Google has come up with a potent antidote to conspiracy theories, misinformation, and misleading statements. Yes, even more potent than ubiquitous algorithms unleashed upon poor souls who do not understand the need to conform and stay in one’s place.
The new fakery fighters are short videos, akin to public service ads, intended to inoculate (Google’s word) Internet users against various forms or fakery. These videos, now being tested in Eastern Europe, were developed by Jigsaw, a unit within Google that “explores threats to open societies, and builds technology that inspires scalable solutions.” Jigsaw calls the inoculation approach by the clever name of “prebunking.” Debunking occurs after a particular claim is made. Prebunking works to counter any and all falsehoods continuously.
Now, the videos are actually very useful at teaching basic critical thinking. They illustrate methods commonly used by fakes, like emotional language, scapegoating, and false dichotomies. Jigsaw’s objectives as delineated in its website have value: counter disinformation, toxicity, censorship, and violent extremism. No one wants to fall victim of a targeted well-organized disinformation campaign, or experience incivility in a toxic environment, or heavens forbid be prevented from expressing one’s ideas.
So enter prebunking. What could go wrong?
* It is difficult to imagine the existence of an untargeted ad. Should Facebook, for example, purchase a set of prebunking videos, one would imagine such videos might be placed in the vicinity of a targeted post. This would be a distraction from the information on the post. Google uses a similar approach with its Redirect Method.
Redirect Method placed ads next to search results for terms indicating interest in potentially harmful content, including queries related to joining extremist groups.
* The sample prebunking videos available on the Internet provide general information and look harmless per se. But some sneak in quick unobtrusive preaching. The friendly voice explaining “ad hominem” says sometimes attacking individuals as well as their claims is OK, such as in the case of cigarette manufacturers that claimed their product was safe. One would wonder what other preaching will show up in future examples.
* Although facilitating change to make the world better is a commendable endeavor, some pronouncements can be unnerving, like the title of Jigsaw’s “Issues” page: “Creating future‑defining technology.”
Technology has become our source of knowledge, avenue for social interaction, livelihood for work-from-home bread winners, and prolific provider of convenience gadgets. Whatever future technology decides to create, we will all be in it. We might only see what technology wants us to see – the rest will be relegated to the dustbin of misinformation.
* Clever workers and entrepreneurs that create remarkable systems are not the only source of technology’s power. There is also power that comes from corporatism. Corporatism is perhaps the most worrisome characteristic of gatekeeping tools like prebunking. Here is why.
Corporatism is today’s popular public-private partnership. Large corporations, non-profits, and government agencies mention their public-private partnerships with pride. Corporatism is called “stakeholder capitalism” in polite society; however, critics like Vivek Ramaswamy, author of Woke Inc., argue that corporatism, social capitalism, and stakeholder capitalism are all one and the same. Regardless of wording, it is a collectivist political and economic ideology intended to benefit government and corporations through shared power.
Teddy Roosevelt when campaigning for President in August 1912 spoke in general and hyperbolic terms about public-private alliances. When in office, he did not just talk about the subject, he did break up the big cartels of his day. His words:
Behind the ostensible government sits enthroned an invisible government owing no allegiance and acknowledging no responsibility to the people. To destroy this invisible government, to dissolve the unholy alliance between corrupt business and corrupt politics, is the first task of the statesmanship of the day. Theodore Roosevelt, His Life and Times, Library of Congress
Not all corporations are corrupt. But partners in the unholy alliance share not only power but also agenda, making them a questionable choice for gatekeepers of the public knowledge.
* Monopolies in advertising media, principally enabled by corporatism and armed with tools like “fact checking” and prebunking, can easily cripple any endeavor. Here is an example:
Hillsdale College, a private liberal arts college in Michigan founded in 1844, posted an ad on Facebook promoting its lecture series The Great Reset. Guest speakers in the series explain the origin and objectives of The Great Reset. They describe The Great Reset as an incubator of corporatism that encourages adoption of controlling tools like universal electronic payment systems (cashless societies) and elimination of private property (you will own nothing).
Facebook labeled the post “False Information.”
It should come to anyone’s mind that the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution prevents the U.S. government from censoring Hillsdale’s ad. But it does not prevent a private entity like Facebook from doing so, limiting the ability of Hillsdale to share inconvenient opinions about The Great Reset.
Cute prebunking videos targeting any ad would have been equally effective.
Although the purpose of Jigsaw is not directly to shut people up, it would not be unreasonable to surmise that anyone who does not follow whatever prescribed agenda Google/Jigsaw need to follow would be served with a cute audience-distracting video.