How Dangerous Is AI for the Future of the Media? 

Let’s focus on media literacy as AI's potential marriage with journalism could become either a fruitful union or a chaotic farce, with fears that it may amplify humanity's worst impulses rather than enhance societal understanding.

May 29, 2024 04:33 EDT

Dear FO° Reader,

Will AI and journalism have a happy marriage? Or will it prove a grotesque farce?

New technologies can have wildly unpredictable effects on culture. The US Defense Department and partner universities originally created the internet to share research and advance knowledge. Now, this global network has unleashed a flood of information, fake news, misinformation, propaganda and conspiracy theories that seem to be just the opposite of advancing knowledge. Many fear that new AI technology will do much the same, unleashing the worst of humanity instead of helping us improve.

Will AI help us have conversations? I have mixed feelings. Maybe we can use AI to support dialogue and journalism. We can build tools that can help channel the flood of information. To extend the metaphor, a well-built channel can direct floodwaters and create fertile fields instead of destruction.

The importance of media literacy and critical thinking

At FO°, we are trying to do the same thing. We don’t report the news — we would need a much bigger staff to handle the grind of the daily news cycle. (Did you know that in modern Greek the word for newspaper is ephemerida (εφημερίδα)? It has the same root as “ephemeral,” something that does not last.) We look at what emerges from the news in its context and temporal continuity. We cut through the tangle of information to give you something truly useful.

How do we do this? We explain and provide context to the ephemeral. We crowdsource content in the form of commentary and reflection. We offer a platform to those who are unlikely to see their insights published in the mainstream media. Many of these insights are systematically and strategically excluded from the corporate media. Offering more perspectives gives you more information, but it also gives you the tools to disentangle all this information and make sense of the chaos. 

Everything we call “information” is incomplete, and all opinions contain an element of bias. Bias is not bad; it is how humans have evolved to think. Bias, perspective and cultural context enable finesse and nuance.

Bias is not random. It is natural, and like anything natural it has patterns. So, we can train an AI model to recognize these patterns.

Identifying an author’s biases, context and intentions is the essence of media literacy. We can use AI to work as a society on media literacy. As my colleague Peter Isackson put it in his Monday column Outside the Box, “Media literacy … goes well beyond the struggle against disinformation.” Bias is not just disinformation, but where an author comes from, how the author understands things through the lenses of culture, profession, philosophy — all the things that make our interaction with the world so rich.

AI can be a good thing for journalism

AI is a beast we will need to tame for our own purposes. In terms of energy requirements, AI in its current state is not sustainable. We haven’t even begun to understand all the externalized costs involved in its development. Ethically, AI poses a myriad of problems. Many corporations fear that addressing them transparently might negatively impact their shareholders’ gains. 

There has been a deluge of apocalyptic discourse about AI eventually seeking the destruction of the human race. Others believe this is just a cynical strategy put forward to inspire fear.

I remember one evening at a networking event, some six or seven years ago, an IT professional was going from one group of people to another, asking them, “What’s your job? What’s your trade?” He would then explain precisely how AI would eventually take over most jobs in their sector. The only one in the group who didn’t fall for the trick was a psychiatrist, my partner. He very sternly kept his arguments to himself and reported to me later about how children like to make up stories to scare their friends. 

Scaring one’s friends is not just a game, but an exercise of self-education. As adults, we externalize to deal with them.

Let me call to the witness stand my old friend Umberto Eco. (In Bologna during the nineties, I used to greet him with a courteous buongiorno a couple of times a week at the newsstand in Porta San Vitale.) Eco would have seen the short videos and tweets that claim the impending end of civilization as a case of what he calls cogitus interruptus — a rhetorical exercise that only partially makes sense, since it lacks context and references. This leaves us no other choice than to wonder, imagine and summon demons from our unconscious. The mind abhors a vacuum, so it will find something to fill it. And the propaganda experts know very well how to summon one or another demon to advance their agenda.

We should be careful about future dangers, but we also cannot let our imaginations run away from us. We will never succeed in hiding from the future, but we can approach it face-forward and consciously bend it to our own purposes. We can harness AI to journalism’s advantage, a project that we are developing with a few colleagues within and outside of Fair Observer, for our French platform. FrancoFOnie. I promise you will hear more about this new initiative. 

Warmest regards,

Roberta Campani 
Communication and Outreach

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