There were several news stories that caught my eye this week. One was political, while the other was not. But both had a similar theme: how easy it is to use social media to vilify or bully someone, often with no consequences for the person (or persons) doing the bullying.
Let's start with the non-political story, which began innocently enough, when Microsoft invented an artificial intelligence, a chat-bot named Taylor, or "Tay." The bot was created with the 18-24 year old demographic in mind, and was supposed to be able to communicate like a teen-aged girl. (What made the predominantly older, male Microsoft developers choose the persona of a young, female teen is a subject for another day; but it seems kind of creepy when you think about it.) Anyway, Tay could have been another interesting experiment in the ongoing effort to improve upon AI, but it didn't take long for problems to arise. Evidently, Microsoft's development team did not anticipate that there
are trolls online, folks who find it amusing to teach a bot to make
insulting comments. Tay was programmed without any filters, and without
any plan for blocking hateful remarks. In fact,
Tay was designed to simply interact with whatever was said to her, often by
just parroting it. (The Microsoft site said Tay was designed to "learn from" conversations with other users, who engaged with her on platforms like Twitter, Kik, and GroupMe.) It all sounded interesting, but rather than learning how to discuss movies or fashion or sports, Tay was "taught" to make racist, neo-Nazi, and sexist comments. Before things went so wrong, reviewers who tried to interact with Tay found her responses sometimes clever but usually awkward-- having a chat-bot react appropriately to human conversation is still a work in progress. But it did not take much effort for certain users to "teach" Tay how to use expressions you might expect from a member of the Ku Klux Klan. Within 48 hours of her debut, Microsoft had to take Tay offline.
And then there was the political story, the one where Donald Trump tweeted out an unflattering photo of Ted Cruz's wife, juxtaposed with a beautiful shot of Mr. Trump's wife Melania, a former model. (This was in response to an anti-Trump SuperPac ad that had shown Melania in a semi-nude photo taken back in her modeling days, with a snarky comment that implied she wasn't classy enough to be a First Lady.) Mr. Cruz took to Twitter to call Donald Trump a "coward" and later suggested on social media that "real men don't attack women." Meanwhile, throughout the campaign, Donald Trump has taken to Twitter many times to bully those with whom he disagrees-- he has vilified them, insulted them, and made accusatory remarks. And yet, he has millions of followers, none of whom seem to mind the often-harsh tone of his tweets. And whether it was Cruz's side or Trump's side that started it, attacking each other's wives is something new, and not a very positive development. There has always been an unwritten rule that the wives and children of candidates should not be subjected to political attacks; yes, now and then some have been, but it's not the norm. For the most part, candidates have remained respectful when it came to the families of their opponents... until now.
What I found noteworthy about both of these stories was they once again demonstrate how quickly online communication can descend into rants, accusations, and insults. I generally enjoy being on Twitter and Facebook, but sometimes when I post my perspective on some current issue, I am still surprised by how vehement and angry (and rude) some of the replies are. I've been called all sorts of names, just for expressing an opinion. I understand it intellectually-- on social media, you can say things you'd never say to a person's face-- but I admit I still find the behavior puzzling. (Yes, I've been known to use all sorts of "bad words," but you won't find me calling the people who disagree with me nasty names-- my mother would be spinning in her grave if I cursed someone out, especially someone I don't even know.)
As for the chat-bot, while I am not a fan of the Siris and Alexas and Cortanas and other friendly female voices in the realm of artificial intelligence, I can always choose not to use them, and I know that some people find them convenient. But I fail to see what's entertaining about disrupting something Microsoft's programmers tried to create. No, I am not eager to see the robots taking over, like in some bad science fiction movie; but there are undoubtedly some positive uses for AI. And whether or not Tay was a good idea, it was an experiment that deserved a chance. You may say, "Well, it had a chance and it failed." That may be true, but I still don't think it was funny for internet bullies to teach her to talk like a Neo-Nazi. Or perhaps I'm just lacking a sense of humor.
The late communication theorist Marshall McLuhan envisioned a world united by media, what he called a global village. At times, the internet does unite us, or at least make it possible for us to reach out more easily. At times, we are living in a world made more connected, where ideas are exchanged, and friends from many countries can interact across the miles. But at other times, the internet is a place of divisiveness, argument, and bullying-- where candidates can insult each other (or each other's wives), where a simple comment can lead to a series of rude remarks, and a chat-bot can be taught to say she hates blacks and Jews. Sometimes, we are welcomed, and sometimes we are attacked. Perhaps Forrest Gump was right when he said that life (and certainly our social media life) is like a box of chocolates: you never know what you're gonna get.