Book by Cory Doctorow: “…Today, there is a widespread belief that machine learning and commercial surveillance can turn even the most fumble-tongued conspiracy theorist into a svengali who can warp your perceptions and win your belief by locating vulnerable people and then pitching them with A.I.-refined arguments that bypass their rational faculties and turn everyday people into flat Earthers, anti-vaxxers, or even Nazis. When the RAND Corporation blames Facebook for “radicalization” and when Facebook’s role in spreading coronavirus misinformation is blamed on its algorithm, the implicit message is that machine learning and surveillance are causing the changes in our consensus about what’s true.
After all, in a world where sprawling and incoherent conspiracy theories like Pizzagate and its successor, QAnon, have widespread followings, something must be afoot.
But what if there’s another explanation? What if it’s the material circumstances, and not the arguments, that are making the difference for these conspiracy pitchmen? What if the trauma of living through real conspiracies all around us — conspiracies among wealthy people, their lobbyists, and lawmakers to bury inconvenient facts and evidence of wrongdoing (these conspiracies are commonly known as “corruption”) — is making people vulnerable to conspiracy theories?
If it’s trauma and not contagion — material conditions and not ideology — that is making the difference today and enabling a rise of repulsive misinformation in the face of easily observed facts, that doesn’t mean our computer networks are blameless. They’re still doing the heavy work of locating vulnerable people and guiding them through a series of ever-more-extreme ideas and communities.
Belief in conspiracy is a raging fire that has done real damage and poses real danger to our planet and species, from epidemics kicked off by vaccine denial to genocides kicked off by racist conspiracies to planetary meltdown caused by denial-inspired climate inaction. Our world is on fire, and so we have to put the fires out — to figure out how to help people see the truth of the world through the conspiracies they’ve been confused by.
But firefighting is reactive. We need fire prevention. We need to strike at the traumatic material conditions that make people vulnerable to the contagion of conspiracy. Here, too, tech has a role to play.
There’s no shortage of proposals to address this. From the EU’s Terrorist Content Regulation, which requires platforms to police and remove “extremist” content, to the U.S. proposals to force tech companies to spy on their users and hold them liable for their users’ bad speech, there’s a lot of energy to force tech companies to solve the problems they created.
There’s a critical piece missing from the debate, though. All these solutions assume that tech companies are a fixture, that their dominance over the internet is a permanent fact. Proposals to replace Big Tech with a more diffused, pluralistic internet are nowhere to be found. Worse: The “solutions” on the table today require Big Tech to stay big because only the very largest companies can afford to implement the systems these laws demand….(More)”.