Erowid meets J676: Digital Media Law and Ethics
Marketplace of Ideas: In my last post, I explained how erowid.org is legal and ethical. The question of the site’s content also falls under the protection of the marketplace of ideas by being unbiased and presenting information that highlights both positive and negative aspects of psychoactive drugs. Supporters of the marketplace of ideas would support Erowid’s extensive archive on psychoactive drugs. The site does not encourage drug use nor does it discourage. The choice is up to the observer, and here Erowid is partaking in the marketplace of ideas. However, there is a review process for the content on the site, and not everything that is submitted for review is published. And while this is to protect site visitors from receiving dangerously incorrect information, proponents of the marketplace of ideas would not agree and could argue that the site, then, is not fully participating in the marketplace, thus restricting others ability to participate as well.
Anonymity: On a site like Erowid, most everyone practices some sort of anonymity or uses a pseudonym. However, within the community of Erowid, I do not feel that anonymity presents an issue. The people whose reports are published all have online screen names, but they cannot be contacted and their work is always reviewed prior to publishing. The submitters do not have much control of their own work once submitted and any issue would be directed to the reviewers. The reviewers are usually volunteers, but the posting happens by a member of the senior staff. There is only one email address to use when contacting the crew, but they respond quickly and thoroughly while still keeping their online names. I do not feel there is an issue with anonymity and false identity here because the people behind the names hold themselves accountable for the site content. And some of the names are not fake at all.
Accountability as publisher: While Erowid does indeed publish things that could cause harm if used incorrectly and could be blamed (or maybe tried to be charged) for endangering lives through the information on the site, the creators include a disclaimer on their site, wiping them clean of all accountability to unethical or dangerous action taken with the information provided on erowid.org.
When I was assigned this project, I had no clue what I was supposed to be doing nor how to really approach tackling the assignment. In theory it sounded like a fun and interesting project, but one unlike I had ever done before, and I knew it would be a lot of work. I began researching tentatively, looking at the site here and there, trying to find some sort of issue to look into, some way to ask interesting and engaging questions to the members of the Erowid community. At first I thought I would be researching the people who submitted to the site, but that proved impossible to do. I took some time to create a survey to help spark ideas, and I started this blog, hoping that if I jumped right in, the ideas would flow. And not only did the ideas flow, but my first survey had 20 respondents in the first day and the crewmembers of Erowid answered my first email within hours that I sent it. I could not have been more excited at the sudden ease of the project.
It has been a fun journey getting to know the senior staff members of Erowid. Their different personalities shown through their answers to my questions, and I also observed the comfort level they felt in adding to and correcting people’s answers when they re-read all the responses. The community was receptive to my questions and answered them in much more depth than I had ever anticipated. I am happy with my Erowid ethnography, and I am confident that my conclusions about the care and devotion the community of Erowid puts into creating the site proves that it is a well-researched, reliable, legal and ethical site devoted to “documenting the complex relationship between humans and psychoactives.”
Have you learned something new or have something to add? Post a comment below!
Research Question One
Have there been legal concerns brought to the attention to the site’s creators? If so, how have those been addressed? If not, why is that? What did the creators do, if anything, to ensure entire website is legal?
Most of the concerns brought to the creators’ attention have been more ethically based. It is not a question of legality; the information on the site is considered legal by the protection of freedom of speech, expression and press granted under the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment. And while majority of the content on the site pertains to psychoactive drugs, of which most are illegal to use in some capacity, the creators and staff of the site make a conscious effort to keep a website of information and not one to promote drug use. As senior review staff member wrote in an online interview, “Erowid is in no way ‘pro-drug’; we are ‘pro-information.’”
The staff of Erowid have never been contacted by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Association, and police officers, doctors and parents have found the site helpful to understand more about a drug that is affecting a love one or was involved with an overdose or death.
However, there are instances when Erowid is contacted by an angry or concerned individual. Earth Erowid, a co-founder of the site, wrote in the interview, “If anyone points out things that might constitute illegal activity, we take it seriously.” Because the staff wants to make the site accessible to law enforcement, they are extremely cautious of what information is on the site and how it is presented.
After looking over the site and chatting with the staff over a very long email thread, I have come to the conclusion that Erowid.org is indeed legal. The issue of ethics, however, brings about more debate, which brings me to my second research question.
Research Question Two
Is the mission of this site ethical? To its creators, its users and community, its viewers, and to random visitors?
Despite the assurance of legality, the ethical issues surrounding a site like Erowid are not so clearly defined. Ethics relates to things that are morally right. Although legal, is it morally right to provide information about harmful drugs in an unfiltered, uncensored space such as the Internet? Although the content is reviewed, is it right that only a few people have the final say in what is put on the site when the content could be used in a dangerous way?
Erowid’s mission states: Their vision states:To the creators and staff of Erowid, as one can see from the site’s mission and vision, they believe the site to be ethical. The crewmembers are the community and they devote many hours reviewing and fact checking articles and experience reports that are submitted (see question three). I was not able to contact authors of the experience reports but as they have their writing posted, I am going to make an assumption that they generally do not have an issue with Erowid. I did, however, conduct a survey to see what people thought generally about a site like Erowid, and then specifically what they thought about erowid.org. The survey was anonymous and I do not know how familiar the respondents were with Erowid.
Here are some quotes from the surveys and I have analyzed their messages to relate to my conclusion about the ethics of Erowid.
“What the reader does with the information can be judged as ethical or unethical, but not the act of providing information.”
-I believe this individual makes a valid point in targeting the user of the information as the one who is subject to scrutiny over ethical behavior. Information is information and it does not become unethical until it is presented in an inaccurate way or is used in another mode of behavior that is considered unethical. If humans did not share information, no matter how touchy it may be, we would never be able to advance in society. Erowid presents clear, balanced, and accurate information so that on a subject that is so often taboo, there is a way to learn about a complex part of humanity and human experience. Jon Hanna wrote in his email to me, “As someone who grew up in those days before the Internet was widely available, there was a dearth of reliable, factual, information available about psychoactive drugs when I was a child and young adult.” The amount and diversity of information related to psychoactive drugs on Erowid is astounding, and while people may it in unethical ways, it is important for the information to be out there. I would argue that not providing information in fear or because the subject is drugs and drugs are illegal is unethical. Providing information like a healthy drug dosage helps more than damages. If the information was not allowed to be somewhere, who would ever know how to stay safe while using drugs? As the next quote hints at, denying information will not stop drug use.
“I think it is the epitome of ethical behaviour. Of course, these drugs are illegal. But in reality, that fact is not going to end drug use, as it has not.”
-Drugs have been around probably longer than humans, if you follow the theory of evolution. Psychoactive drugs, although oftentimes dangerous, have been known to spark creativity in some of the world’s most influential people. Humans are generally curious and have the capacity to understand things larger than them and it makes sense the mystery of drugs and altered states would be appealing to many. Because of the inherent dangers of using drugs without knowledge of how, it is important, again, for the information to explain how to use, where to use, what’s normal and what isn’t, what is safe to eat or drink while using is extremely important to help drug users stay safe. Erowid acknowledges drug use and by providing information and talking at conferences, they are “the epitome of ethical behaviour.”
“Only ethical for adults or with supervision.”
“The website should be able to talk about what ever it wants as long as it is to the appropriate aged group and does not break any laws.”
-These quotes touch on, perhaps without knowing it, one of the largest issues of digital media today. How and should the Internet even be censored? Could Erowid be considered ethical if it was only observed by adults or the “appropriate age group”? While I understand the argument for information about drugs being kept from children or even young adults, I do not think it makes the site more or less ethical. The information will remain the same. Is it unethical for a ten-year-old to read but ethical for a sixteen-year-old to read? What happens in those six years for information to suddenly be ethical to read? If, however, one is saying that having the content available to young people is unethical, I think there may be more of an argument. But, I would argue on the flipside that young people are generally more experimental and more willing to take risks. They may use drugs anyway even if they are not allowed to see the information on a site like Erowid. Websites are only part of the Internet. There are databases for professional journals, Facebook, chat rooms, friends, and one could even find a book in the library to search for information about drugs. It could be argued that it is almost more dangerous to keep facts about drugs from the age group that is one of the more likely to experiment haphazardly. I find that these two quotes are almost invalid when discussing the ethics of Erowid. Adults can make terrible decisions about drugs, so why should it only be ethical for them to see the site? Any age group can read a website unless it is blocked by a filter set by a parent or a school. Furthermore, Erowid does not break any laws.
Research Question Three
What is the criteria to post recreational experiences or scholarly research on the site? Have some been rejected? If so, for what reason?
“We reject approximately 50% of all experience reports submitted for a variety of reasons,” wrote Fire Erowid in an online interview. The reasons include inaccuracy, poor writing and reports that are obviously faked.
“There is always the possibility that someone is fabricating their experience report and that’s part of the reason for the review system as it stands,” wrote Earth. “We take the issue of faked reports very seriously.” But reports are not the only things that are submitted. “For other types of submissions, we have a very rigorous review process, most original documents people send us for publication we just reject without putting it to any other reviewers.“
This part of my research is easy. The criteria for having something put on the web is that it must make it through a rigorous review process and only a senior review staff member may post to the site. Reviewers are trained and fact check stories to make sure the information is accurate. The effort the Erowid crew puts in to ensure that the content on the site is admirable and considerably ethical.