Tag Archives: Social networks

The information arms race can’t be won, but we have to keep fighting

By Cailin O’Connor -Arms races happen when two sides of a conflict escalate in a series of ever-changing moves intended to outwit the opponent. In biology, a classic example comes from cheetahs and gazelles. Over time, these species have evolved for speed, each responding to the other’s adaptations.

One hallmark of an arms race is that, at the end, the participants are often just where they started. Sometimes, the cheetah catches its prey, and sometimes the gazelle escapes. Neither wins the race because, as one gets better, so does its opponent. And, along the way, each side expends a great deal of effort. Still, at any point, the only thing that makes sense is to keep escalating.

Arms races happen in the human world too. The term arms race, of course, comes from countries at war who literally amass ever-more sophisticated and powerful weapons. But some human arms races are more subtle.

As detailed in the Mueller report – but widely known before – in the lead-up to the 2016 presidential election in the United States, the Russian government (via a group called the Internet Research Agency) engaged in large-scale efforts to influence voters, and to polarize the US public. In the wake of this campaign, social-media sites and research groups have scrambled to protect the US public from misinformation on social media.

What is important to recognize about such a situation is that whatever tactics are working now won’t work for long. The other side will adapt. In particular, we cannot expect to be able to put a set of detection algorithms in place and be done with it. Whatever efforts social-media sites make to root out pernicious actors will regularly become obsolete.

The same is true for our individual attempts to identify and avoid misinformation. Since the 2016 US election, ‘fake news’ has been widely discussed and analyzed. And many social-media users have become more savvy about identifying sites mimicking traditional news sources. But the same users might not be as savvy, for example, about sleek conspiracy theory videos going viral on YouTube, or about deep fakes – expertly altered images and videos.

What makes this problem particularly thorny is that internet media changes at dizzying speed. more>

Updates from Chicago Booth

A.I. is only human
By Jeff Cockrell – If you applied for a mortgage, would you be comfortable with a computer using a collection of data about you to assess how likely you are to default on the loan?

If you applied for a job, would you be comfortable with the company’s human-resources department running your information through software that will determine how likely it is that you will, say, steal from the company, or leave the job within two years?

If you were arrested for a crime, would you be comfortable with the court plugging your personal data into an algorithm-based tool, which will then advise your judge on whether you should await trial in jail or at home? If you were convicted, would you be comfortable with the same tool weighing in on your sentencing?

Much of the hand-wringing about advances in artificial intelligence has been concerned with AI’s effects on the labor market. “AI will gradually invade almost all employment sectors, requiring a shift away from human labor that computers are able to take over,” reads a report of the 2015 study panel of Stanford’s One Hundred Year Study on Artificial Intelligence. But whether AI ultimately creates massive unemployment or inspires new, as-yet-unknown professional fields, its perils and promises extend beyond the job market. By replacing human decision-making with automated processes, we can make businesses and public institutions more effective and efficient—or further entrench systemic biases, institutionalize discrimination, and exacerbate inequalities.

It’s an axiom of computing that results are dependent on inputs: garbage in, garbage out.

What if companies’ machine-learning projects come up with analyses that, while logical and algorithmically based, are premised on faulty assumptions or mismeasured data?

What if these analyses lead to bad or ethically questionable decisions—either among business leaders or among policy makers and public authorities? more>

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The trilemma of Big Tech

By Karin Pettersson – Last week Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg took to the stage in San Jose, California, and presented his vision for the future at the company’s yearly developers’ conference.

The attention given to the conference by the world’s media was testimony to the fact that Facebook is now more powerful than most nation states. Its products provide the infrastructure for core democratic functions such as free speech, distribution of news and access to information. Our societies, to a larger and larger degree, are shaped by how Zuckerberg and a small elite of Silicon Valley business leaders choose to do business. And the results, frankly speaking, are catastrophic.

‘Have social media made the world a better place?’ Poppy Harlow of CNN asked the influential tech writer Kara Swisher ‘No, not now’ was the dry answer.

The founder of the modern web, Tim Berners-Lee, has called for regulation of the internet as the only way to save it, and the virtual-reality pioneer and internet philosopher Jaron Lanier has written a book about why people should get off ‘social media’ as soon as possible.

The current situation is clearly unsustainable and the measures taken so far to address it insufficient. But before discussing solutions we need to define what the problem is. And here it is easy to get lost in details and anecdotes. Not all of the problems of social networks are fatal to democracy.

The economist Dani Rodrik has framed the discussion around the state of the world economy as a trilemma, where hyperglobalization, democratic policies and national sovereignty are mutually incompatible. We can, he argues, combine any two of the three, but never have all three simultaneously and in full.

It might be conceptually useful to structure the discussion of the global information space in an analogous manner. One can have democracy, market dominance and business models that optimize for anger and junk—but only two at a time. more>

Updates from Chicago Booth

How opinion polls are presented affects how we understand them
By Alice G. Walton – Oleg Urminsky and Luxi Shen used data provided by the prominent data-driven forecasting organization FiveThirtyEight leading up to the 2016 US presidential election.

The researchers presented the then-current forecasts to two groups of study participants, but in different formats. One group saw probability projections that, on average, said Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton had a 74 percent chance of winning. The other group saw margin forecasts that said, on average, that she would get 53 percent of the vote.

On a given day, both forecasts represented the same snapshot in time—two essentially identical takes on Clinton’s expected victory. But participants interpreted the forecasts differently. When people saw the probability forecast and were then asked to estimate a margin by which Clinton would win, they overestimated, predicting she would get 60 percent of the vote on average, more than the 53 percent. Meanwhile, people shown the second, margin forecast predicted the probability of her winning at 60 percent on average rather than the actual 74 percent average.

Both predictions turned out to be incorrect, as Clinton won 48 percent of the vote and lost the election to Republican candidate Donald Trump, who received 46 percent. But they illustrated bias in people’s perceptions.

The difference in interpretations is unlikely to be explained by forecasters having the wrong assumptions in their models, the researchers say. more>

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Internet capitalism pits fast technology against slow democracy

By Tom Wheeler – Technology-driven changes—like those we are presently experiencing—produce demands for security and stability that pose a threat to liberal democracy and capitalism. Across the world, autocrats are on the rise because they claim they can deliver answers; symbols such as Brexit or the Wall pose as solutions; and old economic “isms” are reborn as “new” solutions. This is not a unique experience; our struggles in the information age echo similar struggles in the industrial age.

When change attacks at gigabit speed, the quest for solutions also accelerates. It took the telephone a leisurely 125 years to connect one billion people. The Android mobile phone, in contrast, reached the same milestone in less than six years. The buffer of time that traditionally helped individuals and economic activity acclimate to new technology is compressed.

Liberal democracies, however, are hard to condense. A representative democracy of free and fair elections and an equally-applied rule of law is, by design, a slow process. In a time of rapid technological change, innovative capitalists step up to make the rules regarding how their activities impact the rest of us. Previously, such self-interested rule-making has been confronted eventually by a collective public interest, democratically expressed, to create new rules that protect the common good.

The second criteria necessary for democracy to work is for us to overcome our inherent tribal instincts and band together. Unfortunately, the business plan of the internet economy undermines this priority by hastening a retreat to tribes. Internet companies—both networks and those that provide services over them—have discovered a digital alchemy that takes your private information and turns it into their corporate asset. Using that information, the companies slice and dice us into tribal groupings to sell to advertisers—or foreign interests seeking to sow discord by playing one tribe against another. more>

Hate Speech on Social Media: Global Comparisons

Violence attributed to online hate speech has increased worldwide. Societies confronting the trend must deal with questions of free speech and censorship on widely used tech platforms.
By Zachary Laub – A mounting number of attacks on immigrants and other minorities has raised new concerns about the connection between inflammatory speech online and violent acts, as well as the role of corporations and the state in policing speech. Analysts say trends in hate crimes around the world echo changes in the political climate, and that social media can magnify discord. At their most extreme, rumors and invective disseminated online have contributed to violence ranging from lynchings to ethnic cleansing.

The same technology that allows social media to galvanize democracy activists can be used by hate groups seeking to organize and recruit. It also allows fringe sites, including peddlers of conspiracies, to reach audiences far broader than their core readership. Online platforms’ business models depend on maximizing reading or viewing times.

Since Facebook and similar platforms make their money by enabling advertisers to target audiences with extreme precision, it is in their interests to let people find the communities where they will spend the most time.

Users’ experiences online are mediated by algorithms designed to maximize their engagement, which often inadvertently promote extreme content.

Some web watchdog groups say YouTube’s autoplay function, in which the player, at the end of one video, tees up a related one, can be especially pernicious. The algorithm drives people to videos that promote conspiracy theories or are otherwise “divisive, misleading or false,” according to a Wall Street Journal investigative report.

“YouTube may be one of the most powerful radicalizing instruments of the 21st century,” writes sociologist Zeynep Tufekci. more>

Updates from Chicago Booth

Foreign currency? No thanks. Investors prefer their own currencies and the US dollar
By Chana R. Schoenberger – Globalization and integrated financial markets allow companies and investors worldwide to work together more closely—but investors still strongly prefer to buy assets in their own currency or in the US dollar, research suggests. This means US companies that issue bonds only in the dollar are uniquely able to borrow from abroad.

Harvard’s Matteo Maggiori, Chicago Booth’s Brent Neiman, and Columbia’s Jesse Schreger looked at international capital flows from investors’ purchases of corporate securities, using a data set of $27 trillion in investment positions provided to them by Morningstar, an independent investment-research company. They find that investor portfolios are more strongly biased toward their own currencies than standard models, such as the kind used at the Federal Reserve or International Monetary Fund, would imply.

If a German company issues securities denominated in Canadian dollars, for example, the buyers of those securities will mainly be Canadian. This bias is so strong “that each country holds the bulk of all securities denominated in their own currency, even those issued by foreign borrowers in developed countries,” the researchers write. more>

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How The Republican Leadership Broke The Four Rules Of Crisis Management

By Steve Denning – In its actions over the last ten days, the Republican leadership has jeopardized its goals through its failure to respect the rules of crisis management:

  • Recognize the crisis as a crisis
  • Get out as much information as possible as soon as possible, particularly any negative information
  • Avoid saying anything that has to be withdrawn
  • Avoid doing anything that looks like a cover-up

The first failure of the Republican leadership was the failure to recognize the crisis as a crisis. The Republicans’ first instinct was to to brush aside the accusation as partisan politics and press ahead with a quick vote on Kavanaugh’s nomination. A single accusation from one woman 36 years ago was presented as “a little hiccup.” (Senator Dean Heller)

However, once the identity and professional background of the accuser became known, first to the FBI on September 13, and then to the public on September 16, it became apparent that she deserved to be heard, as Senators Flake and Collins insisted. In effect, if the Republican leadership had pressed ahead, it would have been at risk of not having enough Republican votes for success.

What the Republican leadership hadn’t initially grasped was that this was a real crisis for Kavanaugh’s nomination. It would have been one thing if the accusation was being made by a partisan politician. It was another when it was made by a well-respected professor, with no active record in partisan politics and no particular axe to grind. Coming in the midst of the #MeToo movement, the accusation was bound to be a sensation. more>

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To get a grip on altruism, see humans as molecules

By Ski Krieger – ‘What is life?’

In 1943, Erwin Schrödinger posed this question in a series of lectures at Trinity College, Dublin.

Seventy-five years later, the biophysics revolution is ongoing. Schrödinger’s call to action inspired his colleagues to look at the building blocks of life at all scales, from the diminutive DNA molecule to schooling fish and the construction of anthills.

My research group at Harvard University focuses on altruism, or why creatures sacrifice themselves for the common good.

But rather than relying on psychology or moral philosophy, we approach this problem using thermodynamics – how the laws governing heat and the interaction of microscopic particles might translate into macroscopic behavior. Can we explain altruism by casting humans as atoms and molecules, and societies or populations as solids, liquids or gases?

By studying each of these phases as physicists, we come away approaching a recipe for altruism – rules for certain structures that might foster cooperation.

What we’ve observed so far is that strong local connections enhance altruism everywhere. more>

Declining Majority of Online Adults Say the Internet Has Been Good for Society

By Aaron Smith and Kenneth Olmstead – Americans tend to view the impact of the internet and other digital technologies on their own lives in largely positive ways, Pew Research Center surveys have shown over the years. A survey of U.S. adults conducted in January 2018 finds continuing evidence of this trend, with the vast majority of internet users (88%) saying the internet has, on balance, been a mostly good thing for them personally.

But even as they view the internet’s personal impact in a positive light, Americans have grown somewhat more ambivalent about the impact of digital connectivity on society as a whole. A sizable majority of online adults (70%) continue to believe the internet has been a good thing for society. Yet the share of online adults saying this has declined by a modest but still significant 6 percentage points since early 2014, when the Center first asked the question. more>

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