The New Digital Dark Age

Article by Gina Neff: “For researchers, social media has always represented greater access to data, more democratic involvement in knowledge production, and great transparency about social behavior. Getting a sense of what was happening—especially during political crises, major media events, or natural disasters—was as easy as looking around a platform like Twitter or Facebook. In 2024, however, that will no longer be possible.

In 2024, we will face a grim digital dark age, as social media platforms transition away from the logic of Web 2.0 and toward one dictated by AI-generated content. Companies have rushed to incorporate large language models (LLMs) into online services, complete with hallucinations (inaccurate, unjustified responses) and mistakes, which have further fractured our trust in online information.

Another aspect of this new digital dark age comes from not being able to see what others are doing. Twitter once pulsed with publicly readable sentiment of its users. Social researchers loved Twitter data, relying on it because it provided a ready, reasonable approximation of how a significant slice of internet users behaved. However, Elon Musk has now priced researchers out of Twitter data after recently announcing that it was ending free access to the platform’s API. This made it difficult, if not impossible, to obtain data needed for research on topics such as public health, natural disaster response, political campaigning, and economic activity. It was a harsh reminder that the modern internet has never been free or democratic, but instead walled and controlled.

Closer cooperation with platform companies is not the answer. X, for instance, has filed a suit against independent researchers who pointed out the rise in hate speech on the platform. Recently, it has also been revealed that researchers who used Facebook and Instagram’s data to study the platforms’ role in the US 2020 elections had been granted “independence by permission” by Meta. This means that the company chooses which projects to share its data with and, while the research may be independent, Meta also controls what types of questions are asked and who asks them…(More)”.

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