Al Gore Brands Addictive Social Media Algorithms ‘Digital Equivalent of AR-15s’

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Former U.S. Vice President Al Gore criticized addictive social media algorithms during his appearance at the U.N. Climate Change Conference—also known as COP28—this week, branding them the “digital equivalent of AR-15s.”

The 45th vice president made the comments while speaking at the Bloomberg Green summit at COP28 on Dec. 5, where he called for such algorithms to be banned.

Mr. Gore’s comments come shortly after the attorneys general of 33 states filed a lawsuit against Facebook and Instagram parent company Meta alleging the social media giant designed and deployed harmful features on its platforms to addict young users.

Meta’s platform algorithms, the lawsuit says, result in users descending “rabbit holes,” where they tend to stay for long periods of time. The social media giant, according to the lawsuit, has actively worked to conceal any evidence regarding the psychological harm the company causes.

Although he stopped short of citing the recent lawsuit, Mr. Gore also referred to social media users falling down the metaphorical “rabbit holes.”

“If you have social media that is dominated by algorithms that pull people down these rabbit holes that are a bit like pitcher plants, these algorithms, they are the digital equivalent of AR-15s,” he said. “They ought to be banned, they really ought to be banned. It’s an abuse of the public forum.”

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Mr. Gore went on to state that social media users who get sucked into the so-called rabbit holes after spending too much time scrolling through various platforms ultimately find themselves in an “echo chamber.”

Here, he said, they are faced with something much worse than just artificial intelligence (AI).

“And if you spend too much time in the echo chamber, what’s weaponized is another form of AI—not artificial intelligence, artificial insanity,” he continued. “I’m serious. I’m serious. QAnon is just the best-known version of artificial insanity. And these devices are the enemies of self-government, and they’re the enemies of democracy. We need reforms for both democracy and capitalism. Both sets of reform are possible,” he added.

Mr. Gore’s comments come as social media companies have faced increased scrutiny over their addictive algorithms and their impacts on child and teenage mental health.

Meta Lawsuit

A newly redacted complaint accompanying the lawsuit filed in October by the attorneys general of 33 states revealed that Meta has received more than 1.1 million reports about Instagram users under the age of 13 since the first quarter of 2019 but only worked to disable “a fraction of those accounts.”

The lawsuit—which accuses Meta of enticing youth to its platforms in order to boost profits—states that Meta knew of the addictive qualities of its platform features, citing a May 2020 internal presentation by the company called “Teen Fundamentals,” which it said mentioned “certain vulnerabilities of the teenage brain.”

That presentation, according to the lawsuit, noted that “approval and acceptance are huge rewards for teens” and thus features such as comments, follows, and likes encourage teenagers to continue engaging and keep coming back to the app.

“The presentation noted that teens were turning to competitor platforms to meet some of the needs discussed in the presentation, and it cautioned that Meta would ‘do well to think hard about how we can make [Instagram] an app tailored to the teenage mindset,'” the lawsuit stated.

It further noted that teens often go down “rabbit holes” because of the “especially ‘plastic’” nature of their brains, and asked how Instagram could satisfy “teen[s’] insatiable appetite for novelty” through features on the app, according to the lawsuit.

The 33 attorneys general accuse Meta of having “profoundly altered the psychological and social realities of a generation of young Americans” through technologies that boost engagement, among other things.

Meta has denied those claims and said it has been actively working to bolster child and teenage safety online.

The Mark Zuckerberg-led firm has also advocated for parents to approve their teen’s app downloads and supported federal legislation requiring app stores to get parents’ approval whenever their teens under 16 download apps. However, the attorneys general argue more needs to be done to reduce the psychological harm various social media platforms appear to be having on youth worldwide.

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