On the Block for 2020: The Truth

By Gail Picco (January 14, 2020)

The Reality Game: How the Next Wave of Technology Will Break the Truth, Samuel Woolley, Public Affairs, January 7, 2020, 272 pp., $35.00

A friend told me the other day that if I wanted to see something good happen in 2020, I should plant a flower.  

Saying Happy New Year this year feels a little less in keeping with the times. Australia is on fire. The U.S. appears hellbent on destabilizing the world order including in the Middle East where an airliner was mistakenly shot down during an Iranian/U.S. “tit-for-tat.” One hundred and seventy-six people including 59 Canadians, were killed. Our country is in mourning.

Barnes & Noble, the largest book retailer in North America is reporting a 25% increase in sales of books about anxiety. And all of this is unfolding against a backdrop of what many are calling a “post-truth” society where the world’s biggest governments and their allies are simply lying to us about things large and small.  Information sources are getting harder to trust.  

In this context, I couldn’t help see Samuel Woolley’s new book The Reality Game: How the Next Wave of Technology Will Break the Truth as an unlikely metaphorical flower. Woolley is a professor and journalist whose research is focused on how emergent technologies are used in and around global political communication.

For the past 10 years he has been researching “the ways in which propagandists leverage our technology and media systems.”

“I have seen a rapid shift in how we perceive social media,” he writes, “once seen as exciting tools for connecting, communicating, and organizing, they are now often thought of as malicious platforms for spreading false news, political misinformation, and targeted harassment.”

For charities trying to make effective choices around social media, the information in this book allows them to see that work through the framework of human rights and democracy as opposed to likes, re-tweets and hashtags. It’s an important distinction.

Artificial intelligence, often in the form of “bots,” which are a compilation of online software programs that replicate human social media behaviour, is a feature of social media. And the programs required to create bots are readily and inexpensively available online.

Woolley says he sees the future of organizing not in grassroots community organizing, but in “astroturf” organizing—falsely generated political organizing, with corporate or other powerful sponsors, that is intended to look like real community based (grassroots) activism. 

“Bots were my entry point into a world of digital deception where all manner of people make use of new technology to prioritize their version of the “truth,” he writes.

According to Woolley, “changes in the way we communicate have weakened democracies and strengthened authoritarian regimes.” 

Even so, Woolley says he wrote The Reality Game because he is more concerned about what’s coming next (and, for many, what already has arrived).  

 “We need to take heed of something else on the horizon,” he writes. “The next wave of technology—from artificial intelligence (AI) to virtual reality (VR)—will be about a slew of newer and even more potent challenges to reality and the truth creating an alternative reality for people to believe in.”

And if we think people are swayed by the fabricated, emotion-raising and baiting tweets or Facebook bot posts, he asks us to imagine a situation where a virtual reality (VR) headset and haptic gloves can make us feel like we are right in the middle of the action, sitting next to a celebrity or a frightened refugee. 

Some charities are already adopting VR technology. 

According to phys.org, UNICEF and World Vision are commissioning VR documentaries to support fundraising efforts.

But some are asking whether “VR charity fundraising is ‘poverty tourism’ in disguise.” 

Dr. Ciaran Gillespie at the University of Surrey suggests it can “create a heightened state of emotional engagement with subject matter that is already emotionally arousing, and this has both positive and negative consequences.”

Intrigued by the implications, two researchers from Ryerson University in Toronto, Maria Kandaurova and Seung Hwan (Mark) Lee,  published a paper last year, The effects of Virtual Reality (VR) on charitable giving: The role of empathy, guilt, responsibility, and social exclusion. 

How do we find our moral centre in an environment when it’s hard to find the centre?

In The Reality Game, Woolley says,

 “much of the propaganda, vitriol, and trolling that has spread in the last decade has been enabled by the failure of technology firms to design their tools with either human rights or democracy in mind. Facebook and YouTube did not set out to build ethical, equitable technology that would consider the problems of diverse groups of users might experience in years to come. 

He suggests those offering an AI solution to an AI problem are advocating that we fight fire with fire. 

But values are more than channels of communication. Values are the dog. Social media, VR and AI are all tails. 

“We should bake the values of democracy and human rights into our technology. We must prioritize equality and freedom in the tools we build so that the next wave of devices will not be used to further damage the truth.”

With powerful tools comes powerful responsibility. 

Samuel Woolley

These are words to the wise for charities. Because charities who are capable of appealing—and do appeal—to an individual’s fear, loss, empathy and guilt need to understand the difference between engaging a donor’s compassion or manipulating their response, between editing a truth and presenting the truth.  It’s a fine line.

It is also worth remembering, as Woolley points out, that because of cost, these powerful tools will be used by those with the most resources—exacerbating the ever widening gap between the rich and the poor.  

Woolley has expertly and accessibly put all this together for us to consider as we move into the future—fully informed and with focus. And his focus is on human rights and democracy. My friend would say that’s exactly the kind of flower we need planted right now.

(Gail Picco is a charity strategist, author and writer. She is the editor of the CSP Book Blog.)

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