The AI-Enabled Internet is a Tool for Propaganda, Social Division, Identity Intimidation, and the Destruction of Intelligent Social Discourse

Facebook’s former vice president for user growth, Chamath Palihapitiya, has stated that he feels “tremendous guilt” about Facebook. Palihapitiya explains: “[W]e have created tools that are ripping apart the social fabric of how society works. The short-term, dopamine-driven feedback loops we’ve created [including the hearts, likes, and thumbs up of various social media channels] are destroying how society works.” He added, “[There’s] no civil discourse, no cooperation; [only] misinformation, mistruth.”1

The disintegration in community we are experiencing is being driven to significant degrees by the combination of the Internet and Artificial Intelligence systems.  AI-facilitated social media has intensified and accelerated the disintegration of our social forms.  Governmental and private sector surveillance and privacy breaches made possible through AI and the Internet have created a culture of intrusion, manipulation, misrepresentation, conflict and lying. 

Tim Berners-Lee, considered by many to be the “Father of the Internet”, has voiced his great dismay about how his invention has devolved.

“For the first 15 years, most people just expected the web to do great things. They thought ‘there’ll be good and bad, that is humanity, but if you connect humanity with technology, great things will happen….  What could go wrong? Well, duh: all kinds of things have gone wrong since. We have fake news, we have problems with privacy, we have problems with abuse of personal data, we have people being profiled in a way that they can be manipulated by clever ads.” 2  

Rather than narrowing, the gap between our increasingly complex world and the quality of our social and intellectual understanding of that world grows steadily wider.  The rapidly spreading inability to communicate substantively and thoughtfully with each other as opposed to shouting enraged vitriol makes serious analysis increasingly useless and the best efforts to “talk things out” in search of reasonable compromises impossibly unproductive.  

The result is that we are “preaching to our choir” and denigrating the positions of all others.  If we don’t “sing the same hymns” no one outside our own group’s ideological context is even listening.  Even if the “others” hear the words being written or spoken they are unable to understand or appreciate what others not of their specific identity group are saying.  This is due to the effects of confirmation bias, propaganda, rising individual and group ignorance, and interest group agendas that act as barriers to understanding.  The tragic result is that we have become splintered people in fragmented societies.   This makes us highly vulnerable to the actions of true believers, fanatics, ideologues, and almost anyone who offers us certainty in a confusing and frightening world. 

The Intelligentsia’s Betrayal of Their Social Duty

Today’s intellectuals—to the extent anyone actually deserves that label—are virtually all “attached” servants of power who have betrayed their purpose and identity.   This increasingly applies to journalists who are granted special Constitutional privileges so that they can bring us honest facts and unbiased analysis aimed at seeking truth through wisdom and fact.  Instead, far too many members of the “verbal” class have become sycophants politically attached to movements and in doing so betray their responsibility to seek truth.  This threatens the foundations of the ideals of free speech and inquiry that are the basis of their special privilege.  The same betrayal can be said of far too many university academics and “scholars” who are corrupting the university’s ideals of teaching and uncovering truth to each generation of our youth. 

Russell Jacoby, in The End of Utopia, notes that it is not only a problem of knowing what to communicate but being willing to accept the consequences of our communications should what we say is unpopular.  With all the claims by modern group-affiliated activists to be “speaking truth to power”, Jacoby describes our true situation as one in which if you write odes to the monarch, “you will be well received.  Enlighten men, and you will be crushed.”  He writes that Karl Mannheim used the concept of the “free-floating” intellectual during the 1920s to describe individuals of independent mind who possessed the courage to critique power wherever their journey led. In discussing the disappearance of the independent intellectual, Jacoby observes that: “Benda’s prescient Betrayal, which evoked the philosophes of the Enlightenment, might be seen as summarizing a tradition that was ending.3

Jacoby writes that even when first written: “Mannheim’s defense of independent intellectuals earned him the ire of both left and right.”  This outraged reaction is predictable.  Independent thinking and critique have always been a threat to the preservation and acquisition of power.  Honest critique shows the cracks and flaws in rhetoric and propaganda, and penetrates the illusions behind which power seeks to hide.  Jacoby goes on to argue that: “Since Mannheim, the structural shifts that affect intellectuals have become so obvious that few can deny them.  If Mannheim’s analysis of the “free-floating” intellectuals seemed questionable [even] in the late 1920s, almost 100 years later it is impossible.” 4 

One difference, however, is that we are not dealing with a traditional monolithic aristocracy in modern Western society but a kaleidoscopic tableaux of ideological groups seeking power for themselves and seeking to undermine and destroy anyone in their way.  The “monarchy” is now comprised of aggressive and colliding movements.  These movements are empowered by the Internet and AI as their primary tool of organizing.  The AI-enhanced Internet has become an intelligence gathering system that allows the tracking of “enemies” and a potent weapon for attacking those enemies through intimidation, threats, insults, lies and smears.  Anyone seen as an obstacle to a self-righteous and power seeking movement’s gain and use of power, or simply those who do not fully agree with identity and interest group agendas, falls into the category of adversary and must be attacked.

  1. Fast Company.com. 12/11/17.
  2.  https://www.yahoo.com/news/sir-tim-berners-lee-launches-214716734.html, “Sir Tim Berners-Lee launches ‘Magna Carta for the web’ to save internet from abuse”, Laurence Dodds, The Telegraph, 11/5/18.
  3. Russell Jacoby, The End of Utopia, 105.
  4. Jacoby, The End of Utopia, 110.

One thought on “The AI-Enabled Internet is a Tool for Propaganda, Social Division, Identity Intimidation, and the Destruction of Intelligent Social Discourse

  1. drbarnhizer November 13, 2019 / 12:52 pm

    A comment received by David Barnhizer in a separate e-mail from another law professor who prefers anonymity.

    Sadly, there’s a lot of truth in all of that. The hard question is whether taming the excesses of the internet has to be done by regulatory action or individual skill (or both). Do the Facebook types have to monitor and police postings more rigorously, or do people generally have to stop being stupid in reading the postings. There are considerable risks with both strategies. Ideologues, malcontents, psychopaths, and the like are not new with our generation, but knowing they exist, and how many there are, is new because of the internet. The very possibility of effective social organization is at stake, so this is not a trivial problem. AI (and IA) are just tools, and there is no putting tools back in the bottle, but we are now living in a world in which the collective weaknesses of the human psyche are not only visible for all to see, but they are having real consequences and on a grander scale than in the past. “Tools evolve, people don’t,” and that is the problem.

    Like

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