“And increasingly, we become so secure in our bubbles that we start accepting only information, whether it’s true or not, that fits our opinions, instead of basing our opinions on the evidence that is out there.” (President Obama, farewell address)
Forget about Putin, climate change deniers, and fake news. The greatest threat to our republic today is the ubiquitous algorithm. Read on . . .
As a term, algorithms sound about as important as trapezoids, i.e. mathematics that have no relation to our lives. In reality however, they run the Internet. They’re our online eyes and ears, controlling how we get and share information. For that reason, it’s vitally important that they remain objective and show the same painted canvas to all of us — liberal, conservative, man, woman, child, Christian, Muslim, Jew.
We can have our own opinions about information, but the facts that algorithms drive to your doorstep must offer unbiased truths. Today however, they don’t. Too many widely used apps, such as Facebook and Google, employ algorithms that flood our news feeds or searches with half-truths and history retold to fit our world view. They analyze our interests and searches and then share alternative facts to our liking. They’re the vehicles driving propaganda in ways we’ve never seen. It’s artificial intelligence (AI) run amok.
Any crackpot can go online and search for links that support their conspiracy theories. Any president can deny facts that place him or her in a bad light. An algorithm is much more dangerous because it slyly brings information to us that we didn’t request. That makes it seem all the more real. It shocks us, enrages our sense of justice. It incites us to act. That’s what led to Pizzagate, in which a shooter entered a Washington D.C. pizzeria to liberate a fictitious child abuse ring run by Hillary Clinton. It’s how NBA star Kyle Irving came out with his belief that the earth is flat.
Personalized algorithms aren’t about truths. They present fact as fiction and fiction as fact side by side until we don’t know what to believe anymore. Sure Trump and his policies may be divisive, but algorithms expand the chasm between opposing sides by using personal information to cater content to our own beliefs as opposed to reality. Everyone gets concrete proof that what they believe is right. That’s because the only stories they see state that they are.
Did you see that paid protesters were bused to demonstrations against Trump? Surely, you must know about death panels that came with The Affordable Care Act? How about those phony ballots, papal endorsements, and illegal immigrant votes in our recent presidential election? None of these stories are true, but algorithms helped spread them like wildfire by putting them in front of the people most likely to read and share them. When you reach the point in which you can question photographic evidence of attendance at Trump’s inauguration as half-full or half-empty, you know you have a problem.
This is a wake-up call to all of us. Big brother is not a literary figure anymore. It’s disguised as an algorithm that shares with you a new world order based on where you go, what you buy, who you talk to and how you act online. It helps drive your decisions in your daily life while filtering the lens of your reality.
President Obama, who for several years during his presidency had to combat online stories (and Donald Trump) claiming his birth certificate was fake, saw the writing on the wall. During his second term, past the point of courting popularity, he called for a report concerning the advance of algorithms. Stephen Hawking gets it too. He told the BBC that artificial intelligence (AI), the engine behind algorithms, “could spell the end of the human race.” Elon Musk similarly warned that the impact of AI could be catastrophic due to inherent dangers in being able to “ask a question and instantly get an answer from Google and other things.”
Don’t get me wrong here. A lot of good comes from objective algorithms. They make our lives simpler, more efficient, and in many ways happier. They eliminate online noise, helping us focus on the best options; giving us evidence that supports our decisions. After all, if 80 percent of the visitors at a certain hotel recommend it, chances are we will enjoy it too.
But at some point there needs to be a line drawn in the sand that algorithms can’t cross. Personal information must remain separate from objective news. Facts must remain facts. We can’t have algorithms leading to the distribution of a fake news story that touches off a Twitter confrontation between nuclear powers in the Middle East, as happened in late 2016. The planet doesn’t have the time to waste assigning climate change as a Chinese conspiracy as opposed to the real global threat it poses to our way of life.
Want to test the alternate reality you’re given online? Try this simple experiment with a friend. Have both of you ask Google for information about wildebeests or Jack Black or deep-friend Twinkies on your device. Whereas you’d expect to see identical lists of resources in order of relevance and source reliability, what you get is a list organized according to other sites you visited and searches you made. My Twinkie search will never deliver the same results as yours. We live in separate worlds.
Leading social media apps perform the same way. Open two different Facebook accounts with different likes and friends and discover opposing realities. It might seem harmless enough, until you realize that 62 percent of Americans today get their news from social media; 44 percent from Facebook (more than 1.8 billion people total around the world). Having an audience, the equivalent to almost one third of the world’s population, is not to be taken lightly. Yet Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg did just that by denying for months that the fake news on Facebook, spread by his app’s algorithms, had influenced the presidential election and countless individual beliefs. The impact of these works of fiction can’t really be measured, so we will never truly know their level of impact.
In his farewell address, President Obama shared this quote from Atticus Finch in “To Kill a Mockingbird:” “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view…until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.” Algorithms can’t do that. They can only predict what it might feel like for you. So while we as people can rise to a level of understanding and personal growth, algorithms will just continue to crunch numbers. That is not the human experience, nor can it ever be. We talk about intolerance for the suppression of free thought. Well that’s exactly what unregulated personalized algorithms threaten to do.
We’re at a crossroads. If we continue down the path we’re on, these manipulative algorithms will render news and facts meaningless. We’ve seen how a world without facts can impact countries. Remember Nazi Germany? Globally, we have countless examples of people rising to power who create an alternate reality that turns freedom of the press into state-controlled propaganda. As history has shown us, such actions tend to end in wars both locally and in the last century worldwide. Our current situation is scarier though, because instead of a renegade country or leader fighting against world powers, we’re creating renegade truth in which the world fights itself. Try sleeping at night with that fact in a nuclear age.
Simply put, we’re sailing in uncharted waters here. Instead of right and wrong, we’re leaving ourselves with lies and mistrust. Is this what we want to teach children? Is this how we should govern? How do we thrive in an environment that tells the ignorant, the prejudice, the uneducated, and the angry that they’re right? If you give these people the ammunition they seek, they will arm themselves and go to war for their beliefs.
Governments aren’t meant to be the arbiters of truth, but they’re supposed to uphold them. Institutions such as the Freedom of the Press Foundation, the Reporters’ Committee for Freedom of the Press and others can help expose governmental mismanagement and corruption, but they cannot solve the problem alone. We as individuals need to do that.
Historically, we’ve kept fact deniers in check, seeing them as a fringe and misguided collective clinging to falsifications that support their agendas. But now fact deniers are creeping, indeed ascending into the most powerful positions in our nation, which impact all of our lives: a climate change denier running the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA); a science and evolution denier running the Department of Education. What’s next? An alien abductee or a flat-earther running NASA? If we allow this to become the norm, then we’ve failed as people and a nation.
Do you want to live in that world? Do you want to raise children in that world? Do you want your life’s endeavors and contributions to be diminished by that world? There’s that slogan about truth and justice being the American way. I would expand that thought and say it’s the human way and we must preserve it with all of our might, right now, before it’s too late.