As we are continuing to be reminded, social media is a powerful force. It has given individuals a powerful voice and empowered communities to stand up to governments, oppression, and a range of social issues. While we have been made keenly aware of the benefits of social media, we are continually reminded of late to the downsides. Downsides which many never saw coming, and in line with the categories name, have the potential to for negative social disruption.
All one has to do is look at the last election here in the United States to fully understand the scope of social media to sway public opinion and, in a worst-case scenario, create mass division within a people group. I think it is safe to assume every election here on out will be battled on the field of social media.
While social media platforms want to remain unregulated, and more or less uncontrolled, if we dig beneath the surface of how social media platforms can play to the human psyche we can argue that gaming the social media system can actually lead to control of a people if we aren’t careful. The most worrying bits of information coming to light is the ways that computer systems (bots) have been used maliciously to spread misinformation and ultimately influence people in more ways than they will be willing to admit.
It is now abundantly clear citizens of another country created algorithms to exploit social media in a way that disrupted the election process. How much this exploitation of social media influenced, the election is unclear, but now that we have seen these tactics emerge they are no doubt here to stay.
A more recent example is how after the tragedy in Florida as bots flooded social media to fuel fire of the gun debate. The goal seems simply to continue to spread information that is divisive. This idea is further corroborated by this recent article in the Wall St. Journal about how these Russian influenced accounts (and bots) were refining their tactics to see how divisive they could be within the American public.
An analysis of 221,641 tweets The Wall Street Journal was able to find from the now-blocked users shows that before their election activity, they attempted to incite chaos, fear, and outrage about fictitious events, with success that at times spilled into the real world.
The Journal’s analysis included messages posted by 2,170 Russian-controlled accounts. Sometimes they worked alone, spreading news, chatting about politics or popular culture and retweeting others. Other times, dozens of the accounts, even hundreds, flocked around a single message.
While I am pretty certain I don’t follow any bots on Twitter, it is interesting to see how fast a central message or theme can go viral and be retweeted or commented on by the vast majority of people I follow, who do tend to be more liberal leaning than conservative. I noticed very specific bits of news or themes about Trump would go viral very quickly within my timeline and have most people commenting on the same thing. Twitter, in particular, is a mechanism that is utilized that spreads information faster than any medium we have ever seen before.
While in many cases there are still humans behind these initiatives, what is more, frightening to think about is how humans can automate this and train artificial intelligence systems to be malicious in their attempt to be divisive. I’ve seen a few friends in my network, who I appreciate as big-picture thinkers, discuss this coming war with AI systems as one of the more disturbing immediate realities with this technology.
What may be even more concerning than humans training AI systems is when those systems can adapt and function on their own. Perhaps more like a malicious virus that understands how to manipulate humans via social media on its own. I’m fond of saying the future is going to be weird and things like this only enforce how weird it will be.
The big question in my mind is how we will defend against this? Will we be able to create AI’s that can attack the malicious AI’s? Perhaps we can create bots that attack and disprove fake news? How will Twitter and Facebook combat this when any reactionary decisions likely have been made after the damage has been done.
This is one of the more important narratives to keep an eye on, and watch unfold. Social media is perhaps much more powerful and disruptive than any realized.