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The battle against misinformation: Technology’s limitations revealed

Everyone can now see how sophisticated false information about Israel and Hamas has become if they’ve been checking their phones this week. As tech companies increasingly rely on artificial intelligence to combat misinformation, the situation in the Middle East highlights that technology has its limits in controlling the problems caused by technology.

Now, it’s crucial for us to grasp how major global platforms like Meta, Google, and X (formerly Twitter) decide which content to promote and what to remove. Simply saying “just trust us” isn’t enough, especially when they’re struggling to combat increasingly powerful propagandists.

It’s not like these platforms were unaware of the massive disinformation issue that couldn’t be tackled by human content moderators alone. Just two years ago, Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen spilled the beans to Congress, explaining how decisions were driven by growth and profit.

Yet, Congress is still at odds over establishing simple rules to make platforms responsible. There’s a belief that in just a year, the internet we’re familiar with will be replaced by one where the majority of content is generated by bots. And as generative AI transitions from the research lab to our online feeds and devices, one thing is clear: it’s exceptionally skilled at confidently and boldly spreading falsehoods.

Also Read: What implications Google’s Antitrust Trial will have on internet search

Everyone’s opinion is important on the matter

We should involve a broader spectrum of voices when it comes to discussing how platforms are responsible for safeguarding the health of our information world. It’s not just about including technologists, psychologists, economists, and ethicists, though they all should have a say. It’s about both the unseen individuals and the algorithms. The people who are impacted by these technologies in ways that the creators didn’t anticipate also deserve to be listened to.

The emerging field of Public Interest Technology, closely related to Public Health and Public Interest Law, is responsible for leading research and influencing discussions about how private corporations are taking over our public space. Keeping this issue in focus, this week, former President Barack Obama is visiting Harvard for a summit on the future of the internet.

Harvard Law School is about to kick off a fresh Applied Social Media Lab aimed at reinventing, reengineering, and revitalizing social media for the greater good. Simultaneously, over at the Harvard Kennedy School, Sweeney’s Public Interest Technology Lab will be unveiling, a new research tool for academics and journalists to dig into the internal Facebook documents that Haugen disclosed.

The big platforms are like impenetrable fortresses, with everything shrouded in secrecy. We see the negative outcomes, but we’re in the dark about the decision-making processes. Are the rules for content moderation consistently followed, or are there exceptions, and who gets to decide on those exceptions? How do they handle content from around the world? Are they mainly relying on advanced AI algorithms, or are they relying on people who speak English reviewing the results from Google Translate?

Internet for the public good

Considering the mystery shrouding how tech companies handle privacy, content rules, and algorithms, FBarchive was created to shed some light on the situation. Meta, which is Facebook’s parent company, conducts extensive research on its products, including Facebook, and has extensive data on how changes to their design affect things.

Haugen’s documents show that moderators had to think about something called “tradeoff budgets.” This meant that even when harmful content was spreading in places like Ethiopia or Myanmar, Meta made them figure out the money side of things before they could limit the reach of that content or remove it.

This new digital archive gives people a platform to collectively contribute context and insights on a large scale, which would be otherwise unachievable. It’s just one instance where human intelligence and technology come together, safeguarding personal privacy while helping researchers grasp the dilemmas business leaders face as they navigate their obligations to the public and their shareholders.

This is what folks in the field of public interest technology refer to as “solving problems with a focus on people.” Building an “Internet for the public good” is simply not feasible without involving the actual people who influence how the Internet functions.

Also Read: Cutting-edge AI Tool holds promise to create ‘variant-proof’ vaccines

The solutions are likely to fall short

Since it’s doubtful that Congress will intervene anytime soon, we currently need to depend on the wisdom and, honestly, the self-interest of tech company executives to come to a consensus on industry-wide rules that safeguard personal rights, our common resources, and the information environment—ultimately ensuring the protection of democracy.

Twitter used to be a sort of role model for sharing data and setting community guidelines, but that’s not the case anymore. The place to begin has been clear for a while now: much more transparency about how algorithms are developed and the process of making content decisions.

This would provide researchers, journalists, judges, community groups, and policymakers with more influence to fulfill their crucial roles in molding a vibrant public space. As we’re amazed by the capability of our new robot buddies to craft a sonnet or forecast protein folding, it’s crucial to recall that without the insight and principles that humans contribute, the solutions are likely to fall short—particularly in a time when these technologies make it incredibly easy to dehumanize one another.

Vishal Kawadkar
About author

With over 8 years of experience in tech journalism, Vishal is someone with an innate passion for exploring and delivering fresh takes. Embracing curiosity and innovation, he strives to provide an informed and unique outlook on the ever-evolving world of technology.