Hunter Biden’s Laptop Story, “Fake News” and Ethics

The story of the laptop, what was on it, how the story was dealt with (and blocked) has been around for almost two years now but still worth exploring in a TOK context with connections to several themes (Knower, Technology, Politics). How do our prior beliefs affect how we interpret new information? How do we decide whether a claim is credible? What responsibility do social media companies have to decide what is true? What are the consequences of so few companies having so much power over the spread of information?

I like this topic because it pushes my students to confront their own discomfort with the potential weaponization of the concept of fake news but in a direction that suits their politics. The twitter video at the bottom of Sam Harris, ironically, communicates what many people actually believe.

Here are a few of articles that explain the controversy:

https://www.npr.org/2022/04/09/1091859822/more-details-emerge-in-federal-investigation-into-hunter-biden

Analysis giving greater context to the story and surrounding issues.

https://www.tabletmag.com/sections/news/articles/the-national-tragedy-of-hunter-bidens-laptop

The NYPost taking a victory lap when its discredited and blocked story was validated.

https://nypost.com/2021/10/12/one-year-later-the-posts-hunter-biden-reporting-is-vindicated-but-still-buried/

This was from a recent conversation with Sam Harris, whom I normally have great respect for. His defense of wide ranging conspiracies to generate politically desirable outcomes is interesting. This is a good example of consequentialist ethics.

Sam Harris’s Response

Online activists are doxxing Ottawa’s anti-vax protesters

Experts warn this is blurring the line between activism and vigilantism.

This new form of online activism is making some people do things they wouldn’t normally do, she adds, and many of those involved may not realize in the moment of their anger that this behavior is not only unethical but illegal.

“What is the difference between public shaming and vigilantism?” she asks. “And what’s the difference between ‘good’ vigilantism and ‘bad’ vigilantism?”

https://www.technologyreview.com/2022/02/11/1045281/ottawa-antivax-protests-doxxing

‘An American Tradition’: Lessons from a year covering conspiracy theories

“Our brains are not built for the truth,” David Linden, a professor of neuroscience at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, told me earlier this year. “Our brains weren’t even built to read. Our brains weren’t. Evolution is a very slow process. It takes many, many, many, many, many generations. And the change in technology and particularly in information is so rapid that there’s no way for evolution to keep up.”…

We choose who to believe, we choose who to trust, often before we realize we are doing it. It is no wonder our disinformation battles can feel so personal, especially within families.

https://www.washingtonpost.com/nation/2021/12/29/american-conspiracy-theories-essay/

How digital beauty filters perpetuate colorism

Recommendations based on user preferences often reflect the biases of the world—in this case, the diversity problems that have long been apparent in media and modeling. Those biases have in turn shaped the world of online influencers, so that many of the most popular images are, by default, of people with lighter skin. An algorithm that interprets your behavior inside such a filter bubble might assume that you dislike people with darker skin. And it gets worse: recommendation algorithms are also known to have an anchoring effect, in which their output reinforces users’ unconscious biases and can even change their preferences over time. 

https://www.technologyreview.com/2021/08/15/1031804/digital-beauty-filters-photoshop-photo-editing-colorism-racism/

Drones and robots won’t make war easier—they’ll make it worse

The essay gets really interesting toward the end.

The moral distance a society creates from the killing done in its name will increase the killing done in its name. We allow technology to increase moral distance; thus, technology increases the killing. More civilians than combatants die in modern warfare, so technology increases worldwide civilian murder at the hands of armies large and small.

https://www.technologyreview.com/2019/10/10/132262/why-remote-war-is-bad-war/

Radiolab Podcast: Facebook’s Supreme Court

Since its inception, the perennial thorn in Facebook’s side has been content moderation. That is, deciding what you and I are allowed to post on the site and what we’re not. Missteps by Facebook in this area have fueled everything from a genocide in Myanmar to viral disinformation surrounding politics and the coronavirus. However, just this past year, conceding their failings, Facebook shifted its approach. They erected an independent body of twenty jurors that will make the final call on many of Facebook’s thorniest decisions. This body has been called: Facebook’s Supreme Court.

So today, in collaboration with the New Yorker magazine and the New Yorker Radio Hour, we explore how this body came to be, what power it really has and how the consequences of its decisions will be nothing short of life or death.

https://www.wnycstudios.org/podcasts/radiolab/articles/facebooks-supreme-court

Click here for other topics tagged “Facebook”

The Bloodsport of the Hive Mind: Common Knowledge in the Age of Many-to-Many Broadcast Networks

This article does a fascinating job of evaluating what the author calls “common knowledge,” similar to the TOK concept of shared knowledge, as a way to discuss the general idea of the role of communities in forming beliefs and how modern technologies change the nature of common knowledge.

It’s only with the growth of communities of people interacting that most people gain such courage in their convictions to defy that which authoritative sources (media, political, corporate) deem to be acceptable narratives and acceptable norms. These communities generate more than validation of one’s preexisting beliefs. They generate the common knowledge that I know that many others feel the same as I do, others to whom I am joined in a community.

The Bloodsport of the Hive Mind: Common Knowledge in the Age of Many-to-Many Broadcast Networks

 

AI is wrestling with a replication crisis

Science is built on a bedrock of trust, which typically involves sharing enough details about how research is carried out to enable others to replicate it, verifying results for themselves. This is how science self-corrects and weeds out results that don’t stand up. Replication also allows others to build on those results, helping to advance the field. Science that can’t be replicated falls by the wayside.

At least, that’s the idea. In practice, few studies are fully replicated because most researchers are more interested in producing new results than reproducing old ones. But in fields like biology and physics—and computer science overall—researchers are typically expected to provide the information needed to rerun experiments, even if those reruns are rare.

 

Netflix Documentary: The Social Dilemma…and related articles

Here are a couple of posts around the theme of Knowledge and Technology. Netflix has recently put out a documentary called “The Social Dilemma” (trailer linked below). It touches upon some commonly discussed themes around the dangers of communications technologies and social media. 

What’s interesting is that despite what people agree are problematic outcomes, there are disagreements among root causes. 

This is just a great line from a NYTimes Article

The trouble with the internet, Mr. Williams says, is that it rewards extremes. Say you’re driving down the road and see a car crash. Of course you look. Everyone looks. The internet interprets behavior like this to mean everyone is asking for car crashes, so it tries to supply them. 

from: ‘The Internet Is Broken’: @ev Is Trying to Salvage It

 

From the “Social Dilemma Fails to Tackle the Real Issues in Tech”, which takes a critical view of the argument put forward in The Social Dilemma:

Focusing instead on how existing inequalities intersect with technology would have opened up space for a different and more productive conversation. These inequalities actually influence the design choices that the film so heavily focuses on—more specifically, who gets to make these choices.

https://slate.com/technology/2020/09/social-dilemma-netflix-technology.html

From “The Risk Makers: Viral hate, election interference, and hacked accounts: inside the tech industry’s decades-long failure to reckon with risk”

The internet’s “condition of harm” and its direct relation to risk is structural. The tech industry — from venture capitalists to engineers to creative visionaries — is known for its strike-it-rich Wild West individualistic ethos, swaggering risk-taking, and persistent homogeneity. Some of this may be a direct result of the industry’s whiteness and maleness. For more than two decades, studies have found that a specific subset of men, in the U.S. mostly white, with higher status and a strong belief in individual efficacy, are prone to accept new technologies with greater alacrity while minimizing their potential threats — a phenomenon researchers have called the “white-male effect,” a form of cognition that protects status. In the words of one study, the findings expose “a host of new practical and moral challenges for reconciling the rational regulation of risk with democratic decision making.”

https://onezero.medium.com/the-risk-makers-720093d41f01

 

AI ethics groups are repeating one of society’s classic mistakes

Too many councils and advisory boards still consist mostly of people based in Europe or the United States.

International organizations and corporations are racing to develop global guidelines for the ethical use of artificial intelligence. Declarations, manifestos, and recommendations are flooding the internet. But these efforts will be futile if they fail to account for the cultural and regional contexts in which AI operates…

This work is not easy or straightforward. “Fairness,” “privacy,” and “bias” mean different things (pdf) in different places. People also have disparate expectations of these concepts depending on their own political, social, and economic realities. The challenges and risks posed by AI also differ depending on one’s locale.