The Online and Social Climate Will Only Get Worse Before It Gets Better (Report)

Pew Research Center and Elon University’s Imagining the Internet Center surveyed 1,537 technologists, futurists and scholars

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The issues of trolling and fake news that have plagued social networks of late aren’t going to get any better over the next 10 years, and they may even get worse.

Pew Research Center and Elon University’s Imagining the Internet Center surveyed 1,537 technologists, futurists and scholars for a new study, and their views of the upcoming decade were not optimistic.

In response to the question, “In the next decade, will public discourse online become more or less shaped by bad actors, harassment, trolls and an overall tone of griping, distrust and disgust?,” 42 percent of respondents expected “no major change,” while 39 percent expected the next 10 years online to be “more shaped” by negative activities and just 19 percent responded with “less shaped.”

Respondents were also asked the following questions, and Pew and the Imagining the Internet Center shared the sampling of answers below:

  • How do you expect social media and digital commentary to evolve in the coming decade?
  • Do you think we will see a widespread demand for technological systems or solutions that encourage more inclusive online interactions?
  • What do you think will happen to free speech?
  • What might be the consequences for anonymity and privacy?

Vint Cerf, Google vice president and co-inventor of Internet protocol:

People feel free to make unsupported claims, assertions and accusations in online media … As things now stand, people are attracted to forums that align with their thinking, leading to an echo effect. This self-reinforcement has some of the elements of mob (flash-crowd) behavior. Bad behavior is somehow condoned because “everyone” is doing it … Social media brings every bad event to our attention, making us feel as if they all happened in our backyards—leading to an overall sense of unease. The combination of bias-reinforcing enclaves and global access to bad actions seems like a toxic mix. It is not clear whether there is a way to counterbalance their socially harmful effects.

Andrew Nachison, founder, We Media:

It’s a brawl, a forum for rage and outrage.

Michael Kleeman, formerly with Boston Consulting Group and Sprint, now senior fellow at the Institute on Global Conflict and Cooperation at the University of California San Diego:

Increased anonymity coupled with an increase in less-than-informed input, with no responsibility by the actors, has tended and will continue to create less open and honest conversations and more one-sided and negative activities.

Baratunde Thurston, director’s fellow at MIT Media Lab, Fast Company columnist and former digital director of The Onion:

To quote everyone ever, things will get worse before they get better. We’ve built a system in which access and connectivity are easy, the cost of publishing is near zero and accountability and consequences for bad action are difficult to impose or toothless when they do. Plus consider that more people are getting online everyday with no norm-setting for their behavior and the systems that prevail now reward attention-grabbing and extended time online.

Cory Doctorow, writer and co-owner of Boing Boing:

The internet is the natural battleground for whatever breaking point we reach to play out, and it’s also a useful surveillance, control and propaganda tool for monied people hoping to forestall a redistributive future. The Chinese internet playbook—the 50c army, masses of astroturfers, libel campaigns against “enemies of the state,” paranoid war-on-terror rhetoric—has become the playbook of all states, to some extent … That will create even more inflammatory dialogue, flame wars, polarized debates, etc.

Karen Blackmore, lecturer in IT, University of Newcastle:

Misinformation and anti-social networking are degrading our ability to debate and engage in online discourse. When opinions based on misinformation are given the same weight as those of experts and propelled to create online activity, we tread a dangerous path … In particular, social online communities such as Facebook also function as marketing tools where sensationalism is widely employed, and community members who view this dialogue as their news source gain a very distorted view of current events and community views.

Frank Pasquale, professor of law at the University of Maryland and author of Black Box Society:

The major internet platforms are driven by a profit motive. Very often, hate, anxiety and anger drive participation with the platform. Whatever behavior increases ad revenue will not only be permitted, but encouraged, excepting of course some egregious cases.

John Anderson, director of journalism and media studies at Brooklyn College:

The continuing diminution of what Cass Sunstein once called “general-interest intermediaries” such as newspapers, network television, etc. means that we have reached a point in our society where wildly different versions of “reality” can be chosen and customized by people to fit their existing ideological and other biases. In such an environment, there is little hope for collaborative dialogue and consensus.”

David Durant, business analyst at U.K. Government Digital Service:

It is in the interest of the paid-for media and most political groups to continue to encourage “echo-chamber” thinking and to consider pragmatism and compromise as things to be discouraged. While this trend continues, the ability for serious civilized conversations about many topics will remain very hard to achieve.

Laurent Schüpbach, neuropsychologist at University Hospital in Zurich:

The reason why it will probably get worse is that companies and governments are starting to realize that they can influence people’s opinions that way. And these entities sure know how to circumvent any protection in place. Russian troll armies are a good example of something that will become more and more common in the future.

Bryan Alexander, president, Bryan Alexander Consulting:

The number of venues will rise with the expansion of the Internet of things and when consumer-production tools become available for virtual and mixed reality.

David Wuertele, software engineer, Tesla Motors:

Unfortunately, most people are easily manipulated by fear … Negative activities on the internet will exploit those fears, and disproportionate responses will also attempt to exploit those fears. Soon, everyone will have to take off their shoes and endure a cavity search before boarding the internet.

Galen Hunt, research manager, Microsoft Research NExT:

As language-processing technology develops, technology will help us identify and remove bad actors, harassment and trolls from accredited public discourse.

Marc Rotenberg, executive director, Electronic Privacy Information Center:

The regulation of online communications is a natural response to the identification of real problems, the maturing of the industry and the increasing expertise of government regulators.

David Clark, senior research scientist at MIT and Internet Hall of Famer:

It is possible, with attention to the details of design that lead to good social behavior, to produce applications that better regulate negative behavior. However, it is not clear what actor has the motivation to design and introduce such tools. The app space on the internet today is shaped by large commercial actors, and their goals are profit-seeking, not the creation of a better commons.

Pew Research Center director of internet, science and technology research Lee Rainie, co-author of the report, said in a release:

The vast majority of these experts believe the online environment will continue to be shaped by trolling and other antisocial and struggles over phony or semi-phony information sometimes presented in “weaponized” forms. They predict that human and technological fixes will be implemented, but that an arms race with bad actors will persist that could fundamentally hurt the open internet that many of these experts helped create.

Elon University professor Janna Anderson, another co-author, added:

They said messages of hate and discord and the political manipulation being accomplished via fake news and the fanning of flames of fear are magnified by the ease of replication and distribution of information online. The impact of all of this, they say, is compounded by the fact that mainstream media outlets see audience attention and profits rise when they redistribute these negative or false messages.

And Elon University assistant professor Jonathan Albright, the final co-author, said:

The experts point out that most of the likely solutions to solve these issues of uncivil discourse raise their own problems, because they are likely to involve corporate or government controls over free speech that also raise the potential for surveillance and remove the opportunity for anonymity online.

Image courtesy of 4khz/iStock.


david.cohen@adweek.com David Cohen is editor of Adweek's Social Pro Daily.