When ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence ... isn’t

Daily Local News (West Chester, PA) - - OPINION -

As we hur­tle through the in­no­va­tive and end­lessly up­dated sec­ond decade of the 21st cen­tury, the prospects seem brighter and bet­ter than ever that our new web and so­cial me­dia tools will help us bet­ter com­mu­ni­cate and more ef­fec­tively con­front se­ri­ous chal­lenges like ter­ror­ism.

But then, there are the re­minders that the Al­go­rith­mic Age is still in its in­fancy and that all the pro­gram­ming in the vir­tual world some­times falls short of good old peo­ple brain­power. And therein are the early warn­ing signs that tech com­pa­nies need to take in con­sid­er­a­tion of free ex­pres­sion rights into the in­evitable — and per­haps even de­sir­able — tilt to­ward AI over hu­man “edi­tors” con­trol­ling the flow of in­for­ma­tion. Why not just use peo­ple in­stead of ma­chines to over­see our posts, tweets, web­site con­tent and such?

ISIS is a good ex­am­ple of why not to do so. The ter­ror group is in a run­ning bat­tle with so­cial me­dia sites to pro­mote it­self to the cur­rent and next gen­er­a­tion of young peo­ple. Hun­dreds of thou­sands, per­haps mil­lions of bits of pro­pa­ganda have been tossed into the in­ter­net in­for­ma­tion flow of bil­lions of images, mes­sages, rants and raves. Re­cruit­ing videos, images of be­head­ings, even a slick fea­ture film threat­en­ing Twit­ter CEO Jack Dorsey and Face­book founder Mark Zucker­berg, are among the so­cial me­dia posts by ISIS and its off­shoots.

The re­sponse to the per­sis­tent and global elec­tronic tac­tics by these in­hu­mane crim­i­nals re­quires con­stant sift­ing through the bil­lions of mes­sages, posts, sites and images that make up the World Wide Web — and that re­quires al­go­rith­mic sur­ro­gates to con­stantly prowl the in­ter­net.

Ear­lier this year, Twit­ter an­nounced it had elim­i­nated more than 125,000 ac­counts linked to ISIS. Face­book has deleted posts and blocked ac­counts. Google and sub­sidiary op­er­a­tion YouTube have ag­gres­sively moved to block con­tent sub­mit­ted by the ex­trem­ists. Hence, the video threat days later from ISIS aimed at Dorsey and Zucker­berg.

But with the good comes the bad — or at least ac­tions that are not in keep­ing with the web’s promise of free ex­pres­sion for all. Ma­chines and meth­ods are only as good as the peo­ple who cre­ate and in­struct them, and tech­nol­ogy alone does not guar­an­tee free­dom.

For ex­am­ple, you may have seen the brief in­ter­na­tional flap over an au­to­mated de­ci­sion by Face­book to ban a Pulitzer Prize-win­ning photo of a young girl, naked and fac­ing the cam­era, run­ning down a road. The im­age — posted by sev­eral Nor­we­gians — was re­moved be­cause it vi­o­lated the so­cial me­dia be­he­moth’s rules on nu­dity and child pornog­ra­phy.

If you viewed the photo through the lens of a me­chan­i­cal eye, case closed. Full-frontal nu­dity, per­haps even child porn. Check. Delete.

Ex­cept that the im­age was photographer Nick Ut’s Pulitzer Prize-win­ning photo of nine year old Phan Thi Kim Phuc, scream­ing as she ran in 1972 from a na­palm at­tack by U.S.war­planes in Viet­nam.

As Face­book CEO Sh­eryl Sand­berg ad­mit­ted in a Sept. 10 let­ter to Nor­way’s prime min­is­ter about Face­book restor­ing the photo on its pages: “We don’t al­ways get it right.”

Face­book and the U.S.-based so­cial me­dia com­mu­nity are not bound by the First Amend­ment. As pri­vate com­pa­nies, they have the right to make their own de­ci­sions on over­all stan­dards. The amend­ment’s reach in any case only ap­plies in the U.S., a frac­tion of the global com­mu­ni­ties now en­gaged in in­stant in­ter­ac­tion.

Still, it’s in­cum­bent on the ti­tans of so­cial me­dia to “do bet­ter” on con­sid­er­ing and de­fend­ing free ex­pres­sion. The tremen­dous im­pact on our lives el­e­vates them to “quasi-gov­ern­ment” sta­tus, where core free­doms must be pro­tected. A re­port by the Pew Re­search Cen­ter and the Knight Foun­da­tion found that Face­book and Twit­ter are now seen as a prime news provider by 63 per­cent of their au­di­ences.

Hu­man edi­tors have al­ways had to form a bal­ance be­tween re­port­ing the news we need against be­ing ma­nip­u­lated by groups for their own needs, par­tic­u­larly when it in­volves me­di­asavvy groups. But that bal­ance his­tor­i­cally tilted to­ward “news” — more in­for­ma­tion, rather than less. Gene Policin­ski is chief op­er­at­ing of­fi­cer of the Newseum In­sti­tute and se­nior vice pres­i­dent of the In­sti­tute’s First Amend­ment Cen­ter. Email:gpolic in ski@ new se um. org. Fol­low him on Twit­ter: @ gene­fac

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