One of the troubling things about modern life is the fact that so many of our ordinary decisions are manipulated by vested interests and opaque forces. This isn't entirely a new phenomenon, we have always been easily swayed - by the slick advertisers of Madison Avenue, the chocolate bars placed strategically at checkouts, the newspapers screaming what should alarm us the most today.
But the social media age we are living in today makes that sort of manipulation seem like child's play. The algorithms that shape contemporary reality are far more pervasive, and far more of a health hazard, than any 30-second TV ad spot. They're designed to make us anxious and angry, get us hooked, spy on us, mine our data and monetise us, as Harvard academic Soshana Zuboff laid bare in her chilling monograph on surveillance capitalism.
And now we have a new and even more potent reality-shaper to contend with, in the form of artificial intelligence. The Washington Post recently published an article on the ways in which this new technology is trawling the internet to teach itself about the world.
Using as an example Google's C4 Data set, The Post listed some of the top 200 sites that are providing "facts" to teach AI. A lot of the sites got low scores for trustworthiness, such as RT.com which came in at 65 and is a Russian state-backed propaganda site. Far-right news site Breitbart.com came in at 159. There were other sites that were offensive or dodgy for various reasons, including piracy.
Google has announced that soon, when you search a question on its site, the first result displayed will be an AI-generated answer. There is every chance now that answers based on disinformation and misinformation could be part of the world presented to us by Google and other powerful digital platforms.
On the upside, The Washington Post also found quite a few reputable sources high on the list: the likes of The Washington Post and The Conversation, which came in at 153. We were encouraged to learn that The Conversation rated in the top 200 global sources of evidence-based information for this data set - it's quite an achievement for a digital publisher that provides articles by academic experts.
But the sad truth is that reliable sources of information are thin on the ground and increasingly hard to finance given the collapsing media business models. The bright hope offered by digital start-ups like Vice and Buzzfeed has vanished in recent weeks as they are shuttered or sold. Meanwhile most traditional media companies can't make enough money to operate the sorts of newsrooms they once did. So they concentrate on breaking news and big investigations and many of the things that matter most - education, health, science, arts, public policy - are glossed over.
Evidence-based information informed by the latest thinking and research could not be more important. Google executive Liz Reid has said the company's AI model will use information from "the open web" - that means websites that aren't behind a paywall or login page. But many of the most trustworthy sources of information - academic journals, high-quality newspapers - are locked behind a paywall. So there is a real chance AI-powered search engines will be biased toward low-quality information, or even falsehoods.
Everyone needs access to the best and most up-to-date information to make important decisions in their lives, whether it be who to vote for or what to do about an unusual cough or how to plan for climate change. That's why there has never been a more important time to invest in quality, evidence-based journalism that is free to read.
At The Conversation, we work with academics to share their knowledge and research as widely as possible. We give away our journalism and, instead of creating a paywall and charging subscribers, we rely on the kindness of people like you to help fund our not-for-profit newsroom.
The laborious work of journalists and academics - researching, fact-checking, evaluating sources - is more important than ever. We do this work and make it freely available to serve the public good, but we need your help to ensure that we don't go the way of Buzzfeed or Vice.
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Author: Misha Ketchell - Editor, The Conversation