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3 ways the ‘splinternet’ is damaging society

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The internet was originally designed to bring people together. But the rise of misinformation and fake news has divided online users into numerous, often hostile factions.

The emergence of the so-called splinternet — the fracturing of global channels of communication into groups that share no common ground — poses a significant threat to business, innovation, and even democracy itself.

What are the dangers? A panel of experts tackled that question at the recent Thinker-Fest 2023 conference, co-hosted by the MIT Initiative on the Digital Economy.

Here are three observations business leaders should keep in mind as they help their organizations communicate in an increasingly ambiguous atmosphere.

1. Disinformation is a business.

People often think of fake news as originating in small online communities — a WhatsApp group your uncle belongs to, for example.

As a digital anthropologist who has lurked anonymously in myriad internet groups, Rahaf Harfoush has identified a much larger, interconnected system of disinformation and delved into the economics behind it.

“There are very clear revenue models,” said Harfoush, executive director of the Red Thread Institute of Digital Culture. “People are making money from this.”

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More broadly, a well-organized community of fake-news influencers, climate-denier activists, and intentional antagonists or trolls “are communicating with each other and creating an ecosystem which we didn’t see before,” she said.

The benefits can be direct — such as when influencers opposed to vaccines sell essential oils or climate deniers sell T-shirts.

Or they can be indirect, such as when content farms create extreme right-wing or left-wing content to monetize clicks from across the political spectrum. “There are businesses who are just invested in getting people to click, regardless of what side,” Harfoush said.

Then there are what she called “hidden benefits,” which flow to companies that are removed from the discord but still gain from the division.

For example, some conservative commentators have perpetuated a conspiracy theory around the “15-minute cities” championed by environmentalists, Harfoush noted, with detractors claiming that the idea was developed to allow the government to control how people use their cars. Big oil may not start such rumors, but it stands to benefit from them, she said.

“That is something to look at: that all of these end consumers are being accessed or being manipulated by very specific economic agendas,” Harfoush said.

2. Tribalism amplifies fake news, which is hard to combat.

Greater access to information and increased connectivity were hailed as the early internet’s most promising benefits. But in fact, they’re tearing people apart, said Marshall Van Alstyne, a visiting scholar at the IDE.

That’s because people overloaded with information tend to fall back on intuition and tribalism when deciding what information to accept as true, said Van Alstyne, a professor at the Questrom School of Business at Boston University.

“You actually get more balkanized, more fragmented, more polarized groups by virtue of folks choosing information they want among this whole galaxy of information they otherwise wouldn’t have access to,” Van Alstyne said.

In this atmosphere, fake news spreads easily on social media, and efforts to combat it fall short, he said. A wide range of solutions to fake news — such as fact-checking algorithms, accuracy nudges, and tagging and truth labeling — suffer from at least one of four fundamental problems:

  • A technological arms race. As soon as technology is developed to combat fake news, bad actors are working to circumvent it. “Any technology you can use to recognize fake news, you can recognize the filter to avoid that recognition,” Van Alystne said.
  • Discrediting the rater. “If folks are going to lie about the content, they’re going to lie about being rated,” he said. “You simply undermine the credibility of the folks doing the ratings.”
  • Misplaced responsibility. A vast majority of proposed solutions to fake news put the onus on the platform or the recipient to take action. “It’s the author who knows they’re lying. Most of the responsibility should be put on the author,” Van Alystne said.
  • Economics. Given the current cost structure of honest journalism, “it’s always cheaper to produce fake news,” he said.

3. The metaverse is happening, without checks or balances.

As CEO and chairman of the Lindstrom Co., which advises consumer brands on cultural transformation, Martin Lindstrom’s current specialty is the metaverse — the digital space that uses virtual reality, augmented reality, and other technologies to allow people to experience lifelike interactions in 3D online.

Like the internet, the metaverse has the power to bring people together: Lindstrom cited a recent Ariana Grande concert within the online game Fortnite that attracted 78 million virtual fans. But it also has the power to isolate. Lindstrom is particularly concerned about what he called “the metaverse of one.”

As an example, Lindstrom showed a video of a young mother weeping as she reunited in a park with her young daughter, whom she hadn’t seen in two years. “I really want to touch you just once,” she says — an impossibility, because the park is in the metaverse, the girl was re-created virtually by a local television station, and the only way the mother can “be” with her deceased daughter is by wearing a VR headset.

Beyond wondering about the mental health of the mother — “She’d probably be stuck in this universe forever trying to find that lost love she once had,” Lindstrom said — the simulation  raises other challenging questions. Who owns the daughter’s image — her mother or the company that produced it? More broadly, are humans in danger of outsourcing their emotions to the cloud and storing their short-term memories online?

Lindstrom contends that development of the metaverse is proceeding unchecked before such fundamental questions have been answered; now, organizations and individuals are playing catch-up.

For his part, Lindstrom is working with 22 large global brands to identify the technology’s consequences and determine safe boundaries for operating in the metaverse. The idea is to push the limits in a controlled space and, hopefully, develop a set of operating norms for doing business in the metaverse that companies can begin to adopt.

“If you can create a trend among those brands and ensure that they at least are keeping themselves in check, hopefully it can create some sort of halo effect to more businesses out there,” Lindstrom said.

A mix of optimism and …

When panelists were asked by Thinkers50 co-founder Des Dearlove whether they are hopeful about the future given the complex challenges of the splinternet, Lindstrom was downbeat.

“The issue here is, the world has never gone this fast, and it will never be this slow again,” Lindstrom said. “We’ve gotten to a point where our brains can’t follow this. So maybe you have small pockets of hope, but no, I’m not hopeful.”

Van Alstyne likened the current climate to the early industrial era. “All kinds of horrible things happened, with pollution and labor and yellow journalism, with misinformation at that time,” he said. It took time for institutions to catch up with the new technologies.

“We’re experiencing the same thing all over again,” Van Alstyne said. He’s hopeful that, through research, institutions can build effective solutions to address these challenges. “We’re behind the curve, but I think we will get there,” he said.

Harfoush contended that it will take many solutions to address the splinternet and fake news. “There might be 20 solutions,” she said.

“Sometimes I hear [an] overly optimistic definition of how these technologies are either going to save the world or ruin the world. People think it’s a binary choice,” she said.

“I don't think it’s either/or. I think it’s both. It’s going to be awesome and it’s going to be terrible at the same time, and we just have to make sure the choices are erring more often toward the awesome.”

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For more info Tracy Mayor Senior Associate Director, Editorial (617) 253-0065