The digital public sphere is a new reality that many people participate in but very few understand. As a junior, Madeline Libbey embarked on a mission to comprehend this realm. In her Ethics in Society honors thesis, she examines how the new structural conditions and realities of the digital public sphere pose significant ethical challenges with respect to content moderation and significant threats to the individual and expressive freedom. Before she heads to Oxford University, we asked Libbey about her experience in our Undergraduate Honor’s Program.
Why did you decide to participate in the Honors Program in Ethics in Society?
I found myself wondering how I could connect my interests in political philosophy and computer science in a single intellectual project. During my first year at Stanford, I was drawn by the excitement of the computer science department and the innovation surrounding our campus. By sophomore year, I had started to explore more deeply some of my questions about the implications of revolutionary technology through political and ethical theory.
The Ethics in Society Honors Program gave me the intellectual freedom and guidance to marry these interests as well as the space to independently define my approach. I was so excited by this idea of interdisciplinary and normative study — and am now so grateful that I chose this program. There really isn’t anything else on Stanford’s campus like it.
In a few sentences, give us a sense of what your honors thesis research was about.
My research project examines how the internet and social media constitute a digital public sphere in democracies that is structurally and politically distinct from the public spheres of the past. I examine how the new structural conditions of our digital public sphere pose normative governance challenges and threats to the individual. Ultimately, I argue to support a governance model for the digital public sphere that prioritizes human dignity and the human rights framework.
What was the single most rewarding aspect of writing your honors thesis?
Put simply, it was incredibly rewarding to independently work through a really complex ethical problem. This was also personally important to me as I navigate our increasingly digital world. Even more so than working through my specific research question, I genuinely enjoyed working closely with my advisors, Professor Rob Reich and Professor Alessandro Vecchiato. It was a challenging and rewarding experience to be mentored by them.
Beyond your thesis, what are some of the most memorable moments of your Stanford undergraduate experience?
I really loved being a Hope House tutor. The Hope House is a residential drug and alcohol treatment facility for women, many of whom have recently been incarcerated. The program is an initiative of the Center for Ethics in Society that brings Stanford professors and undergraduate teaching assistants to the facility to offer a course. Just being able to connect with the humanities, these women, and the greater Silicon Valley community was an incredible learning experience for me.
I will miss so much about Stanford –– the intellectual community, professors, friends, fun traditions! I was very sad to miss my last Spring quarter living at my residential community, Enchanted Broccoli Forest, where I cherished living amongst so much art, music, fun, and friends. It was such a great place to live my senior year.
What opportunities would you like to pursue within the next five years?
I am going to be attending (hopefully in person) Oxford University next year to study Social Science of the Internet at the Oxford Internet Institute. I am excited to see where my interests in the social and political impacts of technology take me!