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Closing the Stanford Internet Observatory will edge the US towards the end of democracy | John Naughton

Closing the Stanford Internet Observatory will edge the US towards the end of democracy | John Naughton

For most of us, the word “medium” means “a channel or system of communication, information, or entertainment”. For a biologist, though, the term means something rather different: “the nutrient solution in which cells or organs are grown”. But there are times when the two conceptions fuse, and we’re living in one such time now.

How come? All developed societies have a media ecosystem, the information environment in which they exist. Until comparatively recently that ecosystem was dominated by print technology. Then, in the mid-20th century, broadcast (few-to-many) technology arrived, first as radio and later as television, which, from the 1950s to the 1990s, was the dominant communication medium of the age. And then came the internet and the technologies it has spawned, of which the dominant one is the world wide web.

Each of these pre-eminent technologies shaped the societies that they enveloped. Print shaped the world for four and a half centuries, followed by broadcast, which ruled for 50 years or so. None of this would have surprised a biologist, who would see human culture as something that grows in an enveloping nutrient. Change the nutrient and you change the culture that grows in it.

We’re now early into the period of internet dominance of our media ecosystem and have no real idea of how that will play out in the long term. But some clues are beginning to emerge. One relates to the idea of public opinion. Until Gallup invented the opinion poll in 1935, there was in effect no way of measuring what the public as a whole thought about anything. For the next 70 years, improved polling methods and the rise of broadcast television meant that it was possible to get a general idea of what public opinion might be on political or social issues.

The arrival of the internet, and particularly the web in the 1990s, started the process of radical fragmentation that has brought us to where we are now: instead of public opinion in the Gallup sense, we have innumerable publics, each with different opinions and incompatible ideas of what’s true, false and undecidable.

To make things worse, we also invented a technology that enables every Tom, Dick and mad Harry to publish whatever they like on opaque global platforms, which are incentivised to propagate the wildest nonsense. And to this we have now added powerful tools (called AI) that automate the manufacture of misinformation on an epic scale. If you were a malign superpower that wanted to screw up the democratic world, you’d be hard put to do better than this.

Fortunately, scattered through the world (and mostly in academia) there have been organisations whose mission is to conduct informed analyses of the nature and implications of the misinformation that pollutes the online world. Until recently, the Stanford Internet Observatory (SIO) in California was one such outfit. Among other things (it was the first to out Russian support for Donald Trump online in 2016), it raised China spying concerns around the Clubhouse app in 2021, partnered with the Wall Street Journal in a 2023 report on Instagram and online child sexual abuse materials, and developed a curriculum for teaching college students how to handle trust and safety problems on social media platforms.

But guess what? After five years of pioneering research, it has been reported that the SIO is being wound down. Its founder and director, Alex Stamos, has departed and Renée DiResta, its research director, has not had her contract renewed, while other staff members have been told to look for jobs elsewhere. Stanford, the SIO’s institutional home, denies that it is dismantling the unit and loudly proclaims its commitment to independent research. On the other hand, according to DiResta, the university has run up “huge legal bills” defending SIO researchers from harassment by Republican politicians and conservative conspiracy theorists, and may have decided that enough is enough.

At the root of all this are two neuroses. One is the Republicans’ obsessive conviction that academic studies, like those of DiResta and her colleagues, of how “bad actors – spammers, scammers, hostile foreign governments, networks of terrible people targeting children, and, yes hyper-partisans actively seeking to manipulate the public” use digital platforms to achieve their aims is, somehow, anti-conservative.

The other neurosis is, if anything, more worrying: it’s a crazily expansive idea of “censorship” that includes labelling social media posts as potentially misleading, factchecking, down-ranking false theories by reducing their distribution in people’s social media feeds while allowing them to remain on a site and even flagging content for platforms’ review.

If you think such a list is nuts, then join the queue. As I read it, what came to mind was Kenneth Tynan’s memorable definition of a neurosis as “a secret you don’t know you’re keeping”. The secret in this case is simple: the great American experiment with democracy is ending.

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What I’ve been reading

Vanishing point
AI as Self-Erasure is a thoughtful (and thought-provoking) essay by Matthew Crawford in the Hedgehog Review.

Take notes
A lovely essay by Julian Simpson is Bits of the Mind’s String on what you can learn about yourself from keeping a notebook.

Presidential inquiry
The historian Heather Cox Richardson’s Letters from an American Substack has an insightful piece recalling Watergate and the last time (before Trump) the US had a president who was totally unfit for office.

Source: theguardian.com