Phyllis Beveridge Nissila
The Information Apocalypse
From the down side of the brave new world of artificial Intelligence, specifically, the manipulation of information to influence and/or deceive viewers and readers, comes a growing concern over what is called the “information apocalypse“. More and more tech insiders are sharing their thoughts on this.
One such insider, Aviv Ovadya, has been speaking out.
In a recent BuzzFeed News interview, Ovadya addressed his concern on the 2016 presidential campaign and the much-publicized “fake news” surrounding it via this bot and that; this CGI and that, all seeming real to casual and/or unaware observers in a “propagandacalypse campaign” as I would put it.
Ovadya, who is the Chief Technologist at the Center for Social Media Responsibility, believes this tech campaign did much to distort the reality of what the population came/comes to believe about both politics and politicians, and depending upon one’s civic lens, the results were either very good or very bad for the nation. And the people.
But his concern transcends any one election cycle—or event. It goes to the heart of the matter, and reveals his greatest problem with its advent: people will give up accessing any news at all, not knowing who or what to trust anymore.
My own concern is that cynicism may over-ride critical thinking which then puts even more power into the hands of the information-shifters who use our apathy bred of frustration to insert more lies and distortions.
But back to Ovadya, who leaves the reader with this sobering observation—and warning: “What happens when anyone can make it appear as if anything has happened, regardless of whether or not it did?“
And his concerns are not new.
“In mid-2016, (Ovadya) realized there was something fundamentally wrong with the internet,” the article continues,”so wrong that he abandoned his work and sounded an alarm. A few weeks before the 2016 election, he presented his concerns to technologists in San Francisco’s Bay Area and warned of an impending crisis of misinformation in a presentation he titled ‘Infocalypse.’ […] At the time, it felt like we were in a car careening out of control” he says, ”and it wasn’t just that everyone was saying, ‘we’ll be fine’ — it’s that they didn’t even see the car.” (bolding mine)
Ovadya cites various ways and means tech-savvy programmers—and propagandists—can use their tools to tweak and/or obscure information.
I would add an additional concern over the resultant ability to influence minds, emotions, and civic behaviors such as voting and resolving grievances. Think bot-calls, generated here and abroad, to Congress, for one example. Think peaceful protests turned to violence, for another, via the exploitation of social media’s ability to quickly recruit “trash mobs,” you might call them, for the effort. Think hacked voting machines.
But also from my teacher lens, I have another concern that I believe is of equal if not greater significance: the growing addiction people have to Internet usage, social media in particular, that impacts not only minds and emotions but neurological functions as well.
A recent “60 Minutes” feature moderated by CNN’s Anderson Cooper entitled “Brain Hacking” addresses the physiological and psychological impact, in part.
Cooper interviews three tech insiders who explain the process of not only how social media users are easily duped by clever programmers and programs but also how, via data mining, our specific Online habits are AI analyzed and used for and/or against us to glean better sales of products we are interested in–or ‘it” predicts we could be interested in–based on our Online behavior.
I would lump political propaganda in with other products being hawked.
My writing class students will tell you how strongly I feel regarding the topic of addiction to, as I call it, “slide-by news” (that which is skimmed by swiping a finger along the information rolling by on a cell phone) where not only truncated–and/or tweaked–audios and visuals to get us adapted to “fast news” (real and/or fake) we are then more likely to be drawn away from the necessary time and effort it takes to do the needed synthesis and analysis of the information.
This aspect of the writing process is, of course, what they need to learn in order to be able to craft college level writing and pass the class.
I also share with them my concerns over shortened attention spans.
As an educator, how I hope to help counter this down side of social media and Internet news feeds starts with informing student behavior (which is also consumer behavior) that begins long before the information/product comes to view or to hearing.
I call this “mind-arming” to enable an individual to better discern real messages from fake, credible sources from non-credible. We then proceed to how to go through the process of formulating the results of careful research and analysis into the essay genre in focus.
When it comes to crafting a formal argument, I warn them about the temptation to become so emotionally wrapped up in their point of view (and they “own” their view, I assure them) that they become blinded to the opposing point of view that must be treated in the writing project so as to bolster the credibility of their view. They need to incorporate a counter-claim before their rebuttal.
Additionally, I tell them to “hold their view/thesis” loosely at first in case the credible research they must gather may cause them to amend or change their thinking. Write the introduction last, I often say, which will help you keep your mind open, your analysis, honest.
This is perhaps the hardest part of crafting a formal argument that most of my students will have to do. Indeed, the hardest part of critical thinking all of us will have to do in our own settings, be they classrooms, work sites, or city streets because the forces opposed to this can be formidable.
My concern–and effort–centers on old-fashioned, yes tedious and boring at times, critical thinking prior to the revelation of any news–fake or real and certainly during the process of comprehension.
I hope also that my students will apply this approach to analysis to other aspects of their lives as well, for this kind of instruction and mastery of college level writing serves not just the serious student but those in the know including tech insiders such as those cited above who issue warnings about the potency of technology’s influence on our very democracy–which is my focus, just now, in this post.
As Thomas Jefferson* put it, “The cornerstone of democracy rests on the foundation of an educated electorate” and more and more education–some good, some bad, and some crafted to control–is coming from the Internet as well as emanating from radio, television, and print media.
A critical part of an education in higher level thinking, then, is to be able to help students employ careful thinking which, I fear, what with the power of Internet social media and slide-by news platforms, is fast becoming old-fashioned and too time consuming for many.
Memes are fast replacing mindfulness when seven-second sound bytes and thirty-second ads, weighted with loaded language, can go right for the “lizard brain” of fight/flight/or flee fame leaving little energy for, and awareness of, the kind of study that transcends the tyranny of the urgent and leads us, hopefully, to greater wisdom in the decision-making process.
Indeed, there is little time for more careful decision-making in what is easily reduced to a crisis-to-crisis information battleground where the resultant basal instincts put us more often than not in harm’s way intellectually, psychologically, and physically, in some cases.
In this troubling political milieu I fear mostly for the young, who, due to their budding idealism and developmentally appropriate yearning to find their own causes and world views, are especially vulnerable to suggestion, to the infocalypse, and to slide-by news. And who are much more easily exploited by exploiters.
I also fear for the genuinely kind-hearted whose nature might more easily be corralled into control by shame-and guilt-based persuasion techniques–not to mention fear–by whatever “side” wants it all.
As both a citizen and a writing teacher, I fear that the nearly lost art of thoughtful analysis is intensifying the population-control potency embedded in the war of, in, and on words that we are experiencing in this twenty-first century, aided and abetted by the Internet and slide-by news platforms.
And the tech propaganda engineers, some of whom are the new campaign darlings on both sides of the political aisle, know this very well as they continue to perfect the “hidden” mechanisms (coming soon to everyone’s neighborhood via much more enhanced 5G power available through cell towers going up everywhere) whereby they can influence a largely unsuspecting and/or addicted populace ripe for deception, intimidation, and control.
HOWEVER, there is a Scripture–and an antidote– for countering not only the power of the infocalypse and the slide-by news but also any/all of the mind-controlling, emotion-grabbing, addiction-triggering power behind the power of the “bad, ugly” side of AI (which is likely “not flesh and blood“).
For this “enemy” is neither new nor stupid.
And if you think about it, he has always used the power of words.
Back there in the archetypal or real (you pick) garden called Eden, his first mechanism to tempt the couple away from their focus was the power of doubt posed as a question: “Yea, hath God said, Ye shall not eat of every tree of the garden?”
And cognitive dissonance began…
So what can we do?
To the hope of being able to counter such potent forces, as much as we may in our corner of the world and in our role, however humble, in history, consider:
1 The proverbs of Solomon son of David, king of Israel:
2 for gaining wisdom and instruction;
for understanding words of insight;
3 for receiving instruction in prudent behavior,
doing what is right and just and fair;
4 for giving prudence to those who are simple,
knowledge and discretion to the young—
5 let the wise listen and add to their learning,
and let the discerning get guidance—
6 for understanding proverbs and parables,
the sayings and riddles of the wise.
And there is a lot more help where that came from, for the open-minded as well as the open-hearted.
Here is another hopeful and helpful check-and-balance when it comes to discerning the spirit behind the works, the truth behind the scenes, the “invisible power” generating what is, what was, and what is to come:
For God has not given us a spirit of fear, but of power and of love and of a sound mind.
Join me in the quest?
While we yet may?
*Concerning the current “credibility of Thomas Jefferson,” I wonder what the reader’s very first and/or “gut” reaction to merely reading his name and knowing that he is a “dead White guy” was? I mean, what reaction may have been triggered in this specific infocalyptic, slide-by news era, when all too often, information, real or fake, has been reduced to either/or, good/evil, all-or-nothing thinking only?