Evolving AI
Credit: John Darkow, Columbia Missourian / CTNewsJunkie via Cagle Cartoons / ALL RIGHTS RESERVED
Barth Keck

Is there such a thing as truth anymore? It’s a question I’ve addressed previously, but with each day, our “epistemological crisis” seems to be getting worse.

Case in point: The Timothy Edwards Middle School in South Windsor. Last month, the school community was duped when a fake newsletter sent to “some students and families” described a “fabricated conflict among students.” Principal Candice Irwin wrote a letter to parents explaining the bogus newsletter was generated by ChatGPT.

“The letter closely resembled the formatting of the actual monthly school newsletter and included students’ names and information about ‘consequences’ following the conflict, Irwin wrote in her message,” according to Jesse Leavenworth of Hearst Connecticut Media.

Even if the fake newsletter reached only a few families, the fact that artificial intelligence can be used to simulate authentic communication within a school community is troubling. Aside from the potential for circulating defamatory information, this scenario could easily make parents question the veracity of any information they receive from the school.

Trust in our essential institutions – not just schools – is necessary if a society is to function properly. Public confidence in the Fourth Estate – the news media – has been in decline for decades. Americans who say they trust journalists “a great deal or a fair amount” have diminished from a high of 72% in 1976 to a low of 34% last year, according to Gallup.

It’s really not surprising that trust in the news media is so low, given recent revelations regarding Fox News and its reporting of the Jan. 6 insurrection.

“Dominion Voting Systems’ defamation lawsuit against Fox News has garnered widespread attention for recent court filings suggesting Fox News anchors and high-ranking executives knew fraud claims after the 2020 election were false but pushed them anyway,” according to journalist Alison Durkee. Among the highlights: Host Sean Hannity testified that he “did not believe” the voter fraud claims of attorney Sidney Powell, and Fox colleague Laura Ingraham called Powell “a complete nut.” But that didn’t stop either Hannity or Ingraham from promoting the lawyer’s claims on their shows.

Other Fox personnel demonstrated similar hypocrisy – notably Tucker Carlson – but there’s no need to belabor the point; Fox News just gave viewers ample evidence that it cannot be believed. To that point, 21% of Fox viewers said their trust in the network had declined, according to one recent survey.

Even so, I don’t anticipate Fox losing its status as the most-watched basic cable network anytime soon. That’s because our “post-truth era” – a highly polarized time where people seek a place to belong – won’t allow it.

“As much as we like to think of ourselves as rational beings who put truth-seeking above all else, we are social animals wired for survival,” writes Max Fisher in a New York Times article on the power of misinformation. “In times of perceived conflict or social change, we seek security in groups. And that makes us eager to consume information, true or not, that lets us see the world as a conflict putting our righteous ingroup against a nefarious outgroup.”

The ChatGPT interface. Credit: Ascannio via Shutterstock

Fisher’s point succinctly explains the motive behind the recent dissemination of erroneous information regarding the collapse of Silicon Valley Bank.

“This bank, they’re so concerned with DEI (diversity-equity-inclusion) and politics and all kinds of stuff,” said Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis. “I think that really diverted them from focusing on their core mission.”

“We see now coming out, they were one of the most woke banks in their quest for the [Environmental, Social and Governance]-type policy and investing,” added Kentucky Congressman James Comer.

Never mind that “the Santa Clara-based institution’s professed commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion, or DEI, wasn’t a driver of the bank’s collapse, say banking and financial experts,” according to the Associated Press. “Its poor investment strategies and a customer base prone to make devastating bank runs were.”

Plus, as noted, the AP interviewed “financial and banking experts” from across the country – not politicians – to demonstrate with facts that Silicon Valley Bank “had not properly managed the risk on large investments it had made in recent years as it rapidly grew.” But as we know, facts don’t really matter now.

This takes us back to South Windsor and the bogus newsletter. No one should be shocked that in 2023 a chatbot fueled by artificial intelligence can so suddenly and so effectively create convincing counterfeit content. Emily Bell is certainly unsurprised.

“The most worrying fact to be reiterated is that ChatGPT has no commitment to the truth,” wrote the director of the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism. “As the MIT Technology Review puts it, large language model chatbots are ‘notorious bullshitters.’ Disinformation, grifting and criminality don’t generally require a commitment to truth either.”

Once again, the question must be asked: Is there such a thing as truth anymore?

Barth Keck is in his 32st year as an English teacher and 18th year as an assistant football coach at Haddam-Killingworth High School where he teaches courses in journalism, media literacy, and AP English Language & Composition. Follow Barth on Twitter @keckb33 or email him here.

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