It wasn’t long ago that the internet seemed to be the ultimate expression of free speech — a place where anyone with a computer and a connection could make their ideas heard. But in more recent times, its unchecked power has frequently veered into dark directions. Here are just five of the many concerns that have emerged:
- Social media is an effective propaganda weapon for extremist causes.
“The concepts behind ISIS’s viral success are the same ones used to push a new Taylor Swift album,” wrote The Atlantic in its November 2016 article “War Goes Viral.” The piece notes that terrorism has always been aimed at as large an audience as possible. The internet has given it a vastly expanded forum, which can be exploited with the same tactics used by modern public relations firms.
- Social "bots" can be used to disrupt the political process.
Artificial intelligence consultant Alessandro Bessi and computational social network scientist Emilio Ferrara investigated algorithmically driven “entities” that, on the surface, appeared to be legitimate social media users. Those entities had the capacity to affect political discussion around the 2016 U.S. Presidential election. Writing in First Monday, a peer-reviewed journal of internet research, the researchers stated that they “uncovered a large fraction of user population that may not be human.”
- Competing points of view can be censored.
Lest one think that only conservatives exploit social media for nefarious purpose, Gizmodo reported on a number of former Facebook workers who routinely suppressed “trending” news stories when they were deemed to be of interest to conservative-minded readers. These “news curators” also said that they had been instructed to artificially inject selected stories into Facebook’s “trending” news module, in order to give the social network the appearance of being “a place where people talked about hard news.” It could be argued that by “curating” the news, Facebook is simply doing what any traditional news organization does — but the internet allows it to do it on a far grander scale, while simultaneously putting those same news organizations out of business.
- "Fake news" is everywhere.
Steering what’s trending is one thing; wholescale inventing of news is another realm entirely, generally confined to dystopian fiction like Orwell’s "1984." But consider a recent NPR report on a team of computer scientists from the University of Washington who “figured out how to make words come out of the mouth of former President Barack Obama — on video — by using artificial intelligence.” The researchers’ neural network computer studied hours of video footage showing how Obama’s mouth moved; this gave the system an ability to manipulate the president’s lips and contort them to produce any word. Granted, the team was doing this in the interest of research. But the results are startling.
- Trolling is everywhere, too.
What modern parlance has labeled “trolling” started as harmless inside jokes inside internet newsgroups, and even grew into the invaluable urban myth-busting site, Snopes.com. But trolling has increasingly turned into online harassment. It is especially common among teenagers; posting rumors, threats, sexual remarks and so on has amplified the impact of “traditional” bullying and has sometimes been a contributing factor in the suicides of victims. Pew Research from October 2014 has a long list of sobering statistics: Four out of 10 people report having been harassed online; young women ages 18-24 experience significantly higher and more severe levels of harassment; no less than 92 percent of internet users agreed that the online environment allows people to be more critical of one another than they are offline.
This list could go on; much more research on the topic can be found here. But what can be done? There are, of course, a number of things people can do to diminish the impact of these internet-era realities — seeking a wider range of news sources, “unfriending” people who have a negative impact on their lives, trying a “social media detox” (many how-to suggestions exist online) and so on. But perhaps the best place to start is the simplest to do: Unplug.
And don’t forget … there’s a whole world out there.