The Internet, Artificial Intelligence, and the Destruction of Our Democratic Ideal

The AI-driven Internet has caused us to become more intolerant as well as committed to the use of words as weapons and slogans as propaganda.[1]  This has affected media and our behavior on other levels.  We have become a culture of lies. We lie a lot.  We lie in politics.  We lie in business.  We lie in our journalistic reporting.  We even lie in our academic activities.  At this point many of the worst offenders don’t even know they are lying because rather than think through what they are saying they rely on stereotypes and slogans chanted in unison with others who share their superficiality. 

We are increasingly creating illusions and delude ourselves into thinking they are actual truth.  Although many people have conducted themselves in this manner throughout history AI and the Internet has created a situation far worse and more pervasive.  With the coming of the Internet, along with its anonymity and the power granted by its ability to link similarly oriented people in collective movements that legitimate ignorance and bias, the lies have become worse and the ignorance and hostility far more prevalent. 

AXIOS just reported the results of a Pew Research Center survey highlighting the fact that at this point more Americans view “fake news” as a more serious problem than terrorism.  Sara Fischer writes: 

“Americans view made-up news and information as a bigger problem than other critical issues, including terrorism, immigration, climate change and racism, according to a new survey from Pew Research Center.  Why it matters:The survey finds that Americans feel more worried today about fake news because it’s undermining their trust in key institutions, like government and the media. … [Fischer adds] An overwhelming majority of Americans (68%) believe made-up news and information has a big impact on their trust in government, according to the survey.” [2]

Joel Stein sought to explain what has happened with the rise of the phenomenon of Internet “trolls”.  He writes about how anonymity creates a destructive disinhibition effect that allows us to say things that we would never say in “polite conversation”.

“They’re turning the web into a cesspool of aggression and violence. What watching them is doing to the rest of us may be even worse. … Once it [The Internet] was a geek with lofty ideals about the free flow of information. Now the web is a sociopath with Asperger’s. If you need help improving your upload speeds it’s eager to help with technical details, but if you tell it you’re struggling with depression it will try to goad you into killing yourself.

Psychologists call this the online disinhibition effect, in which factors like anonymity, invisibility, a lack of authority and not communicating in real time strip away the mores society spent millennia building. And it’s seeping from our smartphones into every aspect of our lives.  The people who relish this online freedom are called trolls, a term that originally came from a fishing method online thieves use to find victims. It quickly morphed to refer to the monsters who hide in darkness and threaten people. …” [3]

At the heart of the “problem” is that a look at the content of even a limited number of the billions of Internet-based messages sent daily demonstrates that many people should never have been empowered to speak. At least they should not be able to speak while hiding behind a mask of anonymity.  Concealed identity removes any real accountability because the “internal censor” of common sense and decency that tends to control our face-to-face communications has been destroyed.  Philip Hensher explains: “The possibility, and the dangers, of anonymity started to become apparent long before we all went online, and both have only continued to grow.”[4] 

A legitimate counter argument to the anti-anonymity concern is that the Internet has become such a poisonous cesspool that the individual trolls, fanatical ideologues, and intensely politicized identity groups who are newly empowered by the Internet are, in fact, not interested in any exchange of thought and evidence with those who have different views.  Doxxing involves obtaining documentary information about another poster including such things as addresses, telephone numbers, and work relationships and releasing that data onto the Internet with the intention that others conduct malicious attacks on the individual or organization. Legitimate defensive anonymity thus becomes understandable in an atmosphere of Internet lynch mobs and trolling “crazies” who will dox, “out”, condemn, threaten and otherwise attack anyone they disagree with.

The result is that we are pretty much “between a rock and a hard place” on this issue.  The other reality is that given corpus linguistics tools, you can match pretty much anyone with the text they write as long as there is a big enough sample.  Corpus linguistics has been described by the University of Essex and other sources as, “the study of linguistic phenomena through large collections of machine-readable texts”.  This means that a poster’s written statements incorporated into a format on the Internet, whether through original direct entry by the individual or loading from external sources can often be used to “unmask” a poster.  Plus in many instances some people have become quite skilled in spotting posters’ IP addresses and unveiling their identities through that method.

The individual “loner trolls” are not the worst problem even with their vicious and malicious behavior.  A worse form of “trolling” is found in the behavior of fanatical groups of true believers and activists who see themselves as part of heroic movements.  Anyone who opposes them, questions the accuracy of what they say, or even simply fails to support or agree with whatever it is they are advocating, is an enemy. 

No attack by these gangs of true believers on anyone who does not completely share their views can be too savage.  They are engaged in a “holy war” in which the demonized enemy must be destroyed.  This has converted our political sphere into instantaneous “lynch mobs” who mobilize at the speed of light to condemn, shame, humiliate and destroy anyone with different views.

One tragic result is that we no longer even attempt to have reasoned discourse but seek to control and dominate through propaganda, shaming and condemnation. Wikileaks editor Julian Assange put the danger in the following terms.

“Speaking about the future of AI, Assange told a panel … that there will be a time when AI will be used to adjust perception. “Imagine a Daily Mail run by essentially Artificial Intelligence, what does that look like when there’s only the Daily Mail worldwide? That’s what Facebook and Twitter will shift into,” he said.  The main concern in Assange’s eyes centers around how AI can be used to advance propaganda. “The most important development as far as the fate of human beings are concerned is that we are getting close to the threshold where the traditional propaganda function that is employed by BBC, The Daily Mail, and cultures also, can be encapsulated by AI processes,” Assange said.  “When you have AI programs harvesting all the search queries and YouTube videos someone uploads it starts to lay out perceptual influence campaigns, twenty to thirty moves ahead. This starts to become totally beneath the level of human perception.”[5]

In his classic pre-Internet book, Propaganda, the brilliant French philosopher Jacques Ellul noted that we function through the use of stereotypes, explaining how the process works and why it is so successful. Ellul wrote:

“A stereotype is a seeming value judgment, acquired by belonging to a group, without any intellectual labor…. The stereotype arises from feelings one has for one’s own group, or against the “out-group.”  [He adds] Man attaches himself passionately to the values represented by his group and rejects the cliches of the out-groups…. The stereotype … helps man to avoid thinking, to take a personal position, to form his own opinion.”[6] 

The impacts of our stereotypical culture are vastly multiplied when we put what was already occurring in Western societies, as warned by Ellul and others, together with the power and anonymity of the Internet and the growing powers of Artificial Intelligence and its vast range of applications.  Converting everything to stereotypes that prevent us from thinking and understanding creates greater vulnerability to oppression and uniformity.  Too many people consider that condition of certainty and true belief to be a blessing.  Certainty releases us from any obligation to even try to think deeply about issues.  It provides a comforting sense of security.  But even if we do seek to question assumptions and claims we will soon find ourselves condemned by angry and aggressive mobs of true believers, whether the Tea Party, Black Lives Matter, pro and anti abortion advocates, or those who condemn as “phobic” anything at odds with their desires.  

Oppression is the result, whether done by governments through the development of hate speech rules or increasing surveillance of ordinary citizens, by the impenetrable “Community Standards” of the businesses such as Google and Facebook controlling the Internet platforms, or the subjective political correctness cultures of powerful identity groups whose members are provided certainty, meaning and security by submersion in a group of like-minded people thrilled by their sudden ascension to power over others and willing to savage anyone who offends or threatens them. Max Lerner brought this out this oppressiveness as a core principle warned about by JS Mill, writing: “Mill was a pioneer in seeing, with the growth of social egalitarianism and mass culture, the shadow of “an oppressive yoke of uniformity in opinion and practice.” [7] 

A result of the “trolling”, savagery, and various forms of mental illness and “groupthink” fanaticism that permeate the Internet is we are discovering, contrary to democratic theory, that many people should be quiet. I’m not saying they should be suppressed, although some should and others should suffer sanctions due to their threats of violence and deliberate attempts to cause mental suffering on the part of their victims.  For many others you can mostly wish they would understand their “voice” does not in any way enrich our dialogue. Self-repression has its virtues, but the anonymity and mob mentality of the Internet has removed all inhibitions from the speech of those who want to attack others simply because they can.  The problem with such an approach is that as we see with political correctness, discretionary Community Standards enforced by faceless censors with unrevealed biases and preferences, and hate speech rules, the overall effect is almost inevitably the elevation of subjective standards and choices that follow a version of “beauty” or “hate” are in the eyes of the beholders and the “beholders” are fully prepared to suppress the speech of anyone with whom they disagree.

[1] On such themes, see, Max Lerner, Ideas Are Weapons: The History and Uses of Ideas (1991). 

[2], Sara Fischer, 6/5/19, “Poll: Americans view fake news as a bigger problem than terrorism”.

[3] Joel Stein, “How Trolls Are Ruining the Internet”, 8/18/16. “A 2014 study published in the psychology journal Personality and Individual Differences found that the approximately 5% of Internet users who self-identified as trolls scored extremely high in the dark tetrad of personality traits: narcissism, psychopathy, Machiavellianism and, especially, sadism.”

[4] Philip Hensher, “The bigger a community gets, the easier and more virulent anonymity becomes”, Guardian, 8/23/13; community-easier-virulent-anonymity. He adds: “We are now much more anonymous than we used to be. We are less and less likely to know even our most immediate neighbours – one survey found that over 50% of us don’t even known their names. Robert D Putnam, in his celebrated 2000 study, Bowling Alone, found that everyday personal interaction had been on the decline in North America since 1950.”

[5] “Future of humanity under threat from AI-controlled propaganda – Assange”, 6/13/17.

[6] Jacques Ellul, Propaganda 

[7] Max Lerner, Mill’s Essential Works, 250 supra, n.1.

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