Algorithms, Evil & Augmented Reality: The Desensitization of Facebook Users

For more than two hours thousands of people viewed an uploaded Facebook feed by murderer Steve Stephens who shot 74-year-old grandfather Robert Godwin, Sr., in Cleveland, a horrific killing that occurred during the same week that Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg gave a keynote address at a developer’s conference in San Jose, Calif.

Two scenes in two very different cities symbolizing the age of machines.

In one of the best perspectives on the Facebook tragedy, Erika D. Smith, associate editor at the Sacramento Bee, wrote:

Police initially thought that Stephens, who killed himself in Pennslyvania on Tuesday, had broadcast the shooting on Facebook Live, the service that lets users to share their surroundings in real time. It turns out he didn’t; he recorded it on his phone and uploaded it. That’s horrific enough. But the day is almost certainly coming when someone really will commit murder live on Facebook, a social network with 1.86 billion active users. When that happens, I’m not sure the Silicon Valley giant or its peers will be ready for it.

Smith, whose hometown is Cleveland, says those “enterprising geeks in the Golden State” have failed to account for “the dark parts of human nature,” rolling out apps and online services in the mistaken belief that these will create a Utopian society. People like Stephens and so many others in our increasingly desensitized culture are bent on or have accepted as reality a Dystopian world where evil or deception reigns.

At his developer’s conclave, Zuckerberg briefly addressed the Cleveland slaying. “We have a lot of work, and we will keep doing all we can to prevent tragedies like this from happening.” He expressed condolences to the Godwin family, switching topics about future innovation, including a riff about “augmented reality.”

We are living in that augmented reality, as far as the human condition is concerned. There is goodness and evil in the world, and algorithms cannot discern the difference, especially since social media like Facebook, YouTube and other platforms promote every conceivable act of violence–admittedly, often in animated video game formats; but those formats and applications were the precursors of what’s coming next. This is OUR reality: Machines can correlate what, when, where and how violence may be occurring online, but then must identify actual v. augmented unconscionable acts in a digital maze that comprises all manner of real and virtual crimes against humanity. All this violence is beyond algorithmic grasp.

Ponder that for a moment. We are drowning in video, digital and animated violence, often graphic in nature, and many of us have become desensitized to it.

There are many social media examples. An especially horrifying one occurred in Chicago on Facebook when 36 people watched a live feed of a sexual assault on a 15-year-old girl. This report of the incident correctly cites the desensitizing impact of digital violence on viewers to explain why no one watching the sex crime notified Facebook.

And that is the moral of the Stephens shooting this week. The multitudes who viewed the killing shared or felt compelled to comment and add an emoticon. But too few were sickened enough to notify Facebook immediately.

In the end, Zuckerberg’s machines have no answer to the conundrum. One reason is technical; another is cultural. Technically, the sheer volume of Facebook content–more than 300 million uploaded photos per day alone–surpasses the ability of algorithms to identify evil-doers like Stephens. If big data could do this, there would not be 83 million fake profiles on Facebook. Culturally, Facebook embraces its brand–an insistent one–of new apps and features that data-mine users’ every consumer whim and continually encourage users to share, like, add content and increase traffic.

As a result, Facebook has to rely on desensitized users to keep the platform safe by reporting evil acts that algorithms cannot detect–textbook Utopian Silicon Valley vision. At the same time the platform is touting augmented reality offering new vistas to better humankind and add more volume and traffic.

Facebook is a tale of two faces.

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