In an open letter published in 2015, Tim Berners-Lee, the founder of the World Wide Web mentions that a “new set of gatekeepers” were able to control the spread of false information. The following year, the spread of fake news became more rampant that even established American media sources like The NY Times, CNN, NBC and others were accused of spreading them.
A Balance Between Profit and Social Responsibility
Berners-Lee warned about the need for large social media websites, and internet platforms of all sizes to be regulated with the aim of preventing the “weaponization” of the internet. He was concerned that conspiracy theories and other unsubstantiated concepts have been trending on social media platforms, which in turn “stoke social tensions,” along with interference in elections, and the theft of massive amounts of personal data. Berners-Lee doubted that companies making a lot of money from paid posts would properly address these problems without any external force or reason.
Berners-Lee founded the World Wide Web Foundation, also called the Web Foundation, which helps to keep the World Wide Web “as a global public good and a basic right, ensuring that everyone can access and use it freely”.
To reach these objectives, the Web Foundation is involved in “free and open web” and “Open Democracy.” He believes that government intervention is required to keep internet giants accountable, and help keep social objectives in line. He also raised concerns that these social media platforms are using their users’ data without balancing these with the individual’s online rights. In 2008, Berners-Lee discussed the need for a website labeling system based on the trustworthiness of its content. The BBC quoted Berners-Lee saying, “There needed to be new systems that would give websites a label for trustworthiness once they had been proved reliable sources.”
In a recent interview by Bold Business with Yaël Eisenstat, the founder of Kilele Global, she says that “We are going to have to stand up and start thinking more seriously about what are the ethics of how we use the online world.”
This was further emphasized in an article published in Deloitte Consulting stating that companies should have an enhanced role in the responsible use of new technologies.
There are new technologies which have been described as “disruptive” which have created a massive paradigm shift in the industries where they are used. Examples of these technologies include the iPod, iPhone, email, USB flash drives, cloud computing, the Internet-of-Things, and many more. Viewed from a software engineering standpoint, disruptive technology is like any other big change in an industry. It creates changes in workflow, forces the users to change their perspective, as well as focus. In doing so, there will be advantages, and there will be unforeseen disadvantages and side-effects.
For social media, one unforeseen side effect is that of an “echo chamber.” Social media algorithms, especially for Facebook and Google, create an isolation bubble for the user. His personal preferences are used by the algorithm to show him posts, links, images, videos and music that match his preferences. This means that the controversial posts, which are against his beliefs, are not shown to him. Being on social media is like talking to yourself.
It is easy to verify information on the internet, and yet, people believe what they read without checking facts. Even as more people get their information from the internet, they also no longer read other sources. The result is people believe even the most far-fetched ideas.
Before the internet, journalists were considered as the gatekeepers of information. The French called them “the fourth estate,” due to the power that they hold as indirect influencers on society. In contrast, the other three were direct influencers on the political system: the executive, legislative and the judiciary. People trusted the news because they verified their sources. With the internet, information has to be verified first to be believed. Unfortunately, if something is on their newsfeed, people would believe it without any verification.
Weaponizing the internet
Weaponizing the internet has already happened, and the gatekeepers were caught unaware. This was evident during the 2016 US Presidential election. The echo chambers for the individual social media accounts held, and small ideas and fake news were posted on timelines.
Another aspect of social media that contributes to the proliferation of fake news is that there are a lot of fake accounts and fake news websites brimming with click-bait titles.
There have been various instances when the exact same source was used as proof against what the material was stating. Or, it was partially quoted and put in the wrong context.
Facebook and Google have been waging a battle against fake news sites ever since. Websites and online apps have also been developed to double check sources and weed out fake news sites. Berners-Lee believed that internet companies should be regulated and monitored. In a cruel twist of fate, it was the giant internet companies that became the gatekeepers and their platforms were used by other entities to propagate fake news in order to influence events in their favor. Without constant fact-checking and double-checking, the same people responsible for fake news and the double-speak of propaganda are getting away with undermining the integrity of the online news.
Independent AI and Other Technologies
Another concern about new technology is artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning. In a recent development, Google announced that their DeepMind AI has won over a human. What is different about the approach used with DeepMind is that it is entirely self-taught. DeepMind taught itself how to play Go by playing against itself countless number of times. The important takeout about Go is that even experienced players cannot say at any point of the game if they are winning. This concept cannot be taught to the AI, hence it had to learn on its own how to determine if it is winning, and how to find a winning line. The developers are in agreement that they do not know how DeepMind won the games, and they also do not have any idea how DeepMind thinks.
What is in question is if this is the type of AI that should be driving an autonomous car. Critics and analysts find it hard to trust a self-driving car where they don’t know the rules it follows or the way it thinks and weighs driving decisions.
As an aside, each car’s AI will have to be independent of other car’s AI in order to be able to make quick decisions. In which case, it is possible for one car to have a different rule of behavior from any other car.
Again, this is a disruptive technology which is moving at a rapid pace, and where the first autonomous vehicles are already on the road without any guidelines or government regulation which codifies the limits or the expected behavior of the vehicle.
There is another significant technology which will soon prove to be very disruptive. Blockchain technology has already outgrown its original use as a ledger for bitcoin. Even with several major cryptocurrency already trading, the main effects of this technology will be in transaction record keeping via ledgers made of blockchain. Even as it is already entering the mainstream, and has shown to be a stable ledger platform for financial institutions and transactions of every kind, the technology itself will upend economic models once it is accepted as an everyday transaction platform, where the creation of the blockchains are tokenized and becomes an accepted conduit for conversion between cryptocurrency and fiat money.
Even now, there have been rumors and circumstantial evidence of fraud in bitcoin and cryptocurrency transactions due to manipulations by owners of big chunks of bitcoin (called “whales”), on top of instances where bitcoin accounts in exchanges have been hacked.
Every new technology is like a double edged sword, it can cut both ways. It is not the technology per se which is wrong. Instead, the same technology can easily be used for both good and bad.