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Computing, You Have Blood on Your Hands!


CACM Senior Editor Moshe Y. Vardi

"Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me," goes an old children's rhyme. That rhyme's end must now be revised to "and words can hurt me too." Consider hate speech. Elon Musk became the owner and CEO of Twitter (now X) in 2022. His stated intention was to turn "the de facto public town square" into a place for unfettered free speech. Social media experts worried that without content moderation Twitter would allow for the proliferation of hate speech. Within three months of taking over the platform, Musk tweeted, "Twitter's strong commitment to content moderation remains absolutely unchanged." That same day, Musk fired, via email, most of Twitter's trust and safety staff, the team responsible for keeping content that violates the company's policies off the platform. Evidence is now accumulating that the worries were not unfounded, and hate speech has now surged on Twitter. But hate speech is prevalent across the Internet, and it has consequences.

The ongoing Rohingya conflict in the northern part of Myanmar is characterized by sectarian violence between the Rohingya Muslim and Rakhine Buddhist communities and a military crackdown on Rohingya civilians by Myanmar's security forces. The conflict has led to mass migration of Rohingya people from Myanmar, starting in 2015, and several massacres of Rohingya people by the Myanmar Army and armed locals in 2017. In 2022, Amnesty International accused Facebook's parent company Meta of having "substantially contributed" to human rights violations perpetrated against Myanmar's Rohingya people.a Amnesty claimed that Facebook's algorithms "proactively amplified" anti-Rohingya content. It also alleged that Meta ignored pleas from civilians and activists to curb hate mongering on the social media platform while profiting from increased engagement.

Another crisis, of a different nature, is brewing in the U.S.—the youth mental health crisis. In 2021, the U.S. Surgeon General issued an advisory report titled Protecting Youth Mental Health.b "The challenges today's generation of young people face are unprecedented and uniquely hard to navigate," wrote the Surgeon General, adding, "the effect these challenges have had on their mental health is devastating." Several factors may have contributed to this crisis, notably the COVID-19 pandemic, but the crisis preceded the pandemic. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control reported in 2019 that the suicide rate among children aged 10–14 nearly tripled from 2007 to 2017. I gasped when I read that.

Apple introduced the iPhone at the end of June 2007 and Facebook introduced its iPhone app in July 2008. Coincidence? "When not deployed responsibly and safely," wrote the Surgeon General, technology tools "can pit us against each other, reinforce negative behaviors like bullying and exclusion, and undermine the safe and supportive environments young people need and deserve."

In the fall of 2021, whistleblower Frances Haugen released a massive set of Facebook internal documents to Congress and global news outlets. The documents revealed that Facebook was well aware of the adverse societal impacts of its technology. Direct quotes from the documents include:

  • "We make body image issues worse for one in three teen girls."
  • "We are not actually doing what we say we do publicly."
  • "Misinformation, toxicity and violent content are inordinately prevalent among reshares."

It is no wonder that dozens of U.S. states are now suing Meta, accusing it of contributing to the youth mental health crisis.

How did we get here? How did the technology that we considered "cool" just a decade ago become an assault weapon used to hurt, traumatize, and even kill vulnerable people? Looking back at my past columns, one can see the forewarnings. Our obsession with efficiency came at the expense of resilience.c In the name of efficiency, we aimed at eliminating all friction.d In the name of efficiency, it became desirable to move fast and break things,e and we allowed the technology industry to become dominated by a very small number of mega corporations.f

It is time for all computing professionals to accept responsibility for computing's current state. To use Star Wars metaphors, we once considered computing as the "Rebels," but it turns out that computing is the "Empire." Admitting we have a problem is a necessary first step toward addressing the problems computing has created.

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Author

Moshe Y. Vardi (vardi@cs.rice.edu) is a university professor and the Karen Ostrum George Distinguished Service Professor in Computational Engineering at Rice University, Houston, TX, USA. He the the former editor-in-chief of Communications.

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Footnotes

a. See https://bit.ly/46iaEaH.

b. See https://bit.ly/3N7QERp.

c. See https://bit.ly/3ufWZU9.

d. See https://bit.ly/3MKyWTP.

e. See https://bit.ly/46f8S9Z.

f. See https://bit.ly/47eIBdh.


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Comments


Georges Brun-Cottan

Deep thanks for your long-term commitment to ethics and how you articulate clearly its challenges. Providing first class links (I totally missed before your article the Amnesty International analysis of the Rohingya 2017 genocide) surely helps :-) Merry Xmas.


Hans Klein

I see this article as basically a call for censorship.

And I suppose there are good reasons for censorship. Indeed the article assembles a number of examples where censorship may have been beneficial.

Yet, there are tradeoffs. Censorship is also used to suppress dissent and alternative views. It is use to filter the filter the news, leaving the public, if not wholly ignorant of some facts, at least unconcerned about them.

Social media is the one place where official top-down narratives are supplemented with alternative views.

When was the last time the mainstream media space reminded you of:
the NATO invasion of Libya and the continued subsequent chaos
the US invasion and recent military defeat in Afghanistan
the US role in provoking the war in Ukraine [see: https://www.amazon.com/How-West-Brought-Ukraine-Understanding/dp/0991076702 ]
the remarkably high death toll due to drugs and suicide in the US
the overall number of deaths caused by wars in which the US played a major role in initiating [see: https://watson.brown.edu/costsofwar/ ]

We live in an information space that is very tightly controlled. Fifteen years ago social media opened that media space, and it was a remarkable period of open debate and discussion. By now control over the media has largely been reestablished, with the exception to some degree of X. So while X has garbage posts, it also has critical viewpoints.

Is the tradeoff worth it? Is free speech, dissent, and critical thinking so valuable that we should tolerate stupidity and extremism? Upon reflection, I believe that it is.

Note the legal and intellectual tradition in the US also places great value on free speech.

Lets not listen to the siren call of those who call for censorship!


Moshe Vardi

Hans Klein sees "this article as basically a call for censorship.", and he argues against censorship. But the article never mentioned censorship. There are many other tools to deal with the harm caused by social media. See for example, https://cacm.acm.org/magazines/2023/9/275696-to-regulate-tech-nullify-click-through-contracts/fulltext or https://cacm.acm.org/magazines/2023/6/273240-breaking-up-a-digital-monopoly/fulltext


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