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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.*