From The Dark Ages to The Jet Age and Back to An Even Darker Age — A.I Ethics I.

Victor Olufemi
5 min readAug 19, 2022

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Disinformation

Author: Olufemi Victor Tolulope.

Innovations and intelligent ideas brought us to where we are today. Breakthroughs in diverse fields, and cures to several diseases, it’s as though technology came as a supernatural gift over the years.

The world today is driven by technology: autonomous machines and intelligent systems. A.I drives key decisions in man’s day-to-day life; It tells you the best route to take on mobile maps, recommends the videos to watch, what to buy and where to buy it, A.I curates and pulls up the news for you to read, and even helps you navigate through the endless social media scrolling, so you can be well engaged. A.I filters billions of results when you leverage a search engine.

One could argue that man’s life would have been much harder without these intelligent systems to navigate in his day to day. However, as technology advances, we see several challenges with these intelligent systems and how they’ve been used unethically to cause intelligent deception.

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In 2016, it was reported that Russian trolls used Facebook to organize two opposite sides of a protest. Both parties came out to protest with the mindset to fight for what they support, but it was all a sham, a setup, and a falsely instigated expostulation. The whole operation was estimated to have cost the instigators a mere token of $200. (RYAN, 2017)

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We also now have clear evidence that Russians interfered in the 2016 United states election by reaching millions of social media users, fabricating articles and spreading disinformation. (Wikipedia, 2022) There were strategic misinformation operations planted in Africa by trolls. The people behind this operation engaged in a number of deceptive tactics including using fake accounts to manage several pages posing as non-governmental organizations and blogs. (Alex & Luke, 2020)

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Disinformation travels through the trumpet of amplification, it moves gradually from an anonymous source to the professional media. We saw far back in 2014 how Fox News bought into the #EndFathersDay hoax: a trick anti-feminists on 4chan played out to trick people into thinking feminists were rallying on Twitter against Father’s Day meanwhile they were a bunch of fake accounts. Fox News was a victim of this trick, buying into the hoax, and accusing feminists of trying to end Father’s Day. (AMANDA, 2014)

Disinformation is terrible, in fact, it is worse than ignorance. Disinformation shakes the democratic foundations of our societies and threatens people’s physical and psychological health. Psychologically, disinformation affects people starting with anxiety, then confusion which then leads to violence and social tensions.

Although disinformation didn’t just start today, people have been spreading rumors and misleading information since forever, what changed? What made it worse? One may ask.

In today’s age, most gen z’s use social media as their news source, social media is filled with all sorts of feeds as you scroll; emotional posts, economic news, jokes, memes, and all sorts. There’s no control over what you receive in your feed, an algorithm makes the choice of what you see since it would be impossible to see all the posts from everyone. These algorithms are primarily designed to keep the user engaged and scrolling through the app.

An ethical issue with most of these recommendation systems is that they focus on short-term metrics. The fundamental business model remains to manipulate people’s behavior and monopolize their time. Asides from humans, these recommendation systems also greatly contribute to the spread of false news as it keeps recommending it to maximize the short-term metric.

The likes of GPT-3 combined with GANs can be used to create false and compelling information with ease that exactly looks like a naturally created human version. The images below are computer-generated images; these people do not exist.

Computer-generated photos.

A lot has been said concerning disinformation, but what can we do about it? I have highlighted some points below.

  1. Keep perspective

The goal of disinformation is to disorient us and weaken our trust in institutions, so you’ll definitely want to keep an eye out for that.

2. Practice good social media habit

Some folks believe everything they see on social media, they forget that anyone can make up anything and post, it’s good practice to take a pause to check the facts or confirm the source, than just outrightly believe everything. A good social media habit is to verify the source and authenticity of the information before resharing.

3. Strengthen institutions

Institutions such as Journalism, Education and universities, and non-partisan government departments should be strengthened to help combat this challenge.

4. Treat disinformation as a cybersecurity problem

We’ve seen in the past how trolls have strategically used disinformation to cause violence, hate, and panic. Treating disinformation as a cybersecurity problem would help people see it as a serious issue.

5. Build verification tools

This has been a long-lasting challenge; AI has always had lesser people working on verification tools. We have more researchers working on GANs than those working on distinguishing human generated from computer-generated media. It is as though researchers build more weapons than shields. It’s high time we started thinking the other way around.

6. Responsible design and use.

Responsible design and use of technology cannot be overemphasized, even though there’s still much to be done, many tech companies are already implementing responsible designs in their products. Facebook implemented a feature on WhatsApp that tells you when a post has been forwarded many times and also disallowed forwarding to more than 5 number of groups.

Open AI’s DALL∙E 2 — An A.I system that can create realistic images from a description in natural language was built with safety mitigations preventing harmful image generations, making it hard to misuse.

Pinterest restricted some pins such that only verified health institutions could make pins on vaccine-related matters.

Creating ways to discourage malicious use of technology should be a goal, and it is of utmost importance as we advance technology.

References

Alex, H., & Luke, H. (2020, March 13). Russian-led troll network based in west Africa uncovered. Retrieved from The Guardian: https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2020/mar/13/facebook-uncovers-russian-led-troll-network-based-in-west-africa

AMANDA, M. (2014, June 16). Fox News Buys Into the #EndFathersDay Hoax. Retrieved from Slate: https://slate.com/human-interest/2014/06/endfathersday-is-a-hoax-fox-news-claims-feminists-want-to-get-rid-of-father-s-day.html

Rachel, T. (2020, February). Practical Data Ethics. Retrieved from Data ethics: https://ethics.fast.ai

RYAN, L. (2017, November 1). How Russia Used Facebook To Organize 2 Sets Of Protesters. Retrieved from npr: https://www.npr.org/2017/11/01/561427876/how-russia-used-facebook-to-organize-two-sets-of-protesters

Wikipedia. (2022, July 30). Russian interference in the 2016 United States elections. Retrieved from Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Russian_interference_in_the_2016_United_States_elections

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