“What is our country coming to?” No matter your political affiliation, you’ve probably said something like this out loud recently while scrolling through a long feed of bad news on Facebook and Twitter, or watching another screaming match between so-called “influencers” on TikTok.
I’m here to tell you that your anecdotal observations are backed by peer-reviewed research, and it’s the direct result of artificial intelligence (AI) that has dominated our online experiences from behind the screens since 2011.
Although ChatGPT and other popular apps dominate recent buzz about the potential impact of AI on our lives, the fact is that AI-driven algorithms — which run the recommendation engines that control what we see on social media — have downgraded our quality of life at every scale. Consider this: teen suicide rates increased by 47.7% from 2011 to 2021, the average human attention span has decreased from 12 seconds to 8.5 seconds in the last two decades; American life expectancy has decreased to 76.1 years, down from the 2014 peak of 78.9 years; and, a detailed report published by the U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee found that social media was exploited to tamper with the 2016 Presidential Election.
Beaver County has seen the negative effects of social media in its local communities as well. As NBC News reported in 2021 with the help of BeaverCountian.com, misinformation posted by a large local group on Facebook has repeatedly caused unnecessary chaos, unjustified public panic, and the unwarranted vilification of innocent people.
In the face of mounting evidence that social media platforms present a clear and present danger, BeaverCountian.com founder John Paul (who previously owned a computer security company that regularly made international headlines) has decided to leave them all behind. It’s a bold move that comes as the site is preparing a relaunch with newly hired contributors, myself included, and increased local news coverage.
“Over the past several years I, like many, have watched in horror the regression of public discourse as a direct result of social media’s manipulation of each of us,” John Paul said. “I just completed a 2.5 year journey to visit all 50 states, and am happy to report back that our great nation and its remarkable people are absolutely nothing like the mischief of trolls we see running wild on social media each day. Social media companies are warping the perceptions we have about ourselves, each other, and our country.”
Shortly after it was revealed that Facebook sold private information to data miners which were used by Russian agencies to manipulate the 2016 election, public watchdog groups and non-profit organizations pressured social media platforms to address these issues and make sweeping changes to prevent future harm to the public.
Social media platforms responded to growing pressure with user-level product tweaks that industry experts characterize as “baby steps,” citing a need for broader policy and regulatory reforms, including a complete review and revision of Section 230 from the federal Communications Decency Act of 1996.
Section 230 immunizes social media companies from liability related to any content published on their platforms. Several cases have worked their way to the U.S. Supreme Court, but the controversial provision has repeatedly been upheld.
As a former tech PR executive who worked directly with Apple’s Steve Jobs, Twitter’s and Google’s founders and CEOs and a wide variety of venture capitalists and startups, I served as a spokesperson during some of the most chaotic and tumultuous times in the industry.
I spent countless hours with tech company executives as they faced business challenges and public scrutiny that was largely self-created. Inside and outside of those rooms, it was clear that most decision-makers at these companies were oblivious to the potential long-term consequences for society of each decision they made.
“The reality is, we don’t need emotionally barren billionaires such as Mark Zuckerberg or Elon Musk to help us tell local stories that are affecting our local communities,” John Paul said. “BeaverCountian.com worked through the years to build its social media audience on platforms like Facebook, where we have amassed over 27,000 followers. Along with our original reporting, our contributing editor Lori Boone worked each day curating news from hundreds of sources that may be relevant to local readers. But we are now at a point where we realize that continuing to publish on these sites accomplishes nothing but helping feed a ravenous beast who is running roughshod over us all. It’s time to cut off that food supply.”
When the 2016 Presidential Election tampering exposed Facebook’s carelessness in protecting user privacy, public approval toward AI-driven social media sharply declined, and many former technology executives began joining efforts to make the public aware of the technology’s existential threat.
I was one of those executives.
In 2017, I began helping Tristan Harris, Aza Raskin and Roger McNamee form what is now known as the Center for Humane Technology (CHT), a nonprofit company featured in the 2020 Netflix documentary, The Social Dilemma. I appear in the film for a few seconds, but more notably, worked behind the scenes to help launch the humane technology movement.
This movement is embraced by scholars, philosophers, world leaders, lawmakers, entertainers and technology executives due, in part, to our communications strategy and the herculean effort to launch an Emmy-Award winning feature documentary on time to make a difference.
A wide diversity of experts surrounding anything related to social media (AI, persuasive design, policy, childhood development) have now formed influential coalitions that actively collaborate with each other to determine the best way to force much needed reform.
For BeaverCountian.com, the answer has become a simple one as it travels ahead by delivering award-winning local journalism directly to readers without exposing them to the pitfalls of consuming news via social media.
“We will soon be revamping our email newsletter, and welcoming back the ability of our subscribers to be notified of new articles via text messages and smartphone notifications. At this point, we’re prepared to use morse code or smoke signals if we need to, but it’s time to stop pretending these social media companies occupy any space beyond the gutters in our country’s marketplace of ideas,” concluded John Paul.