Essay by James R. Ostrowski: “…This dystopian fantasy, we are told, is what the average social media feed looks like today: a war zone of high-tech disinformation operations, vying for your attention, your support, your compliance. Journalist Joseph Bernstein, in his 2021 Harper’s piece “Bad News,” attributes this perception of social media to “Big Disinfo” — a cartel of think tanks, academic institutions, and prestige media outlets that spend their days spilling barrels of ink into op-eds about foreign powers’ newest disinformation tactics. The technology’s specific impact is always vague, yet somehow devastating. Democracy is dying, shot in the chest by artificial intelligence.

The problem with Big Disinfo isn’t that disinformation campaigns aren’t happening but that claims of mind-warping, AI-enabled propaganda go largely unscrutinized and often amount to mere speculation. There is little systematic public information about the scale at which foreign governments use deepfakes, bot armies, or generative text in influence ops. What little we know is gleaned through irregular investigations or leaked documents. In lieu of data, Big Disinfo squints into the fog, crying “Bigfoot!” at every oak tree.

Any machine learning researcher will admit that there is a critical disconnect between what’s possible in the lab and what’s happening in the field. Take deepfakes. When the technology was first developed, public discourse was saturated with proclamations that it would slacken society’s grip on reality. A 2019 New York Times op-ed, indicative of the general sentiment of this time, was titled “Deepfakes Are Coming. We Can No Longer Believe What We See.” That same week, Politico sounded the alarm in its article “‘Nightmarish’: Lawmakers brace for swarm of 2020 deepfakes.” A Forbes article asked us to imagine a deepfake video of President Trump announcing a nuclear weapons launch against North Korea. These stories, like others in the genre, gloss over questions of practicality…(More)”.