How new technologies could accelerate the spread of conspiracy theories

If tech-industry watchers are right we'll soon be living in the metaverse. Glimpses of the virtual environment are already among us, from virtual concerts and fashion to popular immersive games. While the virtual world could revolutionize work and play, it could also supercharge conspiracy theories and disinformation campaigns. Dot Dot Dot Media CEO Laurie Segall joins Geoff Bennett to discuss.

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  • Geoff Bennett:

    If tech industry watchers are right, we will soon be living in the metaverse. Glimpses of the virtual environment are already among us from virtual concerts and fashion to popular immersive games like Fortnite and Minecraft. While the virtual world can revolutionize work and play, it could also supercharge conspiracy theories and disinformation campaigns. I spoke about this next generation of the internet, also known as Web 3, and the risks that come with it with Laurie Segall, CEO of Dot Dot Dot Media and a former Correspondent for 60 Minutes and CNN.

    I think it would be helpful if we start with an explanation of what Web 3 is, and then explain why it could potentially make online conspiracy even more dangerous and nefarious than it already is?

    Laurie Segall, CEO at Dot Dot Dot Media: If you think about Web 1, this was the internet boom and bust of the early 90s, where we were browsing the inter webs for the first time, then you had Web 2. And this was the rise of mobile and social and thinking about using your phone for Airbnb and Uber. And it was the birth of all of these new economies essentially. And now we're entering a world called Web 3, which is, if you imagine technology moving beyond your phone, us living these more interactive and immersive worlds, having communities, having friendships, having digital identities, making money, having jobs you didn't even know could exist in these digital worlds.

  • Geoff Bennett:

    After January sixth, as I understand it, you interviewed some of the people who stormed the Capitol, including the guy known as the QAnon Shaman while he was in jail, and you talk also interviewed his mother. So what did interviews with people like that tell you about how technology can make it really hard for people to change their beliefs, once they believe in conspiracy theories, even faced with significant consequences, like doing prison time, which he's doing right now?

  • Laurie Segall:

    I mean, I got to tell you, it was pretty astounding. He was pushing back so much on all of these questions on why did you do this. And he was holding on so tightly to these beliefs that had put him behind bars, these conspiracies, and then going out and visiting his mother and interviewing his mother, Martha, where he grew up. And there was just this exchange that we had, where she kept talking about, he was a part of that day, but he wasn't a part of the bad part of it, the violent part. And I kept saying to her, but all of it was bad, you know, an attack on democracy is horrible. And there was just this moment, where she said, but it was all a fraud. The election was a fraud.

    And having spent a lot of time with groups, extremist groups, I will never forget, being out in rural Michigan, and speaking to a young man who had just become a Boogaloo boy, which was an extremist group. And he said, you know, I was lonely during the pandemic, I couldn't go to the gym, and I went on Facebook. And he said, and I found this group. And the next thing, you know, I was clicking on it, and I was surrounded by all these people. I mean, it's a no brainer that this happened. This was both preventable, and this was both predictable. But there's a whole new immersive era of the internet that's happening, where these conflicts are going to be even scarier if we don't get on top of them.

  • Geoff Bennett:

    Yeah, so that then explains why Web 3 as you put it is even more dangerous, because it is more immersive. And that people who are looking for connection, when they find it in a sort of environment, a Web 3 environment, it becomes harder — are harder to find your way up?

  • Laurie Segall:

    That's exactly right. Our children are going to be growing up in these environments that are immersive, there are going to be new platforms for domestic terrorism recruitment for children to be recruited into these types of groups. And so how are we going to figure out how to regulate these new technologies that people are investing billions of dollars into when it comes to Web 3, because it's all the rage right now.

    And I'll give you one specific example. It's called a DAO, a decentralized autonomous network, and it sounds super wonky. But if I could just explain it to you, is like a group chat with a balance sheet and it's run on crypto, and people have the ability to raise extraordinary amounts of money in just a couple days, and at its best. DAO's in the future of Web 3 could give people the ability to organize and fun projects in a setting that could really benefit community building and force organizations and businesses to rethink their business models.

    Now, in the worst of settings, imagine if QAnon could organize, a fortune could organize so quickly using cryptic currency, using a lot of this anonymity. So now imagine January 6, with a DAO. And so I'm not trying to give ideas here as much as I'm trying to say, we have to think about new technology as it is being built because we haven't even figured out how to regulate "Web 2" these big tech monopolies. And now we're entering a whole new generation of the internet and we've got to talk about our children growing up in these immersive worlds, and how do we actually build them with a humanity first approach?

  • Geoff Bennett:

    Are these active conversations happening inside companies like Facebook?

  • Laurie Segall:

    Yeah. I — you know, Facebook has put quite a bit of money towards safety in the Metaverse. And I think there's a lot of skepticism around that. And then you talk about Web 3, the idea behind Web 3 is, it is more decentralized, as there should be lots of companies that have a lot of this different type of power. But there's really no structure, right? And we don't really have an ethical construct for this.

    I just spoke to one investor, and I said, what do you think is the most important thing we need to think about when it comes to the unintended consequence of the next generation of the internet? And he looked at me and he said, Laurie, we should believe in the future, every single thing we see on the internet is going to be fake. And this is coming from a very prominent investor investing in the future of tech companies. So I think it's important to have these conversations now and try to get some of the good people in the doors now, because we certainly have a playbook of what went wrong over the last generation of tech.

  • Geoff Bennett:

    Laurie Segall, thanks so much for your time and for your insights.

  • Laurie Segall:

    Thanks for having me.

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