A.I., TikTok And The Moral Panic Trap
We're Already Dumb, We Don't Need Robots To Help
I am a skeptic by nature. It’s just who I am. I don’t try to be a kneejerk contrarian on things because honestly, that can be as boring as running along with the pack. But I confess that when so many people are yelling “zig,” I have a tendency to look into “zag.”
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So in the last few months when I have seen concerns rising about how artificial intelligence, deepfakes, and apps like TikTok can be used to spread disinformation and how it represents a Bold New Threat that has to be dealt with, my immediate reaction is: Ehhhhh, I don’t know.
To give some background on my point of view, I spent over a decade on the frontlines of the misinformation wars. I was part of the team that launched Media Matters for America in 2004 and I was there through multiple election cycles, until early 2017. And I have to say, combined with my experience as an observer of American politics since about the early 1990s, that forms the foundation of why I am skeptical of how scared we should be of the new, new thing.
It wasn’t an A.I. chatbot that convinced millions of people that President Barack Obama was a Kenyan socialist secret agent. It wasn’t a deepfake that led millions to believe there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq — and who continued to push that myth years after the WMD threat had been debunked. It wasn’t a viral TikTok meme that got millions of voters convinced that Bill and Hillary Clinton were an elite pair of assassins, taking out everyone who stood in their way.
We were already very dumb, collectively, before the current era of technological marvels and we’re always going to have a base level of stupidity. Especially in politics.
That doesn’t mean these new things aren’t concerning. A lot of A.I.-generated imagery convincingly mimics real life, and there are true concerns that China is datamining TikTok and that the platform can spread harmful lies in the blink of an eye.
But my gut feeling is that our desire to legislate in response to these kinds of threats often does more harm than good, or is ultimately overblown fearmongering.
I can remember the 1980s, when wide swaths of America were utterly convinced that Judas Priest and Dungeons and Dragons were a gateway vector leading millions of American kids into lives of devil worship and child sacrifice. I certainly remember how video games were supposed to turn an entire generation of myself and cohorts into brain dead, dumb zombies or a bunch of callous mass shooters all plotting the next Columbine.
And rap music. Gangsta rap was going to destroy the American way of life and 2 Live Crew had to be stopped. Just like a generation before had panic attacks about Elvis Presley and the Beatles leading young women into sex-drenched depravity.
Not only does the historical context of moral panics give me pause, but at the same time - and I confess this is a little more nebulous - I am eternally skeptical of ideas and notions that have so much bipartisan support.
Democrats and Republicans both calling for some kind TikTok regulation immediately reminds me of the bipartisan consensus that Something Must Be Done About Iraq. When the political parties agree on things, it always raises an alarm bell with me.
This technology is new and new technology is always scary. People once thought electrical lines coming into the home would be a menace. But we need to find a way to balance true concerns about the downsides of these advances, along with legislation and regulation that broadly addresses these concerns (data privacy laws yes, banning TikTok no), instead of a bunch of nonsensical scaremongering that five to ten years from now will make us wonder, “What the hell were we thinking?”
The moral panic is also overshadowing the possible upsides of these technologies. I truly believe that A.I. has the potential to use computer logic and processing to make connections we could have never imagined before, and those connections can help to spark further human creativity and understanding. Simultaneously, we have seen brilliant progressive voices emerge with viral content on platforms like TikTok — pushing ideas and concepts that have been declared dead on arrival by the mainstream media.
I am concerned about stifling these possibilities and leaving the future once again in the hands of the powers that be, who have done so much to screw things up.
I’m not a utopian. Every advancement is never a dream scenario and the upsides can be an utter mess verging on disaster. But that is life and that is humanity.
We were dumb long before the machines were smart enough to fool us. Maybe we will be fine.
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