In an essay at The New Atlantis, Adam Elkus, a graduate student in computational social science at George Mason University, reflects on a curious change in public panics in recent years: Pundits’ obsession with AI doom has given way to “primal fear of primates posting,” with demands that top government or Big Tech crack down on social media:
Once upon a time — just a few years ago, actually — it was not uncommon to see headlines about prominent scientists, tech executives, and engineers warning portentously that the revolt of the robots was nigh. The mechanism varied, but the result was always the same: Uncontrollable machine self-improvement would one day overcome humanity. A dismal fate awaited us. We would be lucky to be domesticated as pets kept around for the amusement of superior entities, who could kill us all as easily as we exterminate pests.
Today we fear a different technological threat, one that centers not on machines but other humans. We see ourselves as imperiled by the terrifying social influence unleashed by the Internet in general and social media in particular. We hear warnings that nothing less than our collective ability to perceive reality is at stake, and that if we do not take corrective action we will lose our freedoms and way of life.Adam Elkus, “Welcoming Our New Robot Overlords” at The New Atlantis (Spring 2021)
He traces a key moment in this shift to the U.S. 2016 election:
Since the 2016 presidential election, fears about machine dystopia do not seem like nearly such a preoccupation. Instead, attention has shifted to online radicalization, misinformation, and harassment. This distinction may seem like two ways of talking about the same thing. After all, many tech critics ultimately place the blame for these online dysfunctions on software that encourages toxic behavior and on companies’ lax moderation policies. Perhaps fear of machine revolt has just morphed into generic fear about out-of-control algorithms that, among other things, fuel hatred, fear, and suspicion online. There is some truth to this, but it also misses important differences.
While online behavior is certainly shaped by platform mechanisms, the fear today is less of the mechanisms themselves than of whom they’re enticing. Prior emphasis on the machine threat warned of the unpredictability of automated behavior and the need for humans to develop policies to control it. Today’s emphasis on the social media terror inverts this, warning of the danger posed by unchecked digital mobs, who must be controlled. The risk comes not from the machines but from ourselves: our vulnerability to deception and manipulation, our need to band together with others to hunt down and accost our adversaries online, our tendency to incite and be incited by violent rhetoric to act out in the physical world, and our collective habit of spiraling down into correlated webs of delusion, insanity, and hatred.Adam Elkus, “Welcoming Our New Robot Overlords” at The New Atlantis (Spring 2021)
At this point, one wants to say, “But who is the collective ‘we’” in the phrase “our collective habit of spiraling down into correlated webs of delusion, insanity, and hatred”?
The pundits making “even louder demands since 2016 to crack down harder on online misinformation and extremism” seldom accuse themselves. No, in their view, they are the voices of reason. They are forever accusing those with whom they disagree, especially the ones who have gained a hearing.
These demands reached a crescendo between early 2020 and early 2021 — between the start of the pandemic and the Capitol attack. The massive expansion of automated rule-enforcement changed the nature of online speech.Adam Elkus, “Welcoming Our New Robot Overlords” at The New Atlantis (Spring 2021)
The coverage of the Capitol Riot, which accelerated their demands even further, provides a chance to assess the qualifications of such opinion leaders to manage the news we hear:
- The riot was portrayed as an “armed insurrection” (February 15, 2021), which implies an attempt to overthrow the government. But, of the hundreds charged, only 23 were charged with having deadly or dangerous weapons. One man had a loaded handgun. (March 10, 2021). If this were an “insurrection” in the usual sense of the term, the rioters would have had larger objectives and employed more strategy and more firepower. In a country where carrying firearms is often legal, it isn’t even clear whether a search of similar-sized group in a shopping mall might not have produced that many weapons, including a loaded one…
- The widespread belief — much assisted in big traditional media — that new social medium Parler was used as a platform for instigating the riot was one of the reasons that Amazon alleged in suddenly terminating Parler’s online presence. (Parler’s lawsuit for contract violation is still before the courts.) In fact, analysis of the evidence intended to help prosecute rioters showed that “the overwhelming number of social media posts cited in these reports were those posted on Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter. There was barely any mention of Parler.”
- The riot was described routinely in media as “deadly.” One person died as a consequence of the riot but, as Canadian commentator Mark Steyn notes,
Two of the deceased died of natural causes, specifically hypertensive atherosclerotic cardiovascular disease. Sad, but not murder.
The death of a third has been ruled accidental – due to acute amphetamine intoxication. Also sad, but also not murder.Mark Steyn, “Fake News, Late Corrections, and Domestic Terrorists” at Steynonline (April 8, 2021)
The cause of the fourth death, that of Officer Brian Sicknick, has not yet been determined by the Chief Medical Examiner as of this writing. But apparently he did not die by violence, as widely claimed earlier.
Which leaves Ashley Babbitt. Steyn again,
… an unarmed woman shot dead by a police officer at near point-blank range: that death has been ruled a homicide.
That’s a medical ruling, not a judicial one. But still: five dead, two of natural causes, one accidental, one still of unknown cause – and the only homicide was at the hands of the state, by a member of the Capitol Police. But the American media joined with Nancy Pelosi & Co in damning the massed ranks of Trump supporters as domestic terrorists.Mark Steyn, “Fake News, Late Corrections, and Domestic Terrorists” at Steynonline (April 8, 2021)
At any rate, riots are not usually described as “deadly” when the only known death ruled a homicide was that of a rioter.
- Of the 375 suspects in the riot charged as of April 9, 2021, only 66 had ties to “extremist or fringe groups or ideas, including militias, gangs and QAnon.” (NPR) Not what you heard on the news? Well, that tells us more about “the news” than about the riot.
If the fretful pundits and commentators who produce and market such material had more control over what the rest of us can find out online, it is safe to say that we would not be a better informed public. We would be a public with few other sources of information. Period. Elkus again:
The growing intellectual consensus is that a vulnerable public must be protected from having their minds hijacked by dangerous online memes. An ugly and messy struggle for control over online communication looms. Fears of machine revolt have faded, but the very machines that were once seen as future tyrants — automated systems — must now save humans from themselves.Adam Elkus, “Welcoming Our New Robot Overlords” at The New Atlantis (Spring 2021)
We would not be wise to credit those who want to save us from ourselves in this way with the ability to distinguish hate speech or misinformation from speech or information that they hate to think that the rest of us can hear.
If only just to make a resounding No! more explicit.
You may also wish to read: Face recognition: is the U.S. copying China’s surveillance state? Although facial recognition (and the resulting “social credit score”) prevail in China, the technology is getting pushback in America. More chilling here is the amount and scope of information we have voluntarily surrendered to Big Tech’s “surveillance capitalism.” (Caitlin Bassett) Note: This story addresses the trouble a woman experienced when seh was falsely accused of participation in the Capitol Riot.