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By the time the internet was roughly twenty years old, it had already radically altered everything about the way humanity goes about its day.

Smartphones, the forerunners of which were already being sold to the public throughout the nineties, were creeping towards full-blown mass production by 2010. The iPhone was three years old at the time, and had already spawned three of its many future iterations.

Growing up, I’ve always had this sensation of awe at the sheer power of the internet. At a young age, I was proud of the fact that I intuitively understood how to use the internet in ways my parents didn’t, even though it was simply because they didn’t grow up being exposed to it the way I did. Awkwardly, I found myself having to explain things like who I was actually talking to whenever I was yelling out obscenities into my headset with my school friends, what a chatroom was, or what the funny video I was trying to show them was even about.

Like Marlowe’s Dr Faustus, we took this awe-inspiring notion of having all of humanity’s collective knowledge at our fingertips for granted.

While their influence was already established, the monolithic gatekeepers of the internet – the controlling shareholders of Google’s parent company, Larry Page and Sergey Brin, the social media parasites like Mark Zuckerberg and latecomers like Elon Musk, and all the other self-appointed titans of industry – had not yet orchestrated the hostile takeover we see today. We were free to dream of what the internet could become, before Silicon Valley executives swiped the keys to the kingdom.

Though I grew up on a steady diet of online games and social media, I couldn’t have possibly fathomed that just over a decade later, I’d be hearing of AI software like ChatGPT, which at first felt like something straight out of the science fiction shooters that I enjoyed as a teenager. Presumably, I must be undergoing a journey of humbling hubris in penance for all the times I thought my parents were fossilised dinosaurs for not understanding how a multiplayer game works.

There is, however, a far more sinister undercurrent attached to this thread, which is far more important to note than the irony of experiencing the fossilisation I mockingly ascribed to my parents.

One of the main threats that has been highlighted during this initial phase of the mass commercialisation of artificial intelligence is the way in which AI software can be used to easily and effectively produce disinformation on a hitherto unimaginable scale. While it would have previously taken one bad actor a whole morning to craft a particularly insidious piece of propaganda, that same actor with access to a tool like ChatGPT could easily scale up their output as long as they have a basic understanding of how to interact with it.

Governments and intergovernmental entities like the EU are locked in a legislative arms race to regulate the technology as fears over its potential to upset social order mount and the general public recoils in horror at the incessant roll out of new, terrifying products like a synthetic voice app that reportedly needs just 15 seconds of someone’s voice to reproduce it.

Besides the potential for bad actors to use the far wider arsenal that AI-powered technology provides them with, there is also another aspect which seems to have slipped under the radar of policymakers whose grasp of the technology itself is inevitably going to be less than those who are responsible for putting it out on the market: the proliferation of automated bots which, though rudimentary and easy to spot in their earlier builds, are now responsible for a growing chunk of increasingly realistic online content.

One interesting exploit I’ve discovered while trawling threads about the subject is the creation of fake Facebook pages which are flooded with AI content that Facebook’s algorithm will identify as unique. Those fake Facebook pages are then, in turn, flooded with engagement from fake accounts, which is often boosted by engagement from real individuals. Eventually, those fake Facebook pages can be successfully monetised and turned into a cash cow, because Facebook’s verification process for monetisation does not involve human oversight and can therefore be easily ‘tricked’ into dishing out payments for fake content.

While this may seem like an instance in which tech savvy individuals are turning Meta’s technology against itself, it is only one isolated example of a development in the evolution of the internet which signals far more worrying implications in other scenarios.

The best conceptual framework I’ve found for explaining this phenomenon is the ‘dead internet theory‘, an online conspiracy theory that describes the internet as a digital wasteland that has been effectively taken over by corporate bots spewing out fake content. While the dead internet theory is widely considered to be a paranoid exaggeration of objective reality, the surge in sophisticated bots masquerading as human beings is hard to miss.

Which begs more troubling questions: in an era of increasing distrust between warring nation states, fraught democracies, and authoritarian regimes crawling all around, who do we trust with information when we cannot shake off the suspicion that the purveyor of that information may not be human?

Who do we trust to deliver reliable news articles which have been fact-checked by a real human being when the online space is effectively reduced to bots talking to bots? Who do we write the news for if the algorithms aren’t even delivering content that, as high quality as it may be, cannot compete with a network of bots which are designed to hijack those algorithms for profit?

In other words, have we set off a cascade of events in which bots designed to multiply the engagement of content created by other bots will loop ad infinitum, elbowing out humans from a space that we created for ourselves? Have we turned humanity’s biggest advancement in the field of communications into one big advertising space where nonsensical content outweighs the dissemination of critical information?

The evidence at hand suggests the situation isn’t so dire as of yet. Global powers have recognised the scale of the threat and are scrambling to catch up to it, and public scrutiny of artificial intelligence companies is at an all-time high for obvious reasons. These companies are now coming under increasing pressure to ensure their products come with built-in safeguards such as watermarks which clearly label AI-generated content as such.

But while authorities figure it out, the clock is ticking.

What is certain is that now more than ever, we need to rely on credible news portals which are moving away from the ailing traditional model and more towards a mixture of public funding streams, like the model I’m relying on to slowly build up this project. And before anyone dismisses this article as a cheap, alarmist attempt at cashing in on people’s fears, I’ll spare you the trouble of doing so by getting out ahead of it.

I didn’t just launch this website out of a desire to have my own platform, although that did play a significant part in it. I also wanted to create the most trustworthy news portal I could imagine, one which does not have any corporate or government funding, regularly collaborates with civil society, and endeavours to propagate anti-authoritarian narratives.

I wanted to do that precisely because of the dwindling levels of trust in legacy news outlets which, try as they might to successfully adapt to the information age, are nonetheless plagued by commercial considerations which impinge on their independence. That rationale proved to be sound given that the stability of the industry now faces an additional threat: a potentially infinite army of bots with a potentially infinite arsenal of synthetic content at its disposal, gnawing away at the intrinsic value of all other human-produced content online.

The only real antidote to distrust is trust, and trust cannot be earned if your reader cannot rest assured that what they are getting from you is a real, rational, and objective assessment of whatever the subject of your article is. Anything else is, in this day and age, destined to continue dying a slow, agonising death, and no government handout is going to spare you from that fate.

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