Is Deepfake Armageddon Coming?

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Several years ago when I watched the deepfaked video of US President Barak Obama I was shocked how sophisticated and realistic it was. The tone of his voice and his mannerisms were so lifelike that it was hard to tell that it was fake. Right away my imagination travelled at the speed of light thinking of the various ways this new technology could be abused. Though I could not verbalize it at the moment, I was worried, as John Villasenor puts it, about “the uncertain future of truth.”

Synthetic media or AI-generated media is an umbrella term for audio-visual materials created with the help of AI and machine learning, which has been gaining notoriety with its offshoot known colloquially as deepfakes. This new technology has a great potential to do a lot of harm to our society by aggravating mistrust and confusion among population, spreading disinformation and defamation. And we now know that negative news spreads fast in social media. Moreover, research conducted by Dutch cybersecurity startup Deeptrace found that 96% of all deepfakes (link to the PDF file) posted on the internet were of pornographic nature, mostly deepfakes of popular female celebrities.

On the other hand, like any one tool, it can be used for good, to enhance and enrich our lives in many ways we cannot yet imagine. One of the potential benefits of synthetic media could be its use for educational purposes. We could brings the greats scientists and philosophers of the past back to life using the books they have written, who could lecture and teach us about their inventions and ideas. We could make the study of history more immersive and interactive. This could also make content creation more accessible and affordable, as companies like Synthesia have shown. Entertainment industry, especially cinematography, could become more innovative even with a smaller budged.

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Personally, I do not think we have to worry about deepfake Armageddon, though, of course, we have to raise awareness and educate people to be more discerning. We must remember that not everything shared in social media is true and use our best judgement before sharing. It is also crucial to ensure proper use of this powerful technology by social discussion and appropriate regulation.

So, what do you think? Do the harms of this technology outweigh the benefits?

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Privacy in Digital Age

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I had to stop using WhatsApp earlier this year when it gave an ultimatum to its 2 billion users: agree to share your personal data with Facebook or you can no longer use our end-to-end encrypted messaging application. My friends did not even read the new privacy policy; some even got offending that I that I was no longer a part of WhatsApp group. I had to assure them my leaving the group had nothing to do with them, but left the app on principle and over privacy concerns. Because, you see, when Facebook acquired WhatsApp in 2014 for $19 billion, the users were assured that the company would not turn user data over to Facebook. Eventually, however, this “integrations across the Facebook Company Products” ended up happening.

What does this all mean?After all, are the sayings like “there is no free lunch” or “if you are not paying for the product, you are the product” true?

Of course, the companies want to portray themselves as working for our common good and claim that they strive to enhance our lives. For instance, here is how Facebook describes itself: “Facebook builds technologies and services that enable people to connect with each other, build communities, and grow businesses.” Another tech giant, Google, now a subsidiary of Alphabet Inc., who has made our lives better with its “free” services like Gmail, Google Drive and Youtube, states that, “Our mission is to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.” There is no doubt that both of these companies made our lives better, but that’s not the whole story.

The founders of these companies, who are among the top ten riches people in the world, did not become billionaires by simply working for common good. They work hard and constantly search for ways to offer value to their customers in order to monetize their services. Their business model is based on collecting user information for the purpose of advertising. And that’s where the problem comes in. If we knew and understood how much these companies know about every part of our lives we would be outraged.

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On the other hand, Apple CEO Tim Cook has made it no secret that he does not approve of Facebook’s business model. Though not explicitly naming Facebook he has criticized social media companies that are founded on misleading their users and exploiting their data. Numerous times he reiterated that he believes that “privacy is a basic human right.”

Without a doubt Apple’s iOS 14 made great strides towards improving user privacy making all App store applications show if and how they track their users. However, Ian Bogost of the Atlantic argues that Apple is not committed to data privacy, the only difference is that Apple “adopts considerably better policies than its more data-hungry competitors” but the fundamental problem is not resolved.

What then? Is it all doom and gloom? Acclaimed Financial Times columnist and CNN analyst

Rana Foroohar in her book Don’t Be Evil gives critical analysis of our current privacy dystopia and some directions towards solution. She thinks “Big Tech lost its way — and its soul” but argues that there is still some hope. Demanding regulation, working towards equitable and democratic internet are some of the solutions she offers.

What do you think about the state of online privacy in our current digital age and what can be done to make some fundamental changes to improve it?

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Can We Eliminate Cyberbullying?

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Cyberbullying is one of the major problems of our digital world, and I think, every reasonable person would agree that it should be eliminated. According to Pew Research Centre “four-in-ten Americans have experienced online harassment.” Their statistics also demonstrate that 59% of teens who are between 13-17 ages have been cyberbullied with name-calling, rumor-spreading and received unwanted explicit images, and had their images shared without their consent. This shows children and teens are more vulnerable to cyberbullying because they might not know how to deal with it or be too reticent to share about their experience with their parents who could guide them.

In some ways cyberbullying can be more dangerous than “real-life” bullying, as the bully can hide their identity and this anonymity could convince them that they won’t face any consequences from their words and deeds. Some even might not realize they are bullying a real person because they are not physically present, or because they do not see the person they are hurting. For instance, according to bullying prevention advocate Sherri Gordon most teens think online bullying is funny or don’t realize they are in fact bullying others. And with the power and reach of social media the ridicule can travel far and wide causing more distress to the victim.

Now, what can be done to eliminate it? I think, this issue should be addressed on several levels. The first is the personal level. As denizens of internet, we must educate ourselves on cyberbullying. We need to examine ourselves to make sure we are not taking part in it. Then naturally we should work on raising awareness among our communities.

The second is the parental level. As children are more vulnerable to cyberbullying it is imperative that parents educate themselves about the issue and guide their kids through the maze of online communication. Moreover, it is important to help kids understand that it is an important issue and to make space so they can share their experiences without shame or censure.

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The next is the level of regulation. Some may think it is unnecessary as the study shows that only 33% of Americans think that social media companies should be held responsible for cyberbullying on their platforms. However, a recent revelation by a whistleblower, former Facebook employee Frances Haugen shows that social media companies are more likely to choose profit over children’s safety online. While acknowledging these platforms can be changed for our common good, she asserts that

“Facebook’s products harm children, stroke division, and weaken our democracy. The company’s leadership knows how to make Facebook and Instagram safer but won’t make the necessary changes because they put their astronomical profits before people.”

Unfortunately, bullying has been with us from the beginning and it is not possible to eliminate it completely from our lives and from social media, but it doesn’t mean we should sit back and do nothing. It should be our goal and we should do our part on each level to reduce it.
So, what is your opinion, can cyberbullying be eliminated? Should social media companies be held responsible for cyberbullying on their platforms? Please share your thoughts in the comments section below.

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Is Social Media Helpful or Harmful?

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It is hard to imagine our lives without social media. When we use it daily to connect with our family and friends, to share pictures or something funny, to discuss current social issues, we don’t normally stop to think if it is beneficial or detrimental to us.

We have to admit that social media brought a lot of change to our society and most of it has been beneficial. It made our world more connected, opened the way for new industries and businesses to flourish, created jobs and opportunities, gave voice to those who otherwise would be voiceless. We can go on and on about the good social media brought to our society but this is not the whole picture.

The benefits of social media are obvious to us but we should not be blindsighted to its potential harms. Last year I watched “The Social Dilemma” , a docudrama film directed by Jeff Orlowski.
The film explores the dangerous human impact of social networking. It features tech experts from Facebook, Instagram and Google, who urge us to pay more attention to how social networks are designed. They argue that the algorithms behind social media platforms are created to get people addicted, to manipulate their behaviour, emotions and views and adversely affect our mental health. 

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Recently The Wall Street Journal published a series of articles titled Facebook Files revealing the major internal research conducted inside Facebook and its other platforms. They found that Instagram – the photo-sharing app of Facebook is harmful for a significant percentage of young users, mostly teenage girls, but they are refusing to make these studies publicly available.

Moreover, the researchers have identified other major problems on Facebook. For instance, one of the articles reveals that Facebook secretly allows a group of its “VIP users” special privileges, that is, they are exempt from following the rules of the platform. As the reporter Jeff Horwitz puts it, 

“Mark Zuckerberg has said Facebook allows its users to speak on equal footing with the elites of politics, culture and journalism, and that its standards apply to everyone. In private, the company has built a system that has exempted high-profile users from some or all of its rules.”

To sum up, the benefits of social media are obvious and undeniable, but like any other tool it has its flaws and shortcomings. For this reason, I think it is important that we research and stay informed of its detrimental effects and how they can be amended and improved. We have to stay watchful so social media does not turn into a platform where profit trumps people and their mental health, where control stifles freedom of speech and expression. 

What is your opinion? Is Social Media Helpful or Harmful? What can be done to make sure it stays a tool that serves and enhances our lives?

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