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Alan Kohler: Social media is rewiring humanity’s central nervous system

Photo: TND

Last week I tweeted: “I am not dead.”

My tweet, or should that be my ‘X’, even prompted a news article in the Daily Mail (admittedly, it doesn’t take much to achieve that), and a gratifyingly large number of people tweeted back that they were relieved I was still kicking.

I’d been seeing a growing number social media scams and fake stories using my name, and I usually ignore them, but there was one that seemed to be a sort of obituary, “we’ll miss you Alan Kohler”, so I thought I should at least kill off that one, as it were.

By coincidence this was about the same time as Animal Justice Party MP Georgie Purcell became global news after a doctored photo of her appeared on the Nine News website, with bigger breasts and bare midriff.

Also last week, the chief executives of Meta, TikTok, Snap, Discord and X, the artist formerly known as Twitter, were being grilled in US Congress about the harm caused by their products.

The director of 9News Melbourne, Hugh Nailon, put out a statement apologising to George Purcell and explaining that the image was sourced online and resized to fit their “specs”.

“During that process, the automation by Photoshop created an image that was not consistent with the original,” he said.

A hand on the mouse

Hey, wait a minute, said Adobe, issuing a statement defending its artificial intelligence, saying that: “Changes to this specific image would have required human intervention and approval.”

Was it lascivious AI or a human trying to improve on nature for clicks, or perhaps both? Without a royal commission, we’ll never know.

As for the constant, endless fake stuff about me, I have no idea whether it’s purely AI-generated or scam artists trying piggy-back on my modest celebrity, as is happening with virtually every well-known person. Probably a bit of both.

Social media companies have been using algorithms, which are a rudimentary form of AI, for years, but there’s no doubt that recent advances to AI are taking the problem of disinformation and fakery to a new level.

Meanwhile, last week’s US congressional hearing on social media was focused on the safety of children. The Senate Judiciary Committee chairman, Dick Durbin, said: “Their design choices, their failures to adequately invest in trust and safety, and their constant pursuit of engagement and profit over basic safety have all put our kids and grandkids at risk.”

The top Republican on the committee, Lindsey Graham, went further: “Mr Zuckerberg, you and the companies before us – I know you don’t mean it to be so – but you have blood on your hands. You have a product that’s killing people.” (He meant through suicide).

About two years ago at a summit about social media, during the last big flurry of regulatory pressure on the companies, the academic who led the event, said: “Social media is rewiring the central nervous system of humanity in real time. We’re now at a crossroads between its promise and its peril.”

This time it’s serious

Nothing much happened after that, so presumably we’re now really at a crossroads, now that people are dying (or not, in my case).

Meanwhile, in the past 12 months the market value of Meta Platforms, the company that owns Facebook, has shot up by almost $US1 trillion.

The seven stocks involved in AI and social media – Meta, Nvidia, Amazon, Apple, Alphabet (Google), Microsoft and Tesla, now called ‘The Magnificent Seven’ – have provided almost all of the growth in the US stockmarket for the past 10 years, and with a combined market value of about $US12 trillion, now represent close to 30 per cent of the total value of the New York Stock Exchange.

Which is one reason why nothing much that’s effective gets done about them – the money involved is too great, although politicians occasionally put on a show trial, as they did last week.

The other reason is that almost everybody uses some form of social media and loves it; trying to ban it, or even limit it in some way, would be like trying to ban hamburgers because they’re not good for you, or the environment. There would be a riot.

Yesterday (Sunday) was 20 years to the day since a Harvard student named Mark Zuckerberg launched a website called TheFacebook, four months before his 20th birthday.

Now he has a net worth of about $250 billion, more than the market value of Australia’s largest company, BHP, and he will one day die knowing that he changed the world.

His wealth, along with that of other social media companies and their owners, depends on publishing stuff without checking it beforehand, as other publishers have to do, and not being subject to defamation laws; the content is user-generated, they are just platforms for it, and the material just goes out there with a post-publication mop-up regime that is, let’s face it, inadequate.

Shootout at the Alphabet Corral

They sell advertising like other media businesses, and the algorithms that are designed to increase engagement are so much more effective than the plodding marketing efforts of traditional media companies, much of which now takes place on social media and Google anyway.

But because they pay almost nothing for content and their “marketing” is both fiendishly manipulative as well as automated, and because so many people love using their products, they are the most profitable businesses in history.

Their political lobbying strategy has been to hold off intrusive regulation for as long as possible, which has so far been a blinding success, but now that AI is taking the fakery to a new level, maybe the posse is closing in.

At the end of the Magnificent Seven movie (the 1960 one, not the 2016 remake), only two of the seven survive.

Will that happen to the modern IT version of the magnificent seven? Definitely not; it’s more a question of whether we’ll survive them.

Alan Kohler writes twice a week for The New Daily. He is finance presenter on the ABC News and also writes for Intelligent Investor

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