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MANILA, Philippines – How can one keep democracy safe from the darker sides of social media, artificial intelligence, and society’s hunger for engagement? If you ask former US secretary of state Hillary Rodham Clinton, it’s high time that unregulated big tech companies are held accountable for the dangers that they enable.
“When you strip it all away, the big tech companies are making as much money as they can,” Clinton said at Rappler’s Social Good Summit on Saturday, September 16.
“And we already know that in order to make that money, they strip us of our data, they strip us of our privacy, and they are sadly stripping us of our democracy, our citizenship, rights and obligations which require some shared foundation of facts, evidence, and truth,” she added.
Clinton, whose career in public service spans decades, knows better than most how dangerous technology and social media can be when it’s weaponized to spread disinformation and misinformation.
She was at the center of disinformation attacks during the 2016 US presidential campaign that pitted her against Donald Trump, who she describes as “a very willing user of disinformation, propaganda, and incitement.” The campaign was also marred by allegations that communications firm Cambridge Analytica harvested data from millions of Facebook accounts to sway voters in favor of Trump – a controversial strategy that may have been first tested out in the Philippines. (READ: Exclusive: PH was Cambridge Analytica’s ‘petri dish’ – whistle-blower Christopher Wylie)
“In the United States, we saw firsthand the alarming power of disinformation – weaponized and amplified by social media in our 2016 elections. It remains a threat for the elections coming up in 2024 and beyond,” Clinton said.
AI may cater to people’s worst selves
Clinton also addressed concerns about generative artificial intelligence as a new tool in the arsenal of disinformation operators.
“When artificial intelligence becomes fully deployed in political campaigns…how will we even know who we’re looking at, who we are listening to?” Clinton said.
Already, active disinformation has gotten a powerful boost through AI-assisted tools. Nowadays, almost anyone can use AI-powered image manipulation and voice cloners to make convincing fakes of people’s faces and voice, allowing disinformation to spread at a scale and speed never seen before. (READ: AI-enabled disinformation: Waging an unviable war of scale)
And while artificial intelligence can certainly become a great force for good, there’s a bigger danger that it will only amplify people’s worst selves.
“It will cater to the worst of our nature – not the best – because what we’ve learned from technology and success in the cyber arena is that the more negative a message, the more controversial and shocking the message is, the more view and clicks it will get. And the more chance there will be to sell ads against it,” Clinton warned during the summit.
Social media can deepen the divide
Meanwhile, the deep scars left by big tech on society are seen clearest on social media, where many of these attacks are launched in the first place.
Clinton herself knows what it feels like to be in the firing line, having been “ground zero” for online assaults on women leaders.
“The amount of misogyny and sexism on social media, I think, is certainly well known to all of us now,” Clinton said. “Once a woman is targeted [online], the actual threats to her security increase.”
One way out of this, Clinton said, may be to limit the time people spend pressed against their screens and on social media, which she warned is a “drug of choice” that can sway emotions and thinking in ways people may not even be aware of.
But beyond actions on the individual level, Clinton stressed that government should put greater regulatory pressure on these companies and hold them responsible for turning technology into a force for good. After all, the burden should not be on the individual to limit themselves because of the dangers brought by big tech.
“We can’t just tell women that they have to bear all the risks when the incredibly powerful machinery that has been built – that we all hope would have so many positive effects, which it does – has now this very dark impact on women’s safety, their physical safety, their emotional and psychological safety merely by expressing their opinions, by taking a stand, by running for office, by making an unpopular decision,” Clinton said.
The way forward
Where, then, is the way forward? For the veteran Democrat, tech companies must realize how their algorithms – whether intentionally or not – perpetuate sexism, anger, and social division.
The world is already late in regulating social media and artificial intelligence, but Clinton is still hopeful that discussions with CEOs of major tech companies can persuade them to take voluntary measures to prevent the misuse of technology in the run-up to the 2024 US presidential elections.
“The Biden campaign is trying very hard to at least get the tech companies to exercise some self-regulation, some sense of responsibility,” she said.
But even after the looming elections, the battle won’t be over. Governments around the world will need formal regulations – something with actual teeth – to turn tech for good. And to set up effective laws, politicians will need to bring cybersecurity and generative AI experts on board.
“We need more practitioners and experts on the side of reform in governments, in legislatures across the world to be able to go toe to toe,” Clinton acknowledged. “We need more people on the front lines in order to help make this a fair fight when it comes to legislation and regulation.” – Rappler.com