Bot or Not? Ethical Questions on the Use of AI Writing Bots

If you’ve ever been on the wrong end of a customer service call, then you know how frustrating it can be to talk to a robot. Simply giving one’s name can cause a panic over the threat of the dreaded, “Sorry, could you repeat that?”

Currently, it’s pretty easy to tell when you’re conversing with a robot. But what about when it comes to informative writing, like news reporting via articles and social media? Would you trust a robot with your news? And could you even tell a robot writer from a human one?

Several big-name news outlets—like Bloomberg, Forbes, and the Washington Post—have been employing AI writers for years now, which cover less important stories or complete first drafts for journalists.

This 2020 article from the Guardian, written by a robot explaining its peaceful intentions, generated a hefty amount of buzz on social media. Many might have believed it to be the writing of a human, if the robot didn’t identify itself in the first paragraph.

But critics of the article argue that this robot doesn’t actually understand what it’s saying or how all its points intertwine to form a solid argument. As a deep learning device, the Guardian’s bot is simply mimicking effective writing it’s been spoon-fed, which raises another ethical dilemma: if these bots do not really understand what they’re saying, if they’re simply simulating “good” reporting, can we still trust them with our news?

Financial articles have been written entirely by robots since as early as 2015, because the robots only have to compile numbers into simple sentences. The bot writing in this 2017 article from the Associated Press seems to pass the Turing Test. So, if these robots are able to take information and present it in basic human language, what happens when they are fed false information?

In their article “How Automated Writing Systems Affect the Circulation of Political Information Online,” Timothy Laquintano and Annette Vee detail how deep-learning bots similar to the Guardian’s are able to fabricate believably human social media accounts and then amplify misinformation. Even though the robots may not know what they’re saying, we may be susceptible to believe them.

An essential question we must ask is: how transparent should news outlets be regarding AI writing? The financial article had a disclaimer at the end of the article, but who really makes it all the way to the end?

Moreover, we must consider where we draw the line in terms of what AI bots are allowed to write. AI bots like this one are already capable of writing student’s papers for them, while similar systems currently grade papers at universities. If academic writing simply becomes AI graders evaluating AI writers, then what is the point?

Ultimately, we must consider how to ethically integrate AI writers into our writing ecologies, as well as how to preserve the integrity of truth and authenticity in written discourse.Two white, robot hands rest on a white Apple keyboard. Various creases at the joints and tiny screws are visible on the hands.

Meme Weaponization & the Future of Warfare

It sounds silly, but memes might be the future of warfare. 

No really—disinformation online is a global concern with real-world impacts. Memes are just another weapon on the digital battlefield. 

I guess it’s not entirely correct to say that memetic warfare is a thing of the future. Because, well, it’s already happening.

Disinformation Kill Chain and Response Framework from Department of Homeland Security

Political memes shaped the 2016 presidential election – hate groups love hijacking memes and appropriating them into hate symbols – ASPI discussed the use of memes as propaganda for extremist movements in their Counterterrorism Yearbook 2021 – and NATO has repeatedly acknowledged the burgeoning threat information warfare poses (most notably here).

Memes have power. And bad actors are abusing them.

What is it that makes memes so damn easy to weaponize? Why are they this effective at spreading disinformation and influencing human behavior? 

It’s probably too complicated for me to address in a succinct and comprehensive way. But I can say, speed and audience size are big factors. 

Here’s the super-mega-ultra abridged version:

Troll factories, bots, and fake news all play a role in memetic warfare. 

As many of you already know, bots can reach a wide audience and require little time and effort from humans to do it. Timothy Laquintano and Annette Vee put it best.

“Although social networks and online forums, where much of public discourse now takes place, enable greater access to participation for everyday writers…the current scene includes more aggressive intervention by nonhuman actors, such as bots, that generate writing. Humans are,  of course, usually responsible for authoring the computational processes that generate writing…, but by making certain aspects of online writing computational, human authors can typically operate with greater speed, scale, and autonomy”

Humans participate in propaganda, espionage, and the like. This isn’t new, certainly not to warfare. Instead of the traditional places, though, you can now find these dehumanizing tactics in memes. And it’s precisely because bots are so good at what they do.

Commodification of Black Identity

Emojis, memes, and reaction gifs are a form of writing—maybe a bizarre opinion, but it’s a hill I’m willing to die on.

And no doubt, writing is a powerful tool. Certainly it’s a factor in determining and perpetuating both stereotypes and power dynamics. Does this mean, then, that memes (and emojis and reaction gifs and various online behaviors) aren’t just harmless jokes but actually powerful tools for easily spreading dis/information, opinions, and ideas?

Tweet saying, “Is digital blackface a form of policing our freedom of expression? Or does it perpetuate harmful stereotypes?”

Well, yeah.

(If you need more convincing, then don’t miss my upcoming post on memetic warfare.)

Now that we’ve laid some groundwork, I’d like to talk about Digital Blackface

You know, when non-Black people use digital spaces to “try on” Black identity. Sometimes people make entire social media profiles; sometimes it’s as seemingly-innocuous as sending a reaction gif. In both cases, Blackness—as in, Black social identity and culture—is performed in an exaggerated, often harmful and stereotypical way.

I won’t rehash the many, many arguments that have been put out there. More appropriate, more experienced people have tackled this subject. So, especially if this is unfamiliar territory, I definitely recommend you check out their articles. (After you’re done here of course!) 

What I do want to do is offer another layer to the conversation. 

Tweet from @BriannaABaker saying, “Why is it that when a Black man expresses emotional vulnerability, he’s made into a meme?? #DigitalBlackface” with Google search results for “crying meme” underneath.

Identity commodification is damaging yet simultaneously unseen and ubiquitous. Safiya Noble shows us in her article on Google’s search engine algorithms why this is such a serious problem:

“Black girls are sexualized or pornified in half (50%) of the first ten results on the keyword search “Black girls”… What these results point to is the commodified nature of Black women’s bodies on the web—and the little agency that Black female children (girls) have had in securing non-pornified narratives and ideations about their identities” 

Both Digital Blackface and Google’s search engine results commodify Blackness. They give control to non-Black people over the construction of Black identity. I’d say that’s a pretty big deal.

Fear the Bots…Or Not

Line drawing of connected dots made to look like a human reaching out with the letters "AI" on the palm of its handIn 2014, Stephen Hawking gravely warned against creating Artificial Intelligence (A.I.) devices that could match or surpass human abilities. Hawking’s fears are not unique or new – but are they warranted? Could A.I. ever really replace a living, breathing person?

The short answer is “maybe.” As technology advances, use of A.I. will likely continue to expand across all industries. In classrooms, bots can be used to grade papers, thus potentially freeing up instructors to spend more time with students. Outside of the classroom, students might try to use a bot to write a paper for them. A.I. even beat contestants on Jeopardy!

Personally, it is a little terrifying to consider all of the different ways that A.I. might take over human thought processes. At what point will our world start to look like a real life version of Ex Machina or i,Robot?

The reality is that A.I. is still relatively young in the grand scheme of technological advances. While it is true that A.I. has advanced to mimic human thought processes such as those described above, there are massive limitations in what A.I. can do.

In 2019, an A.I. device, Project Debater, went head-to-head with a human economic consultant to debate whether or not preschools should be subsidized by the public. While Project Debater had all of the same facts and figures as its human opponent, the machine was not able to argue successfully. Multi-Colored Mechanical Gears in the Shape of a Human Brain

A.I. devices mirror humans when it comes to logic and facts. But when it comes to abstract concepts and rhetorical persuasion, A.I. can’t compete. And according to some experts, it never will. Abstract ideas are not easily replicable and often don’t conform to any set patterns or rules, making them nearly impossible to create in the form of a machine. Similarly, the art of rhetorical persuasion requires a certain emotion to be conveyed from speaker or writer to the intended audience.

So, put the fears aside. While A.I. will continue to advance at the simple stuff, it will not be able to replace the core of what makes humans human.

An American Sense of Reality

“To watch the TV screen for any length of time is to learn some really frightening things about the American sense of reality. We are cruelly trapped between what we would like to be and what we actually are.”
                                                                                              – James Baldwin

The singularly most omnipresent entity amongst the American populace is that of mass media. It leaks into every facet of our lives and defines how we perceive others and construct our own identities.

Adult reaching out to baby through phone screen

It has been proven through various studies that mass media is a powerful influence that commonly causes people to undergo an identity shift. An identity shift is defined as “choosing to change your current identity because you want to become a new person and experience a new life.”

The most susceptible group to media influence and identity shifts is adolescents. This is because the adolescent years are the most formative in identity formation for a human.

TikTok is a great example of a mass media venue that constantly encourages impressionable youths to undergo identity shifts. These identity shifts can be relatively tiny, such as a person basing more of their identity around a harmless fandom, or substantial, such as a person adopting an antagonistic language and attitude towards certain groups of people in order to mimic their favorite creator.

Kirkland & Jackson, in their work “‘We Real Cool’: Toward a Theory of Black Masculine Literacies,” offer another great example of the ability of mass media to influence adolescents’ identity. They specifically investigated the role rappers and rap media played in determining the language-in-use by “cool” African American adolescents. In specific, they traced how the group of “cool” children altered their language, social views, and clothing choices in order to align more closely with what rap media portrayed and perpetuated as cool.

Picture showing off a child's drawing that exemplifies Hip-hops's cultural influence on the way children speak

The pair also provide context on why specific mass media have a more significant influence on certain groups over others. In their study’s case, African American children formulated their “cool talk” and identities around African American rap artists and media because the community they inhabited deemed said rap artists as representative of what a “cool black man” and/or “black masculine cultural model” is.

I think moving forward as a society that it will become more and more important to encourage persons to distance themselves from media consistently in order to allow themselves the ability to maintain and reinforce their own personally constructed identity separate from overpowering external influences. Otherwise, I think that events such as the recent uptick in white supremacists specifically targeting racist media at adolescent boys in the hopes they will form their identity around normalized racism will become much more commonplace.

Your Attorney is a Robot

Like many other industries, artificial intelligence technology is slowly becoming an existential threat for many young professionals attempting to break into the legal sector. This is because AI is taking over many of the lower-level tasks historically assigned to junior attorneys and legal assistants and performing them in a fraction of the time.

Robot creating a hologram of a balance (representative of the legal field)

AI has taken over research, litigation forecasting, legal analytics analysis, documents automation, and electronic billing in law firms ranging from small to gigantic throughout the United States. The most devastating of these takeovers is document automation. Writing work that once required a team of junior attorneys to finish in a week has been taken over by writing bots that can complete the same work in minutes.

Obviously, such a dramatic increase in efficiency has caused law firms to find buying a legal writing bot software package and hiring a single junior attorney to supervise its writings much more attractive than hiring and training a whole team of junior attorneys to perform the same work. A depressing fact for the swarms of law students attempting to obtain internships during law school and the graduates trying to start their actual careers.

Robotic attorney

It is worth noting that just as McKee & Porter recommend in their article “The Impact of AI on Writing and Writing Instruction,” law professors are actively reacting to the technology and have begun to instruct their students on leveraging and working alongside legal AI and writing bots.

For example, Harvard Law School has already started to offer “legal innovation and programming” courses. Hopefully, this proactiveness on the part of legal academics will soften the blow of the shift to legal AI integration by law firms and prevent future attorneys from being left in the dust by the technology.

Gif of a scene from "Legally Blonde" saying "Girls, I'm going to Harvard!"

The technology is not all doom & gloom though, as it does hold genuine benefits for the field of law. In a profession centered around billable hours for charging clients, the ability for legal AI to cut week-long tasks down to minutes allows for law firms to become much more affordable and therefore accessible to the “everyman.”

Overall, Legal AI is a multifaceted issue since it is both a tremendously beneficial technology and a severely disruptive one. On the one hand, it will benefit the workflow of many law firms and improve the process of law itself. On the other, the technology is guaranteed to allow law firms to cut down on employees and make it even harder for young legal professionals to break into the already very competitive legal job market. If “Legally Blonde” ever gets a sci-fi remake, it’ll for sure have to include a plotline about dastardly legal writing bots and their desire to replace so many poor junior attorneys.

Wikipedia: To Cite or Not To Cite

I can remember hearing countless time during my education, “make sure to cite your sources, but do not use Wikipedia as one of your sources.” I’m sure many of you have heard the same thing.

What makes Wikipedia a non-credible source to many? This might help explain why. But is it really that unreliable? Perhaps Wikipedia is more than we give it credit for.

Wikipedia Logo

Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia

Compared to other sources, Wikipedia offers multiperspectivalism. Many people, voluntarily, contribute and edit Wikipedia pages. While information added can be incorrect, it is constantly being edited; each page being fine tuned and expanded. Every contributor comes to Wikipedia with their own background, knowledge and perspective. That is what makes Wikipedia so diverse, expansive and collaborative.

In “Networked Expertise in the Era of Many-to-many Communication: On Wikipedia and Invention,” Pfister discusses the role multiperspectivalism plays for Wikipedia:

If the first way that many-to-many communication reshapes the relationship between invention and expertise is to reshuffle traditional attention routines, the second significant effect of these new communication environments is a facilitation of multiperspectivalism. This multiperspectivalism emerges, not necessarily in the main article entry itself, but in the edit history and talk pages that constitute the substrata of Wikipedia. Herbert Gans (1979/2004, 2011) famously argued that traditional top-down news formats privilege particular views with the consequence that what gets covered is a very narrow slice of the actual news. How that news is framed shapes how citizens attend to it—if at all. Multiperspectival news, his proposed alternative, is journalism that draws in the opinions of the many in an attempt to better encompass available opinions…If multiperspectival news is desirable, then surely so is a multiperspectival encyclopedia. The many-to-many communication on the edit and talk pages reveals behind[1]the-scenes conflicts from multiple perspectives that need(ed) negotiation before some contingent consensus was reached.

Many-to-many communication – isn’t that better than one source with one perspective? I’d think so.

Are educators concerns with Wikipedia justified? Somewhat.

While Wikipedia may not always be accurate, it is a culmination of many people coming together to add their own knowledge. So next time you write an academic paper, use Wikipedia, but be aware of its accurateness. Instead of relying on it’s validity, use it to explore multiple perspectives you might not have considered or known.

2020: A Year of Political Unrest or A Year of Literacy?

One of few things undebated about 2020 was that it was a year full of political unrest. Either side of any debate held that year, whether presidential, COVID-19, wildfires, etc., will attest to that.

Civil Unrest Political Cartoon

Malcom X would argue the reason is the world is more literate than ever before. Literacy is loosely defined as the ability to read and write. So, with the United States reaching a 99% literacy rate as opposed 80% in 1870, it has more to say and hear than ever before.

Simply said, there is a greater number of people whose different ideas are finally being shared. Additionally, by the 2016 election extremely well-read internet ecologies such as Twitter and social media have more or less been accepted as an official news source or valid manner of spreading information.

2016 Presidental Election Twitter Image

But any person can publish themselves on Twitter. So, anyone with an idea worth listening to can muster up the same audience and credibility as news reporters.

Blocks with Social Media Images

In other words, mainstream narratives about elections, political issues, ideals, and how to think etc., no longer are provided by the news outlets alone. The common man now has as much potential political sway as Alexander Hamilton. The only problem is millions of people are attempting to do this at once.

Alexander Hamilton as Depicted on the Ten Dollar Bill

So, the end result is responses to issues now seem cluttered. Movements seem contradictory within themselves. In general, politics has lost its unity without the authority of the news to lead either side.

Malcom X Giving a Speech

Perhaps this is a benefit. Movements like BLM and others that have been massively ignored for decades finally have gained attention basically thanks to social media and increased literacy of those writing and reading about it. Malcom X argued that the inability to write and read is what kept him in chains.

Regardless of whether this rapid transfer of ideas, politics and movements is positive or negative, the result is civil unrest.

Without the internet and the increase in reading and writing ability in the United States a majority of current political issues would likely have been ignored.

The end result is the ecology of political writing has changed entirely. No longer is political writing reserved for the news companies or the Ben Franklins of the world. But each person has the ability to capture attention like those giants of the past did. This means more ideas, more movements more politics in general.

A Political Activist Tweet

Discussion posts & replies: a plea?

Let’s talk about the digital classroom real quick.

In many ways it’s messy—slapped together in a haphazard panic by people fatigued from, among so many other things, a constant need to develop their own digital literacy. Given the broader context, maybe we’re all doing this distance learning thing better than I give us credit for. 

But still, I can’t help thinking some of our writing activities are… I don’t know, lacking? And nothing is more lacking than discussion boards

Let’s get a couple points out of the way first:

  1. If done right (which, c’mon, how often is this happening?), discussion boards serve several significant purposes. Not least of which is authentic engagement with the class’s material.
  2. Discussion boards will inevitably follow some of us back to our in-person classes when the time comes. 
  3. Writing is ecological (more on that in a bit). So the way we approach discussion boards matters outside of the discussion board genre.

What are we, students and teachers from all education levels, supposed to do with a failing system despite its huge potential?

I’m not going to pretend that I have the answers. Frankly, that pedagogical thread is far too tangled for my liking. But I do have a thought. Hear me out: 

I, for one, love when researchers leverage social media to develop and refine their research questions. Networked participatory scholarship is not without its faults, but it does provide those outside the academic sphere a small opening to an otherwise impenetrable scholars-only club. (For a more nuanced discussion, check out this quick read.)

And that’s where I think Cooper’s ecological model of writing comes into play. She says:

“[A]ll the characteristics of any individual writer or of writing both determine and are determined by the characteristics of all other writers and writings in the system.”


“Writing, thus, is seen to be both constituted by and constitutive of these ever-changing systems, systems through which people relate as complete, social beings, rather than imagining each other as remote images: an author, an audience.”

Learning to communicate on discussion boards as complete, social beings whose ideas affect and are affected by the ideas of others will impact how we form and share knowledge outside of the digital classroom.

What researchers do on Twitter and other sites is in the same spirit as our discussion boards. They’ve been able to use digital spaces to mature their ideas. Why are we so weird with discussion boards then?

Maybe it’s time to shake up the standard conventions of discussion board posts and replies.

Ditch the formalities. Ask questions. Challenge ideas. Make responses shorter, more meaningful, and more conversational. Teachers and professors, compose your own discussion posts and reply to students in the same way you want them to be doing so they have a template to emulate. 

This is just my perspective; what’s yours?

Discussion Boards and Writing Ecology

How goes it everyone?

If you are a current or a former student that graduated in recent years, you are likely quite familiar with discussion boards; an online academic interaction tool that has increasingly been replacing traditional classroom debate. Since the onset of the Coronavirus Pandemic, this great replacement has only accelerated even further due to most classes shifting to an online format. Most of us students do at least a few discussion board posts every week in a given semester these days.

But do you know the theory and theorist that led to the rise of the discussion board as a staple in the academic experience of the average college student?

Image of Discussion BoardDiscussion boards came to us in the classroom thanks in large part to an academic by the name of Marilyn Cooper. Her theory of writing as an ecology was critical to the adaptation of the discussion board as an academic resource on a large scale.

If you’re like me and were immediately befuddled at the sight of the phrase “writing as an ecology”, fear not! What follows is as simple and concise of an explanation as I can muster.

Writing as it is understood by the mind of an educator has evolved greatly in the past century. Writing instruction used to focus primarily on the written product- allowing students to write a paper and then focusing on correcting surface-level structural and grammatical errors. Then the focus shifted to writing processes- focusing on teaching students how to write in a structured manner. From there we moved to focusing on the cognition of the writer- trying to shape understand the writer’s mental processes. And then, finally, Marilyn Cooper came along and introduced her theory of writing as an ecology.

What differentiates Cooper’s theory from the three mains schools of thought that came before it is her rejection of the writer as a “solitary author”; one who writes his or her work almost entirely independent of the outside world based on an imagined audience consisting of a few generalized stereotypes in the mind of the writer. Instead, Cooper postulates that all writing is interactive and is based on the norms and other factors of its time, and that in order to properly teach writing, educators should seek to facilitate writing peer communities that serve as a genuine audience for the writer, in stark contrast to the generalized imaginary audiences of the theorists that preceded her.

And it is this theory that laid the groundwork for the widespread adoption of the discussion board; it is meant to serve as an interactive and genuine audience for us students as writers. Do you think it achieves that purpose?

That’s about all I have time to say without droning on and boring you, but feel free to follow the hyperlink above if you want to read more about Marilyn Cooper and her theories!