The Fluid Society

Infocalyps ?

Disinformation. The world is flooded with ever-increasing amounts of disinformation. According to the American technology researcher Aviv Ovadya, this could eventually cause the world to go under. He coined the term infocalyps for this purpose. The huge amount of disinformation is intended to put us on the wrong track when it comes to information. The well-known example is the algorithms of social media, which show users advertisements and messages that match his profile, with the result that many end up on extreme or violent websites or are confronted with conspiracy theories. A recent example of disinformation is the deep fake, where a known person is placed in an embarrassing situation or says things that are untrue. Using AI, technologies generate synthesized, artificial expressions or images of famous people from pieces of text, photos or videos. If this is done purely for the purpose of making films, for which the technique was originally designed, there seems little objection to this. As soon as this technique, which is increasingly coming within the consumer’s reach, is used to mislead the public about celebrities, dangerous manipulation may occur.

The risk of synthetic media techniques. The risk of these synthetic media technologies should not be underestimated. Fewer and fewer people read newspapers and more and more people receive their information only through social media. These are not objective news sources, but mainly advertising structures to sell people as efficiently as possible a range of things tailored to their profile. Just as one cannot expect objective information about the quality of food, clothing or cars from classic advertisements, one cannot expect objective information from social media either.
The real world and the digital world are increasingly mingled by intelligent digital techniques. More and more people are living through social media in their own information bubble, through algorithms tailored to their personal profile and situation, without any knowledge of other currents.

Deceptions in American elections. The latest interesting example is the US elections. Already months before the election, President Trump announced, mainly through social media, that this would be a fraudulent election due to the many postal voters. Although he neither had nor has any proof of this, he kept repeating the message via the social media for months. To this day, his followers are largely convinced that the elections were won by Trump and that major electoral fraud was committed. Despite the fact that numerous reputable newspapers and officials have indicated that the elections were fair. Because of the social media, the Trump supporters live in a totally different reality from other voters. The creepy thing about this situation is that politicians of the Trump type have an interest in manipulating the truth. And that is easier than ever, with modern technologies and social media.

How do we get out of this? It is far too simple to blame the Tech Giants. Companies like Google and Facebook are digital advertising companies that want to make money by showing consumers attractive ads that fit their profile. These companies have no aim to mislead people. Unfortunately, however, many criminals, terrorists or malicious politicians see their opportunity to use these free social media and deep-fake techniques to breed followers and tell them numerous lie stories. For sure these groups have reasons to mislead groups of people. In this way, society can become totally disrupted. The US could have come very close to total dislocation if Trump had been able to influence more government officials. It is therefore easy to understand what can happen in countries where there are less robust institutions than in the US..

Tech Giants cannot solve this. It makes no sense and is even not right to ask Tech Giants to solve these problems. These companies can be blamed for a lot of things and it is certain that they can do more to combat disinformation, but their problem is mainly that there are no standards for social media companies what is and what is not allowed. They cannot possibly be held responsible for everything their users post on social media. In one country you are not allowed to insult politicians or religious leaders, in another country you can. In one country, people are very concerned about data privacy; in other countries, that is not an issue. In some countries, it is not a problem to publish complete lies or deep-fakes; in others, there are penalties for certain lying practices. Governments themselves are struggling in almost every country with the problem of what information is and is not publicly admissible, and all governments are setting different standards and requirements.

Pandora’s digital box has been opened. It is as if, with the advent of social media, a Pandora’s box has been opened, which could lead to the aforementioned infocalypse. The question is whether we will ever beable to close that box again or whether we will be able to take adequate measures to deal with this problem. What would be desirable, first and foremost, is for objective and factually correct information to be provided to citizens. But that brings us to the question of objective information, which of course, apart from in exact sciences, does not exist. There is, however, something to be done about the provision of factual information, as in the case of the American elections. It is a bad thing when Americans are apparently no longer relying on the formal authorities when it comes to providing factual information

Review bodies should provide objective and factual information. It is desirable to establish standards on what users are allowed to publish or not to publish on social media or what requirements it should meet. Perhaps it should be stopped allowing anonymous accounts, so that it is always known who has published something. There should be a distinction between factual information, such as about the outcome of elections, and invented or opinion-forming information. Newspapers, too, often make that distinction. A distinction is also needed between publishing in closed groups, to which more freedom could apply, and in open sections of social media that everyone can see. In the end, it would mean that, as is customary with newspapers, there would be editorial boards or assessment committees for social media, with clear public standards, which would assess whether certain information is true or false or can be allowed or not and for what reason. This already happens here and there on a voluntary basis, the so-called fact checkers. The tricky thing is, of course, that you would actually like to have this at world level, because social media operate without borders, but that is where the avenging is that there is no institute at world level that can organise this.

Tackling social media at regional level. For the time being the best way of tackling this problem seems to be at regional level, so that there is no need for separate committees at each country level. That is exactly one of the things the European Commission is currently aiming for with new legislation for Tech Giants, the so-called Digital Services Act. A public consultation round is currently taking place on the draft texts of this new Act.
What is certain is that without regulation by governments, the world is indeed increasingly at risk of ending up in an information trap for malicious parties, as the example with the US shows. Sound legislation is urgently needed because techniques are developing at lightning speed. It will no longer be possible to close Pandora’s box completely, but governments can and must do everything in their power to reduce the current level of abuse and to give citizens better guarantees of objective information. In short: a digital fence around the Pandora’s box with warnings, instructions for use and severe penalties in the event of abuse.

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