Fake news, trolling and online harassment are set to continue at pace with drastic implications for the future state of the internet, according to a new study from Pew Research Center and Elon University.
The large-scale study, conducted by the university’s Imagining the Internet Center, surveyed technology experts, scholars, corporate practitioners and government leaders over a six-week period in summer 2016 and rounded up responses from over 1,500 professionals.
On whether they thought that public discourse in the online sphere would become more or less influenced by bad actors, harassment and trolling over the next ten years, just 19% said that they expected an improvement on the issue. 42% did not predict any change to the situation, while 39% said that things are going to get worse.
Vint Cerf, internet hall of fame member, Google VP and co-inventor of the Internet Protocol wrote in the report:
‘People feel free to make unsupported claims, assertions, and accusations in online media… As things now stand, people are attracted to forums that align with their thinking, leading to an echo effect. This self-reinforcement has some of the elements of mob (flash-crowd) behavior. Bad behavior is somehow condoned because ‘everyone’ is doing it… It is hard to see where this phenomenon may be heading…’
The researchers identified four key themes from the survey responses. The first of these revolved around the belief that ‘to troll is human’ and that anonymity abets anti-social behaviour. The second point touched on the tangible and intangible economic and political incentives which support trolling.
A more optimistic stream of thought considered the technical and human solutions which will emerge as the online world splinters into ‘controlled zones’, with the help of artificial intelligence (AI).
Additionally, the survey revealed the view that community moderation comes with a cost. The report summary explains: ‘Some solutions could further change the nature of the internet because surveillance will rise; the state may regulate debate, and these changes will polarize people and limit access to information and free speech…’
The expert opinions in this study were collected prior to any public revelations around fake news or the role of social media in influencing politics, which leads one to think that a fresh set of responses would lean even further towards scepticism on the issue.