Government, Gossip and Grinding Gears

It’s always been a challenge to journalism; there is information, and there is gossip. Sometimes gossip leads to actual facts, and sometimes it fades to dust. Occasionally, it can turn into a stickier substance, more like mud, that clings in an annoying fashion. When gossip seems to be made of some unidentifiable info, you may not be listening to a gossip. You may be listening to a robot.

People talk. People talk about other people. It’s part of what makes us human. With the current configuration of email, social media, texting and chatbots, the edge of the Uncanny Valley can sometimes pass unnoticed. If you’ve never visited before, or maybe just didn’t know that you had, the Uncanny Valley describes the sense of unease that humans can feel when interacting with a non-human communicator. There’s something that’s just … kinda…off. 

The range of reactions span from mild distaste to complete freak out. 

Scientists studying the phenomenon have noted there isn’t a universal level of the ick factor; different people are comfortable with artificial facial expressions, or even animatronic hands. Others feel creeped out by artificial voices – a phenomenon that’s been around for decades.

People report feeling queasy, or anxious, or just repulsed. That is the uncanny valley – the space between reality and artificial reality. 

If you allow yourself to just notice how you feel – if you have an actual visceral reaction – to artificial intelligence, know that you are not alone. 

Now that we have chatbots creating gossip, that valley gets pretty dark. Because they seem to be communicating in our language, our minds naturally try to understand. But if we are consuming that communication with a level of discernment, maybe there’s something about it that just feels wrong. 

As we step into an Election Year, expect that there will be propaganda pouring out of every social media platform, most of it entirely unregulated, performed by bots and programmed to make you feel angry and afraid. If that propaganda is authored by AI, you might even feel a bit grossed out. 

Best to be circumspect. Don’t overindulge in online conversations. Don’t accept ‘friend’ requests that have a name followed by a sequence of numbers. Don’t follow accounts whose point of origin is obscure. 

A recent article in the Washington Post noted that people do trust the media, and that the media they trust most is local news. Getting information about government – and elections – from small sources closer to the story can allow for a sense of ease and connection. 

Chatbots will keep getting louder. If and how you listen can be a cautionary tale. 

Judith Martin-Straw



The Actors' Gang