Aviv Ovadya, an MIT grad with engineering stints at tech companies like Quora, dropped everything in early 2016 to try to prevent what he saw as a Big Tech–enabled information crisis. Photo: Stephen Lam / BuzzFeed News

By Charlie Warzel
11 February 2018

(BuzzFeed News) – In mid-2016, Aviv Ovadya realized there was something fundamentally wrong with the internet — so wrong that he abandoned his work and sounded an alarm. A few weeks before the 2016 election, he presented his concerns to technologists in San Francisco’s Bay Area and warned of an impending crisis of misinformation in a presentation he titled “Infocalypse.”

The web and the information ecosystem that had developed around it was wildly unhealthy, Ovadya argued. The incentives that governed its biggest platforms were calibrated to reward information that was often misleading and polarizing, or both. Platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and Google prioritized clicks, shares, ads, and money over quality of information, and Ovadya couldn’t shake the feeling that it was all building toward something bad — a kind of critical threshold of addictive and toxic misinformation. The presentation was largely ignored by employees from the Big Tech platforms — including a few from Facebook who would later go on to drive the company’s NewsFeed integrity effort.

“At the time, it felt like we were in a car careening out of control and it wasn’t just that everyone was saying, ‘we’ll be fine’ — it’s that they didn't even see the car,” he said.

Ovadya saw early what many — including lawmakers, journalists, and Big Tech CEOs — wouldn’t grasp until months later: Our platformed and algorithmically optimized world is vulnerable — to propaganda, to misinformation, to dark targeted advertising from foreign governments — so much so that it threatens to undermine a cornerstone of human discourse: the credibility of fact.

But it’s what he sees coming next that will really scare the shit out of you.

“Alarmism can be good — you should be alarmist about this stuff,” Ovadya said one January afternoon before calmly outlining a deeply unsettling projection about the next two decades of fake news, artificial intelligence–assisted misinformation campaigns, and propaganda. “We are so screwed it's beyond what most of us can imagine,” he said. “We were utterly screwed a year and a half ago and we're even more screwed now. And depending how far you look into the future it just gets worse.”

That future, according to Ovadya, will arrive with a slew of slick, easy-to-use, and eventually seamless technological tools for manipulating perception and falsifying reality, for which terms have already been coined — “reality apathy,” “automated laser phishing,” and "human puppets."

Which is why Ovadya, an MIT grad with engineering stints at tech companies like Quora, dropped everything in early 2016 to try to prevent what he saw as a Big Tech–enabled information crisis. “One day something just clicked,” he said of his awakening. It became clear to him that, if somebody were to exploit our attention economy and use the platforms that undergird it to distort the truth, there were no real checks and balances to stop it. “I realized if these systems were going to go out of control, there’d be nothing to reign them in and it was going to get bad, and quick,” he said.

Today Ovadya and a cohort of loosely affiliated researchers and academics are anxiously looking ahead — toward a future that is alarmingly dystopian. They’re running war game–style disaster scenarios based on technologies that have begun to pop up and the outcomes are typically disheartening. [more]

He Predicted The 2016 Fake News Crisis. Now He's Worried About An Information Apocalypse.


  1. Anonymous said...

    He's definitely not the first person to sound the warning. Many others have, including myself, years and years ago. Some of my articles are nearly 20 years old. And it did little good.

    We're addicted to online social activity, well, some of us are, I'm definitely not. No fakebook, no twitter, no linked in, no reddit, no pintrest, no public profile, no email lists, just a handful of anonymous logins to allow reading and posting on sites deemed worthy of my time and interest.

    You CAN gain knowledge, information and awareness from being online - if you are very careful. But it has become incredibly toxic to spend too much time online, and many, many site (the majority) are simply propaganda outlets.

    This very article is an example of how they use propaganda - look at the headlie. Designed to make you stop, read and pay attention to, but it's not true nor accurate. Their goal is to gain you as the audience, and ultimately, their acolyte. Supporters mean clicks, advertising revenue, maybe even a t-shirt or coffee mug purchase. Readership always means revenue - somewhere.

    Personally, I never fell for that or did any of that myself. No advertising, no trinkets to trawl, just words of present wisdom.

    Glad you have never dipped in the advertising hook Des. Blogger does gather as much info as possible on your readers, so it definitely helps to continue allowing anonymous postings (which are only sort of anonymous, Blogger knows). True anonymity is a cornerstone of freedom. You can use various tools to clean up your surfing / commenting history, but even this fails. Psychological profiling tools can easily identify who has posted what and where. Ultimately, nobody can really say what needs to be said online, it's not safe and never will be.

    And none of this has anything to do with the fake news crisis, which will only worsen imo, because it has proven to be so very effective in suppressing real information and awareness.

    The only answer to this is to be very selective on what you read and from where. Avoid all connedspiracy sites for starters. Next, avoid all propaganda arms for corporate outlets. Find out who owns what, because non-independent outlets generally have a trust problem, they're at the very least, biased and have an agenda.

    Anything that you do read - fact check before acceptance as either real or true. Nobody is going to truly give up the StupidNet, but you can inoculate yourself somewhat by using better surfing habits.  


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