High School News:
[The South Bay, California, the early 2020s]
He’d hated Teddy for a couple of years. Teddy was tall and had hit puberty early and all the other kids liked him. Because Teddy was kind of smart and kind of handsome, the girls were fascinated with him as well. He had a lot of the same classes as Teddy and he’d sit in the back, staring at Teddy as he answered questions and flashed smiles to the other kids.
One night, he read a tutorial about how to use some AI stuff to generate stories. He built a website called The Winchester News and set up the AI stuff to scrape the web and copy news articles about the school, then subtly tweak them to avoid plagiarism allegations. Then he set it up so one out of every hundred news stories would mention Teddy in connection to stories about drugs and pornography circulating among children at the school.
It was fiction, of course. The most serious stuff at Winchester was cheap hash which they called soapbar. Kids would smoke it in the bushes near the sports fields at lunch. And Teddy wasn’t one of those kids.
But after a few days, other kids thought Teddy was one of those kids. He’d sit in the back of class and watch the phonescreens of his classmates and look at them reading The Winchester News and sometimes glancing over to Teddy. He watched as Teddy opened his phone, checked a messaging app, clicked on a link, and started reading a “news” article about Teddy dealing drugs and pornography. Teddy didn’t react, just fiddled with his phone a bit more, then returned to studying.
Days went by and he watched the traffic on his website go up. He started getting news “tips” from people who had read the AI-generated articles.
– Teddy is sleeping with an underage girl from the lower school.
– Teddy cheated on his science exam, he had the answers written on some paper which was curled up inside his pen lid.
– Teddy is addicted to pornography and watches it in class.
Of course, he published these tips – gave them as the priming device to his AI system, then let it do the rest. The news stories took a few minutes to generate – he’d get his machine to spit out a bunch of variants, then select the ones that felt like they might get a rise out of people. That night he dreamed that his website started publishing stories about him rather than Teddy, dreamed that someone threw a brick through his window.
Teddy wasn’t at school the next day. Or the day after that.
The teachers had been meeting with Teddy and Teddy’s parents, concerned about the news stories. He’d anonymized The Winchester News enough that people thought it was a low-rent legitimate news outfit – one that had sprung up to serve the kids and parents around the school, likely backed by some private equity firm.
After he heard about the meetings, he stopped generating articles about Teddy. But he didn’t delete the old ones – that might seem suspicious. How would the news site know to delete these? What would cause it? So he left them up.
Like all kids, he wasn’t very good at imagining what it was like to be other kids. So he just watched Teddy, after Teddy came back to school. Noticed how he wasn’t smiling so much, and how the girls weren’t talking to him in the same way. Teddy checked his phone a lot, after the news stories had been circulating for months. He became more distracted in class. He seemed to be distracted a lot, looking out the window, or messaging people on his phone.
One night, he dreamed that Teddy came into his room and started reading out the news stories. “Teddy is alleged to have been the key dealer behind the spike in drug consumption at the Winchester School,” Teddy said, holding up a giant piece of paper and reading headlines from it.
“Teddy was reprimanded for circulating pornography to younger children,” Teddy said.
“Teddy’s continued actions call into question the moral and ethical standing of the school,” Teddy said.
And then Teddy put the paper down and stared at him, in his dream. “What do you think?” Teddy said. “It’s in the news so I guess it must be true”.
Things that inspired this story: Generative models and the potential abuses of them; teenagers and how they use technology; thinking about what happens when news stories get generated by AI systems; a rumor I heard about some kid who used a language model to generate some ‘fake news’ to settle some grievances; the incentive structure of technology; how our networks connect us and also open us to different forms of attack.