Dead Internet

There are two ways to destroy something: make it unusable, or reduce its utility to zero. The latter may be happening with the internet.

Let’s back up. I was browsing a Reddit Ask Me Anything (AMA) thread by a researcher who worked on creating “AI invisibility cloak” sweaters. The goal was to design “adversarial patterns” that essentially tricked AI-based cameras from no longer recognizing that a person was, in fact, a person. During the AMA though, they were asked what they thought about language-model AI like GPT-3. The reply was:

I have a few major concerns about large language models.
– Language models could be used to flood the web with social media content to promote fake news. For example, they could be used to generate millions of unique twitter or reddit responses from sockpuppet accounts to promote a conspiracy theory or manipulate an election. In this respect, I think language models are far more dangerous than image-based deep fakes.

This struck me as interesting, as I would have assumed deep-faked celebrity endorsements – or even straight-up criminal framing – would have been a bigger issue for society. But… I think they are right.

There is a conspiracy theory floating around for a number of years called “The Dead Internet Theory.” This Atlantic article explains in more detail, but the premise is that the internet “died” in 2016-2017 and almost all content since then has been generated by AI and propagated by bots. That is clearly absurd… mostly. First, I feel like articles written by AI today are pretty recognizable as being “off,” let alone what the quality would have been five years ago.

Second, in a moment of supreme irony, we’re already pretty inundated with vacuous articles written by human beings trying to trick algorithms, to the detriment of human readers. It’s called “Search Engine Optimization” and it’s everywhere. Ever wonder why cooking recipes on the internet have paragraphs of banal family history before giving you the steps? SEO. Are you annoyed when a piece of video game news that could have been summed up with two sentences takes three paragraphs to get to the point? SEO. Things have gotten so bad though that you pretty much have to engage in SEO defensively these days, lest you get buried on Page 27 of the search results.

And all of this is (presumably) before AI has gotten involved belting out 10,000 articles a second.

A lot has already been said about polarization in US politics and misinformation in general, but I do feel like the dilution of utility of the internet has played a part in that. People have their own confirmation biases, yes, but it also true that when there is so much nonsense everywhere, that you retreat to the familiar. Can you trust this news outlet? Can you trust this expert citing that study? After a while, it simply becomes too much to research and you end up choosing 1-2 sources that you thereafter defer to. Bam. Polarization. Well, that and certain topics – such as whether you should force a 10-year old girl to give birth – afford no ready compromises.

In any case, I do see there being a potential nightmare scenario of a Cyberpunk-esque warring AI duel between ones engaging in auto-SEO and others desperately trying to filter out the millions of posts/articles/tweets crafted to capture the attention of whatever human observers are left braving the madness between the pockets of “trusted” information. I would like to imagine saner heads would prevail before unleashing such AI, but… well… *gestures at everything in general.*

Posted on November 10, 2022, in Commentary and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 9 Comments.

  1. Isn’t the ‘simple’ solution to this to just have trusted sources that filter up to the top over others due to the ‘weight’ of them being trusted? If the majority agree that new site X is trusted, it comes up early vs other news sites that have a lower trust value.

    Of course how you capture trusted, and whether there is money in such a system for Google to do it is another story…


    • Yeah, “trusted” sites are the best case scenario. But then you have our existing problem of billionaires (Bezos, Musk, Murdock, Koch, etc) owning the only islands in a sea of madness. Nevermind whatever false harbors Google is willing to sell in the form of ads and curated search results. And all of them profit off our “engagement,” which really just means keeping us angry all the time.

      It’s not all over yet – despite losing several family members to the Fox cult already – but I don’t see how we get off this crazy train.


    • Yeah, therein lies the rub. Any scheme to capture trusted, even one designed by the angels themselves, will be decried as more big tech, anti-free-expression, shadowy WEF cabal tyranny. Besides, for a large plurality of the West, mainstream news media is already a punchline, and the success of Covid denialism has put a huge dent in the perception of academia, so I wouldn’t be surprised if something like Rogan’s podcast ended up filtered near the top.

      Also, if we reach the point where AI writes credible polemic, we’ll have also trivially reached the point where AI can defeat any consensus-based scheme by “upvoting” its own crap.


  2. “Are you annoyed when a piece of video game news that could have been summed up with two sentences takes three paragraphs to get to the point?” Ummm… You’ve read my blog, right? I don’t think verbosity necessarily implies AI or SEO, just liking the sound of your own voice.

    As for the rest of it, as usual I find it doesn’t really match my own experience, which honestly has been the case for the whole of my life. Maybe I’ve travelled through time in a bubble of my own making but the culture I read about has rarely been a close match for the culture I inhabit. I spend far too much time browsing the internet and using search engines but I rarely see the kind of sites or news you’re describing.

    Perhaps one of the reasons is that in the thirty years I’ve been doing it I’ve never just taken the top results in a search. I frequently go half a dozen pages down, reading the short descriptions and clicking through the interesting ones. If it’s something I’m interested in I’ll often check several sources and triangulate the results. Just as a for example, when I was writing yesterday’s post for my blog, I browsed a bunch of articles before picking on the two links I used to illustrate the environmental impact of internet communication and online gaming and neither of them came from sites I would routinely look at.

    I don’t see that relying on misinformation distributed via the internet, AI or otherwise, is different in type to what was the norm for most of the 20th century, namely reading one newspaper and getting all your opinions from that. I don’t know if it was the same in the US but in the UK, the names of national newspapers, even now, stand as shorthand terms for specific cultural, often class-based, demographics. “Daily Mail Readers”, for example, is a widely-used term of abuse implying close-minded bigotry, while “Guardian Reader” is a frequently-employed insult suggesting bleeding-heart liberalism (Or these days, I guess, wokeism.)

    We’re still in the extremely early days of AI. Talking about how it’s going to affect the future is like talking about how air travel wltl change the world when all we had were bi-planes. As this article suggests, even the people building the AIs don’t really have much of an idea how they work. Just wait ’till the AIs start building the AIs! Whether the mature AI environment will improve or damage human prospects is something we’ll all just have to hope we survive the process to discover but my impression is the one thing we won’t be able to do is stop it happening.

    (As usual, second take to get comment through the AI-enhanced security cordon. Apologies if it duplicates.)


    • Regarding your second point about AI and the future, it’s certainly doubtful that AI will somehow help the current state of affairs. Which, as you point out, is already in a relatively bad place with consolidation.

      It is very possible that we use the internet differently. Throughout the day, I use Google’s “Discovery” mode on my phone to essentially give me a random sample of news stories from various sources. While it’s undoubtedly “curated” in some manner, I feel it’s one of the few ways I can ensure that I see a variety of topics from sites I wouldn’t normally go to. Unfortunately, many of those sites and articles end up being clickbait and/or the equivalent of a 5-page minimum high school term paper. Perhaps that is more a function of Discovery mode itself, which probably grabs the most SEO’d articles it can find. Hmm.


  3. Maybe that’s the thing we need to kill the stupid centralized Internet of today to go back to a federated net. (one can always dream…)

    Who cares about the potential threat of being swamped with “fake news” when the net of today is controlled by a handful of companies that already decide what you’re going to see?


  4. I’m not sure why people are screaming “catastrophe” as much…..

    If you look at history, we already went through exactly the same problem in the past, at the time where the printing press was invented and books became generalized. The result was the same problem as we have now: books, which were considered “truth” because of the enormous investment they required, became a channel where anyone could publish anything. In time people learned that books could contain garbage, and we moved on. This is exactly the same scenario of today, where anyone can put up in days a website which looks as “official” as any government or university. In time people will learn and we will move on.
    In the meantime, I can suggest a website selling some most excellent quantum medicine…. :P


    • I guess the issue is that we “learn” by becoming even more insular than we are today. We will have a few siloed echo chambers surrounded on all other sides by a cacophony of nonsense. Which, admittedly, we are already 80% there. But at least we can still navigate the wider internet and find things.


      • Well, this may be how it looks, but it doesn’t seem to be that dominant. Trump was assuming an easy “red wave” by continuing to spew the same garbage: he failed. Alex Jones got slammed by a huge lawsuit and lost. Here in Europe the “front-page conspiracy theories” ended up being crushed, the politicians associating with it losing a ton of votes. I know that the “all people are idiots” mantra is nice, but the reality is that no, not all people are idiots. The reality is also that democracy and knowledge are a constant battle and not something which can be assumed to exist forever “just because”.


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