The disinformation pandemic
We’re quickly moving to a world where we will no longer be able to believe our eyes and ears when we go online.
In the last few years, technology to make convincing fakes has become available to anyone. The artificial intelligence tool GPT-4, which launched just weeks ago, can write news stories and converse like a human. Video deepfake technology is already indistiguishable from the real thing. DALL-E can create staged photosfrom simple text commands, like a genie that grants visual wishes. The list goes on and on.
And that’s just the sexy side of the broad, murky category of ‘lies on the internet’. There are waves of fake news stories, deployed at scale via bots; ‘bad actors’ manipulating public opinion via social media; innocents getting radicalised, slipping into informational ‘rabbit holes’ and emerging in full Klan gear.
To be clear, I think the freakout over online lies is disingenuous, and we’re in a bit of a moral panic. But disinformation is a thing, and can sometimes cause real harm. And the latest tech can only make it worse.
The Establishment’s cures
Governments and organisations are scrambling to save you from all this. Hardly a day passes without some decision maker calling for greater moderation (AKA censorship) of social media. They’re funding fact-checking sites like Politifact and Snopes. Pushing for tighter laws to penalise online deception. And developing AI algorithms to weed out fake news and deepfakes.
These approaches can be effective as a short-term antidote to online lies. But in general I find them heavy-handed, and they’re often just attempts to control our discourse. Under the surface, there’s a battle raging between Big Tech and legacy media, and frequently these ‘proposals’ are just salvos within it.
But I have another problem with these approaches: quite simply, they don’t empower people. Like pharmaceutical solutions, they expand the distance between regular folk and the experts who claim to know best. They promote dependence, fear, and anxiety. They stop us looking for our own answers; they dumb us down. And they have dangerous side effects.
Strengthening your online immune system
So the internet has become a funhouse mirror. What’s the solution? It’s staring right at us.
Just as how my friends here in Greece believe in eating well and spending time outdoors to keep healthy, there should be much more discussion on how to boost our online immune system. For instance:
- Encourage people to look for multiple sources to verify information. Instead of setting up fact-checking sites — which are as open to bias as any other media outlet.
- Train individuals to recognize clickbait headlines and sensationalist language. Instead of developing AI filters to curate the news (which narrows the points of view on offer).
- Teach critical thinking skills and promote healthy skepticism when engaging with online content. Instead of protecting people from disinformation on social media by banning and censoring accounts.
People with a high level of media literacy, coupled with healthy online habits, will have natural immunity to even the most brilliant deepfake, the most masterfully executed lie. Or at least, they’ll have the best protection from being suckered — or worse.
There are some initiatives that go in the direction of equipping people with these skills. But they’re piecemeal. And it’s the sweeping, authoritarian responses to online lies that get all the headlines and attention.
This has to change. If we’re serious about tackling online lies, we need a collective effort to promote media literacy and critical thinking. Involving not just parents and educators, but also institutions, media outlets, and tech companies.
It might be too late for us, but we can start with the next generation… as I’m trying to do with my own kids. With the very nature of truth at stake, isn’t it worth a shot?
Update 25/04/23: Gurwinder Bhogal has a detailed piece, with similar thoughts, as well as something I hadn’t considered. As the proportion of AI-enabled lies expands massively, could simply doing nothing provide the crash course on digital literacy we all need?
Update 15/05/23: I helped develop a 'deepfake' satirical political ad, with appropriate disclaimers. Using freely available software, it took our video guru just two days of work. See what you think: