

Thanks for making it on short notice. It was really fun. I just knew that you would be able to contribute a lot. All right. Yeah. Have a great rest of your weekend, everyone.

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