AT A CROSSROADS

AT A CROSSROADS

We live in an age where information is much more accessible. What started as a DARPA project has now evolved to be a powerful tool that our very lives depend on it.
I am talking about the Internet, of course.
Social media sites have become almost necessary because people can now communicate and connect in ways unlike in a manner never seen before, no matter where you are on this planet.
The likes of Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram kept getting better and better as the years went by (and they are still improving).
They say information is power, and they’re probably right. Technology companies are growing at a crazy rate. I mean, it only took Facebook less than four years for it to be valued at more than a billion dollars. And billions of smartphone users across the world are addicted, almost hopelessly, to their devices.

How did this happen? Well, efforts to monetize these companies made them take this direction. Monetization experts designed these tools to keep the users engaged on them for as long as possible. If you have noticed, we do not actually pay to use these tools. Most social media apps, almost all, are free. It is advertisers who are paying for it, for showing us their ads.
Artificial intelligence figures out what appears on our news feed, which should strongly appeal to the users’ interests to prolong the engagement period. And the more we stare at the screen, the more money they make, second by second. After all, they say in the Silicon Valley, where most tech companies originate, that if the product is free, you are the product.

These companies are competing for their users’ attention. This is the commodity being sold to the advertisers and what is making these companies so damn rich. In truth, the actual product is much deeper and much sinister, The change, that slow, slight, almost undetectable change in your habits and perceptions.

There is no better place that businesses can place their ads than on social media sites. It is the best place to calculate the certainty of success of the sale of their products. To do these calculations, gigantic amounts of data are needed. The more an algorithm gets data on us, the better it becomes at doing its job. And the cycle keeps going on and on. One way to get the data is “surveillance capitalism,” where the tech companies profit from extensive tracking and data gathering of the users. Every single action that we do with the devices is being monitored, measured, and recorded

The algorithms have been intentionally made to be more persuasive, and its designers undertook human psychology classes. The target, in this case, is to program the human psyche itself by reverse engineering what elicits responses from human beings.
Take, for example, photo tagging. If someone tags me in a photo, a notification pops up, and it is almost irresistible for me to check it out. On checking it, I will probably comment on it, and the person who did the tagging will reply to my comment, and the conversation will continue, thus increasing the engagement time. Do you see? Subtle manipulation. It is now known that real-world emotions and behavior can be affected by this kind of influence, all without the users’ awareness.

These algorithms were not designed with the well-being of the users in mind. Human psychology has been hacked in a deep and extreme sense, and now we are starting to see the results. Social media takes over most users’ sense of dignity and identity (especially members of Generation Z). They want to appear the way they look in a filtered photo. They are addicted to short-term pleasure signals, such as many likes, hearts, and thumb-ups, and they conflate this with the truth.

When someone gets negative comments on social media, some think of committing suicide, and some do it. This short-term pleasure leaves one emptier and more desperate than they were before, so they keep going back for more, and the cycle viciously continues. Their relationships with family, neighbors, and friends get damaged, and they make worse life decisions.

Computer processing power has gone up a trillion times in the last seventy years. Nothing else has improved that drastically. Within this period, human physiology has not changed at all.
The present human mind and body are more than half a million years old, and it is interacting with technology rapidly evolving. Tech companies have massive server rooms filled with computers that are interconnected and running complex programs, ranging from simple algorithms to complicated ones, like intelligence itself.
In algorithm design, the computer is given a goal state, which is a target that must be achieved, and it does that by itself (machine learning). It gets better and better over time, and very few people understand (though not fully) what the computer does to achieve the goal. Thus, we have kind of lost control because it’s them controlling us now.

People talk of a dystopian future where AI will take over the world and kill people. We are looking out for that moment when AI will ‘cross the singularity line’ and become smarter and overwhelm human strength. But there is this time where AI overwhelms human weakness, overpowering human nature. And it has already passed. This is the root of all the bad things happening on the Internet.

Users are getting personalized social media feeds, different from all others, giving each person a biased paradigm. For example, just search on google ‘climate change is’. The results will be different, depending on where you live. The autocomplete might fill it as ‘the greatest threat’ or ‘a hoax’ or ‘political.’ Each person, even close friends, and relatives, might have a completely different set of facts and reality from one another.
Everyone in your news feed sounds like you, and so you get the false sense that they all agree with you. In this state, you are easily manipulated. You might be given a choice to choose the friends and links to follow and the pages to like, but it is all a deception. Given that this is happening at scale, it is very hard to deal with information that contradicts your worldview. At this point, you cease to be a constructive, objective individual

This is where polarization and antagonism come from. At the cost of increasing engagement time, people are becoming more hateful and divided.
Remember, the goal here is to keep people looking at the screens for a longer time; that’s it. But we are now paying the price.
The algorithms can recommend a fake theory millions of times to get more people watching. The problem is that people actually believe these theories, for example, the flat-earth theory. They will keep implanting people with more false ideas because they are getting smarter and smarter.
An MIT study suggests that fake news spreads six times faster on Twitter than real news because fake news appeals more to one’s paradigm. A system that biases towards false information has been created, not because we want it that way, but because it makes more money.
In this context, the truth is boring.
Just consider the misinformation about coronavirus that we have seen online. From drinking more water will flush it out, to even the government planning it. Many people still believe it is a rumor and are blaming 5G, going ahead to destroy 5G cell towers. Fake news is so magnified, and it isn’t easy to distinguish it from the truth.

Imagine this very powerful persuasive tool in the hands of an authoritarian. To control the masses, they can use Facebook or any other popular social media site. It is super easy to find online conspiracy theory groups and feed them more false theories, and the algorithms recommend them to more people.
Governments around the world are weaponizing social media, leading to extensive offline dreary consequences. Horrible human rights abuses happening in Myanmar stem from hate speech on Facebook. Bad state actors used Facebook posts to change public opinion and incite violence against the Rohingya Muslims. Riots caused by political discord sowed among social media groups are getting more frequent. This is done by influential political actors who want to change theoutcome of an election in their favor, and there is no better tool than the persuasiveness of social media. This is a major assault on democracy. We have less control over who we are and what we believe. The chasm is growing wider and wider.

A recent example of the product of online incitement and the forthwith chaos as a result

These tools are destabilizing and eroding the fabric of society. It is happening everywhere. You might have heard of Cambridge Analytica and people alleging that the 2016 US election was hacked, but it was simply third-party manipulation. The social media tools, such as the recommendation engines, were used only for a nefarious purpose. It is a warfare over the Internet by sowing discord and making stable nations implode from the ensuing chaos. Everyone has their own set of facts and sees no need for compromise.

The problem of fake news is making people scratch their heads. Even the people who came up with the tools seem to have no clue how to go about this. The stakes are very high here, including the danger of civil war and failing to deal with climate change, culminating in civilization collapse. We need to agree on what’s true and what’s not and put aside our differences.

There is no harm in watching one more video or reading extra Facebook posts. In fact, there is no harm in this technology at all. What is concerning is this tech’s ability to bring out the worst in society and amplify it. The amplified worseness in society is the existential threat. All the problems witnessed come from people and not the algorithms. The companies have to take more responsibility to mitigate these problems because they knowingly and willingly exploited a vulnerability in human psychology to make themselves mountains of money.

Technology is great, and it has improved our lives, no doubt. There is no problem with companies making money. However, governments could come up with laws to regulate the use and access of data. Also, they could introduce a data tax on the companies based on the data assets they have to limit the amount of data they gather. The more data they have on us, the more the tax they pay.
This mindset of profit at all costs destroys the planet and the people, and stringent rules are needed on corporations to prevent them from causing extensive damage in the name of profit.

Most importantly, these technologies can be changed and are simply a product of human choice. Tech companies can abandon the attention-mining business model and create a new one. The code is not cast in stone. Though it might sound impossible, collective will and unity are the panaceas. The sooner this conversation starts, the better. The question is, are these companies willing to admit liability and take action?

Turn off notifications for social media apps, and uninstall those that you feel are unnecessary. Try to limit the time spent on the apps. Always choose the YouTube videos you watch instead of just following the recommendations. Of utmost importance, before sharing information, do factchecking, consider the source. That little bit of extra Google won’t hurt. Try to have some empathy and tolerate people with dissenting views, since sometimes you are the one who is probably on the wrong side of the argument. Parents should be very keen on restricting screen time for children, especially young teenagers. Beware of the problems facing humanity at this moment. And everything you are doing online, they are watching!

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