Nigel's Eyes

20230523 The Internet blew up (but The Pentagon did not)

Yesterday, in the US, an image, which some say was generated by "artificial Intelligence" or by a person using image manipulation software, began to circulate on social media. As it spread, rapidly, it took on a life of its own. We've been here before and it's not an IT problem. as many are claiming. It's a people problem.

You can't regulate the internet.

You can only regulate the people that use the internet.

Let me repeat:

You can't regulate the internet

You can only regulate the people that use the internet.

Similarly, you can't regulate the current IT fashion, "artificial intelligence."

You can only regulate the people that use the current IT fashion, "artificial intelligence."

Let me say it again:

You can't regulate the current IT fashion, "artificial intelligence."

You can only regulate the people that use the current IT fashion, "artificial intelligence."

Just as you can't regulate crypto-currency, NFTs or any of the other fads and fashions that are hyped to an ever hungry - and seemingly increasingly stupid audience.

You can only regulate people.

Yes, you can regulate the way people use the internet, crypto-this and that and here's the fascinating thing: almost everything is already regulated. We don't need new laws and we certainly don't need Elon Musk to tell us that so-called "artificial intelligence" should be regulated. Nor do we need the boss of OpenAI telling us that its days are numbered because the software is outgrowing the capacity of its infrastructure in the same month that it raises a wedge on the US markets.

I've been looking at the use and abuse of the internet since 1999. My first academic paper on the subject was in 1999 (you can find it on the web) and I kind of went on a university tour with it (well, two: York and MMU in Malaysia).

The same things come up over and over again.

I've written about them many times, and wrote a book "Cleaning up the 'Net" in 2015. In 2021, that book was updated and republished as an e-learning course.

But let's be clear: at no point in any of my work is there a suggestion that technology itself can be regulated. It's always about the people that use and abuse it.

Once we recognise that, then the technology, fun as it is, is no longer important.

So what happened overnight and caused a dramatic, but temporary, fall in the Dow Jones Index was not a technology problem (although, ironically, it is arguable that technology might have at least limited that particular event).

Someone manipulated an image of the USA's military headquarters, The Pentagon. A huge plume of black smoke was inserted into a wide-angle image of the building and it was posted to social media.

As usual, people who one has to consider to be one photo short of an album, republished it and when they did so, some spread alarm. Technology's been central to a similar event.

In 1898, H. G. Wells wrote War of the Worlds. It was a book. On paper. In 1938, Orson Wells and his troupe of radio actors presented it and, within the programme, a fictional NBC news broadcast was interrupted with an announcement that the Martians had landed. There is considerable dispute about what happened next: some say that of the 12 million listeners, one in twelve panicked, fled from their homes to do what no one seems to know. It sounds like one of those "if your house was in fire and you had 30 seconds what would you save?"

Other opinions say that audience research suggests that only 4% of those American households that had a radio were listening to the play and therefore the number who might have reacted was less. One opinion, referred to in Slate, suggested that the panic was actually a hoax created by newspapers to discredit radio as a source of news.

The "stupid" audience

Where a radio audience 85 years ago had the excuse that they were listening to a relatively novel technology, today's internet users have no similar excuse. Also, as I wrote in the 1990s, people are enthralled by the latest technology and they are conditioned to believe that what they see on a computer screen is true. But, it takes a huge degree of stupidity to use anything on Twitter, Facebook or their ilk as authoritative especially in relation to breaking news. Unless it comes from a trusted source.

Hello, Bloomberg. Bloomberg not only republished the image but gave it a caption confirming the "blast." Bloomberg: one of three companies, the others being Reuters and Dow Jones, that those working in financial markets rely on for accuracy upon which to base market-moving decisions.

It was far from the only news outlet to republish the image and write excitable copy.

None of them thought to ask The Pentagon before publishing their mistake.

None of this can be blamed on the tech but that's what the media that rushed to misreport turned to next. Headlines were re-written, starting with the notion that the image "may" have been generated by "AI" and gradually mutating to assertions that this was so. The implication was that it wasn't their fault that they republished a fake.

See. Stupid.

And no amount of regulating the technology, even if that were possible, would have prevented that contagion of idiocy. What could? The return of sub-editors and fact checkers? The abolition of an instant news-cycle? A ban on using social media as a source, even if - as some outlets say - it was confirmed by three sources. If it's Twitter shares or Facebook likes or even LinkedIn reposts, those are not independent verifications. Except, seemingly, for journalists.

It's not even journalism. They think the internet blew up so they report it. Well, no. The Internet did not blow up. In fact, the entire reason that the internet exists is that it can't be blown up. Literally and yes, I do mean literally.

There are many people who lost a lot of money because sources they trust were reckless.

That's why we have to regulate people and the things they do and to stop talking nonsense about regulating technology.