TIL: Cognitohazards

Could social media posts be actively damaging to our mental health? – literally, not just figuratively? That’s the premise of a TechScape article in The Guardian, that draws on both science fiction and psychological research.

In Neal Stephenson’s “Snow crash” there is a plot device of an image in a metaverse that, when viewed, crashes the viewer’s brain. We haven’t seen this in social media (yet), but there’s an increasing concern about deepfake images and other forms of misinformation. Research suggests that such images are damaging even if viewers know that they’re fakes, which suggests that techniques like content-labelling images as AI-generated are insufficient to remove their harm. Other examples include massively engaging artificial images such as the “pong wars” animation of two simultaneous “Breakout” games going on between two algorithms: something that shouldn’t be as engaging as it is (as I can attest to myself).

Social media attention grabbing at an industrial scale might therefore constitute a cognitohazard, a way of hacking people’s brains simply by being viewed.