Is AI-Powered Content Moderation Doing More Harm than Good? An Interview with Bestselling Author Ron Barak

Ron Barak is the bestselling author of the Brooks/Lotello series. The attorney and Olympic athlete has earned a Best Thriller of the Year distinction from BestThrillers.com a record three times, and his fiction has also been acclaimed by Brad Meltzer, Lee Child, Tess Gerritsen, James Rollins and others. His latest novel, JK’s Code, is about a gifted cybersecurity prodigy who discovers and unravels a conspiracy to upend the results of the 2020 U.S. presidential election. 

The release of JK’s Code comes at a time when there’s a great deal of concern about election interference. It also comes at a time when online ad platforms are using artificial intelligence to crack down on misinformation. 

In April 2019, Facebook announced that it was harnessing the power of AI to block or remove millions of accounts that “violate its rules against misinformation, hate speech and voter suppression ahead of elections” in India. In September 2020, the company announced that it had removed a network of pages created by Russian operatives who had recruited U.S. journalists to write content that would undermine the U.S. election.

Facebook is not alone in these efforts. On December 4, 2020, YouTube announced that it would start “removing newly uploaded material that claims widespread voter fraud.” On December 9, 2020, Google announced that it planned to lift its bans on political ads after a blackout pertaining to “concerns over election misinformation.”

In this interview, Barak discusses how artificial intelligence employed by ad platforms designed to prevent fake election news has “overzealously and irresponsibly” crippled his efforts to promote his latest work of fiction. 

BestThrillers.com: Prior to publishing JK’s Code, how have you used online ad platforms in the past to promote your novels. Which ones did you use, and did you have any problems getting your ads approved?

Barak: I have primarily used Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, and BookBub. To a lesser extent I have run some ads on Google, Amazon and Goodreads. Until Facebook’s recent unexplained rejection of my proposed ads for JK’s Code, my proposed ads have always been accepted and published by Facebook without question or modification. Facebook’s impersonal rejection of my proposed ads for JK’s Code merely states, inexplicably, that the proposed ads “violate their policies.” I can only surmise that what triggered Facebook’s rejection was either because the ad copy used the words “election fraud” or copy in the novel did.

BestThrillers.com: Can you give us an idea about the subject matter of your novels and their underlying ads? 

Barak: My collection of Brooks/Lotello political and legal thriller novels are pure fiction—make believe stories pulled from timely real-world events, but designed solely to entertain. They contain no real-world advocacy of any kind, political, legal or otherwise, and they certainly contain no real-world misinformation.

In The Amendment Killer, the U.S. Supreme Court has before it the validity of a constitutional amendment enacted to curb corruption on the part of our political representatives. A rogue governmental operative seeking to curry favor with the President by causing the amendment to be defeated kidnaps the 11 year old granddaughter of one of the Supreme Court Justices and sends the justice a text stating “We have your granddaughter, here’s what you need to do.” Without opposition, we ran ads that said things like “What would you do if you were a Supreme Court Justice who had to choose between saving your granddaughter or saving the country?” No one suggested we were advocating any real-world political position. Or violence.

In The Puppet Master, a vigilante serial killer was assassinating corrupt politicians. A local businessman who lost everything he had in the 2008-09 crash blamed the government. He was arrested and charged with the murders. Without opposition, we ran ads that said things like “What would you do if they took everything you had, your family, your home, your business, your dignity and even—maybe—your sanity?” and “Have you ever killed anyone? I have. And I’ll do it again if I have to.” No one suggested we were accusing the government of misconduct or advocating violence.

Our novels are designed to entertain. So are our ads

BestThrillers.com: And how have your experiences promoting JK’s code been different? 

Barak: Facebook has banned all ads written to promote JK’s Code, suggesting that a pure work of fiction about an attempt to influence the outcome of the 2020 presidential election—and any ads intended to advance that fiction—is somehow a real-world piece of “misinformation” and “political activism” that constitutes a threat to our society and cannot be allowed.  

BestThrillers.com: Have you had any contact with actual human beings at ad platforms that have been able to help you?

Barak: Other platforms such as Twitter and YouTube have not blocked our ads and so we have not had to contact actual humans at those platforms. Only Facebook has rejected our ads. In spite of herculean efforts, we have not been able to make contact with a live human being at Facebook. Among other efforts, repeated emails have gone unanswered.

BestThrillers.com: Facebook claims that it employs 15,000 human moderators. In your opinion, is AI sophisticated enough at present to avoid doing more harm than good without some form of human checks and balances?

Barak: While it’s tempting to blame Facebook’s machines, the real problem is with Facebook’s humans. It should not be all that difficult to design algorithms that can genuinely and easily distinguish between political activism and harmless and entertaining literary fiction. It would not be remotely difficult for a multi-billion dollar enterprise like Facebook to provide a valid telephone number staffed by human beings to correct these kinds of errors. Facebook knows this. It actually advertises a telephone number for just this purpose, but when you call it all you get is a recording that says you must present your position by email. However, when you send an email, it is not answered. Now that’s false advertising!

BestThrillers.com: We’re curious to know your thoughts on the future of lawsuits and liability concerning harm at the hands of AI. As an example, the woman behind the wheel of a semi-autonomous Uber vehicle was charged in Arizona with negligent homicide. There are also reports of Facebook’s AI preventing ordinary businesses from advertising, with severe financial repercussions. Until either Facebook’s AI is improved or removed, what kinds of legal activity can we expect to see?

Barak: AI and machines offer great potential for society. For example, in the medical field, AI can already offer faster and better diagnosis and treatment plans than humans possibly can and machines can provide surgical performance far more precisely than the human hand. Whether delivered by machines or humans, performance must be responsible. When it is not, there will be legal consequences, at least for the humans behind the machines. Perhaps a bit metaphysical, there will also be “consequences” for the machines that will be grounded, if only temporarily.

Facebook is today clearly preventing ordinary businesses from legitimately advertising—irresponsibly throwing the baby out with the bathwater. The rejection of my Jake’s Code ads are just one example. I am not paranoid; Facebook is not singling me out for mistreatment. If it is doing this to me, it is doing this to, and harming, many other innocent parties who are not advocating anything inappropriate or dangerous to society.

By the way, private lawsuits by parties being injured by Facebook is not the only kind of litigation that can be expected. As you know, the federal government, joined by many states, has recently filed an antitrust lawsuit against Facebook (and now, more recently, the federal government and another group of states has also filed a different antitrust lawsuit against Google), seeking to break them up on the grounds that they are too large and powerful. And too uncaring, unsympathetic and insensitive. To be sure, Facebook (and Google) will forcefully resist, but maybe Facebook will now get a taste of its own medicine—a court determination rejecting Facebook’s defenses just like Facebook is now rejecting many of its perfectly innocent advertisers!   

BestThrillers.com: What advice do you have for other authors out there who may be relying on ad platforms to help promote their work?

Barak:  Speak up and be heard, with the help of caring media like BestThrillers.com.

Author’s note: Care to evaluate Barak’s intentions of JK’s Code for yourself? Check out the video trailer for the novel on Barak’s YouTube channel permitted without objection by YouTube. You can see it here: Watch the Official JK’s Code Video Trailer

Bella Wright

Bella Wright blogs about books, film and media.

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