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The world of social media is changing in ways that the original creators of Facebook, Twitter and Instagram never could have imagined. If the original goal of these social media platforms was to connect family and friends as part of one global community, the new goal appears to be something much darker: to use social media to achieve political, ideological and even military goals.
In their new book, “LikeWar: The Weaponization of Social Media,” two prominent experts on digital culture, Peter W. Singer and Emerson T. Brooking, outline what is happening all around us on social media, even as we look on helplessly. If you thought “Russian bots” and “fake news” marked the bottom of the social media news cycle, think again. In short, imagine a world where the AI-powered machines finally take over, and humans simply get lost among the technology (or, even worse, become collateral damage of this technology).
How does one weaponize social media?
Of particular concern, say the authors, is the possibility for “deepfakes” to completely out-smart and out-maneuver humans, causing them to act in ways that those in control of the technology want them to act. Using artificial intelligence and machine learning, for example, it might be possible to re-create the speech patterns and facial expressions of just about anyone – even the top political leaders of a nation – in order to send out disinformation or propaganda. In one case cited by the authors, for example, it was possible to create a “deepfake” conversation between Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, just based on video clips widely available on the Internet. With deepfakes, it is possible to make people say anything.
And there are plenty of other ways to weaponize social media as well. One of these is the creation of “synthetic celebrities” that look and sound just like real celebrities, except that they are entirely generated by AI algorithms. Who needs to pay top social media influencers (humans) to promote your products when you can digitally create your own celebrity influencers (machines)!
And the really scary part about all this is the creation of what Peter Singer and Emerson Brooking refer to as MADCOMS (machine-driven communication tools). Think of these as chatbots on steroids. They’d be able to carry about entire conversations about products amongst themselves without you ever realizing that these MADCOMS were just fake AI bots. Used in the wrong way, they might be able to create the illusion of viral buzz surrounding a particular product or brand (look, everyone is talking about this product online!) – or to completely change the narrative around political candidates. Imagine MADCOMS as the new SUPERPACS (you need them to win any election).
Artificial intelligence has the potential to change social media forever
Which is not to say that all uses of AI and machine learning are fraught with peril. Facebook, for example, is using AI-powered algorithms to spot potential suicide victims in the early stages of deep depression. And just about every social media platform these days is using AI to spot fake news and fact-check everything.
The problem, though, is that at some point, the machines are going to take over if we’re not careful. We need to build certain safeguards and “back doors” into our technologies, otherwise they will manipulate everything we see. They will control how we think and what we talk about. And they will know everything that we are saying. When that happens, these machines will have weaponized social media not against a particular nation, but against humanity itself.