In the 2021 Appropriations Act, Congress directed the Federal Trade Commission to study and report on whether and how artificial intelligence (AI) "may be used to identify, remove, or take any other appropriate action necessary to address" a wide variety of specified "online harms."1 Congress refers specifically to content that is deceptive, fraudulent, manipulated, or illegal, and to particular examples such as scams, deepfakes, fake reviews, opioid sales, child sexual exploitation, revenge pornography, harassment, hate crimes, and the glorification or incitement of violence. Also listed are misleading or exploitative interfaces, terrorist and violent extremist abuse of digital platforms, election-related disinformation, and counterfeit product sales. Congress seeks recommendations on "reasonable policies, practices, and procedures" for such AI uses and on legislation to "advance the adoption and use of AI for these purposes."

AI is defined in many ways and often in broad terms.3 The variations stem in part from whether one sees it as a discipline (e.g., a branch of computer science), a concept (e.g., computers performing tasks in ways that simulate human cognition), a set of infrastructures (e.g., the data and computational power needed to train AI systems), or the resulting applications and tools.4 In a broader sense, it may depend on who is defining it for whom, and who has the power to do so.

We assume that Congress is less concerned with whether a given tool fits within a definition of AI than whether it uses computational technology to address a listed harm. In other words, what matters more is output and impact.6 Thus, some tools mentioned herein are not necessarily AI-powered. Similarly, and when appropriate, we may use terms such as automated detection tool or automated decision system,7 which may or may not involve actual or claimed use of AI. We may also refer to machine learning, natural language processing, and other terms that โ€” while also subject to varying definitions โ€” are usually considered branches, types, or applications of AI.

We note, too, that almost all of the harms listed by Congress are not themselves creations of AI and, with a few exceptions like deepfakes, existed well before the Internet. Greed, hate, sickness, violence, and manipulation are not technological creations, and technology will not rid society of them.8 While social media and other online environments can help bring people together, they also provide people with new ways to hurt one another and to do so at warp speed and with incredible reach.

No matter how these harms are generated, technology and AI do not play a neutral role in their proliferation and impact. Indeed, in the social media context, the central challenge of the Congressional question posed here should not be lost: the use of AI to address online harm is merely an attempt to mitigate problems that platform technology โ€” itself reliant on AI โ€” amplifies by design and for profit in accord with marketing incentives and commercial surveillance. Harvard University Professor Shoshana Zuboff has explained that platforms' engagement engines โ€” powering human data extraction and deriving from surveillance economics โ€” are the crux of the matter and that "content moderation and policing illegal content" are mere "downstream issues."10 Platforms do use AI to run these engines, which can and do amplify harmful content. In a sense, then, one way for AI to address this harmful content is simply for platforms to stop using it to spread that content. Congress has asked us to focus here, however, not on the harm that big platforms are causing with AI's assistance but on whether anyone's use of AI can help address any of the specified online harms.

Out of scope for this report are the widely expressed concerns about the use of AI in other contexts, including offline applications. As Congress directed, we focus here only on the use of AI to detect or address the specified online harms. Nonetheless, it turns out that even such well-intended AI uses can have some of the same problems โ€” like bias, discrimination, and censorship โ€” often discussed in connection with other uses of AI.

The FTC's work has addressed AI repeatedly, and this work will likely deepen as AI's presence continues to rise in commerce. Two recent FTC cases โ€” one against Everalbum and the other against Facebook11 โ€” have dealt with facial recognition technology.12 Commissioner Rebecca Kelly Slaughter has written about AI harms,13 as have FTC staff members.14 A 2016 FTC report, Big Data: A Tool for Inclusion or Exclusion?, discussed algorithmic bias in depth.15 The agency has also held several public events focused on AI issues, including workshops on dark patterns and voice cloning, sessions on AI and algorithmic bias at PrivacyCon 2020 and 2021, a hearing on competition and consumer protection issues with algorithms and AI, a FinTech Forum on AI and blockchain, and an early forum on facial recognition technology (resulting in a 2012 staff report).16 Some of these matters and events are discussed in more detail in the 2021 FTC Report to Congress on Privacy and Security.17

Reflecting this subject's importance, in November 2021, Chair Khan announced that the agency had hired its first-ever advisors on artificial intelligence.18 The FTC has also sought to add more technologists to its professional staff. The FTC is not primarily a science agency, however, and is not currently authorized or funded to engage in scientific research beyond its jurisdiction. The FTC has traditionally consisted of lawyers, investigators, economists, and other professionals specializing in enforcement, regulatory, educational,19 and policy efforts relating to consumer protection and competition. Some other federal agencies and offices do engage in more sustained AI-related work, sometimes as a central part of their mission.

With these agency caveats in mind, it is important to recognize that only a few of the harms Congress specified fall within the FTC's mission to protect consumers from deceptive or unfair commercial conduct. Many others do not, such as criminal conduct, terrorism, and election- related disinformation. It is possible, however, that changes to platforms' advertising-dependent business models, including the incentives for commercial surveillance and data extraction, could have a substantial impact in those categories. Further, some disinformation campaigns are simply disguises for commercially motivated actors.20 We did consult informally with relevant federal agencies and offices on some issues, including the Department of State, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), and the National Artificial Intelligence Initiative Office.21 Thus, although we discuss each harm Congress lists, we would defer to other parts of the government on the topics as to which they are much more engaged and knowledgeable.

The scope of the listed harms leads to a few other preliminary observations. First, while that scope is broad, Congress does not ask for a report covering all forms of online harm or the general problem of online misinformation and disinformation. Second, the wide variety of the listed harms means that no one-size-fits-all answers exist as to whether and how AI can or should be used to address them. In some cases, AI will likely never be appropriate or at least not be the best option. Many of the harms are distinct in ways that make AI more or less useful or that would make regulating or mandating its use more or less of a legal minefield. For example, both AI and humans have trouble discerning whether particular content falls within certain categories of harm, which can have shifting and subjective meanings. Moreover, while some harms refer to content that is plainly illegal, others involve speech protected by the First Amendment. To the extent a harm can be clearly defined, AI tools can help to reduce it, albeit with serious limitations and the caveat that AI will never be able to replace the human labor required to monitor and contend with these harms across the current platform ecosystem.

Finally, we note that Congress does not refer to who may be deploying these tools, requiring their use, or responsible for their outcomes. The use of AI to combat online harm is usually discussed in the context of content moderation efforts by large social media platforms. We do not limit the report strictly to that context, however, because the Congressional language does not mention "social media" at all and refers to "platforms" only in connection with terrorists and violent extremists. Governments and others may deploy these tools, too. Other parts of the online ecosystem or "tech stack" are also fair game, including search engines, gaming platforms, and messaging apps. That said, the body of the report reflects the fact that much of the research and policy discussion in this area focuses on social media, and for good reasons. These platforms and other large technology companies maintain the infrastructure in which these harms have been allowed to flourish, and despite mixed incentives to deal with those harms, they also control most of the resources to develop and deploy advanced mitigation tools.


The deployment of AI tools intended to detect or otherwise address harmful online content is accelerating. Largely within the confines โ€” or via funding from โ€” the few big technology companies that have the necessary resources and infrastructure, AI tools are being conceived, developed, and used for purposes including combat against many of the harms listed by Congress. Given the amount of online content at issue, this result appears to be inevitable, as a strictly human alternative is impossible or extremely costly at scale.

Nonetheless, it is crucial to understand that these tools remain largely rudimentary, have substantial limitations, and may never be appropriate in some cases as an alternative to human judgment. Their use โ€” both now and in the future โ€” raises a host of persistent legal and policy concerns. The key conclusion of this report is thus that governments, platforms, and others must exercise great caution in either mandating the use of, or over-relying on, these tools even for the important purpose of reducing harms. Although outside of our scope, this conclusion implies that, if AI is not the answer and if the scale makes meaningful human oversight infeasible, we must look at other ways, regulatory or otherwise, to address the spread of these harms.

A central failing of these tools is that the datasets supporting them are often not robust or accurate enough to avoid false positives or false negatives. Part of the problem is that automated systems are trained on previously identified data and then have problems identifying new phenomena (e.g., misinformation about COVID-19). Mistaken outcomes may also result from problems with how a given algorithm is designed. Another issue is that the tools use proxies that stand in for some actual type of content, even though that content is often too complex, dynamic, and subjective to capture, no matter what amount and quality of data one has collected. In fact, the way that researchers classify content in the training data generally includes removing complexity and context โ€” the very things that in some cases the tools need to distinguish between content that is or is not harmful. These challenges mean that developers and operators of these tools are necessarily reactive and that the tools โ€” assuming they work โ€” need constant adjustment even when they are built to make their own adjustments.

The limitations of these tools go well beyond merely inaccurate results. In some instances, increased accuracy could itself lead to other harms, such as enabling increasingly invasive forms of surveillance. Even with good intentions, their use can also lead to exacerbating harms via bias, discrimination, and censorship. Again, these results may reflect problems with the training data (possibly chosen or classified based on flawed judgments or mislabeled by insufficiently trained workers), the algorithmic design, or preconceptions that data scientists introduce inadvertently. They can also result from the fact that some content is subject to different and shifting meanings, especially across different cultures and languages. These bad outcomes may also depend on who is using the tools and their incentives for doing so, and on whether the tool is being used for a purpose other than the specific one for which it was built.

Further, as these AI tools are developed and deployed, those with harmful agendas โ€” whether adversarial nations, violent extremists, criminals, or other bad actors โ€” seek actively to evade and manipulate them, often using their own sophisticated tools. This state of affairs, often referred to as an arms race or cat-and-mouse game, is a common aspect of many kinds of new technology, such as in the area of cybersecurity. This unfortunate feature will not be going away, and the main struggle here is to ensure that adversaries are not in the lead. This task includes considering possible evasions and manipulations at the tool development stage and being vigilant about them after deployment. However, this brittleness in the tools โ€” the fact that they can fail with even small modifications to inputs โ€” may be an inherent flaw.

While AI continues to advance in this area, including with existing government support, all of these significant concerns suggest that Congress, regulators, platforms, scientists, and others should exercise great care and focus attention on several related considerations.

First, human intervention is still needed, and perhaps always will be, in connection with monitoring the use and decisions of AI tools intended to address harmful content. Although the enormous amount of online content makes this need difficult to fulfill at scale, most large platforms acknowledge that automated tools aren't good enough to work alone. That said, even extensive human oversight would not solve for underlying algorithmic design flaws. In any event, the people tasked with monitoring the decisions these tools make โ€” the "humans in the loop" โ€” deserve adequate training, resources, and protection to do these difficult jobs. Employers should also provide them with enough agency and time to perform the work and should not use them as scapegoats for the tools' poor decisions and outcomes. Of course, even the best-intentioned and well-trained moderators will bring their own biases to the work, including a tendency to defer to machines ("automation bias"), reflecting that moderation decisions are never truly neutral. Nonetheless, machines should not be allowed to discriminate where humans cannot

Second, AI use in this area needs to be meaningfully transparent, which includes the need for it to be explainable and contestable, especially when people's rights are involved or when personal data is being collected or used. Some platforms may provide more information about their use of automated tools than they did previously, but it is still mostly hidden or protected as trade secrets. Transparency can mean many things, and exactly what should be shared with which audiences and in what way are all questions under debate. The public should have more information about how AI-based tools are being used to filter content, for example, but the average citizen has no use for pages of code. Platforms should be more open to sharing information about these tools with researchers, though they should do so in a manner that protects the privacy of the subjects of that shared data. Such researchers should also have adequate legal protection to do their important work. Public-private partnerships are also worth exploring, with due consideration of both privacy and civil liberty concerns.

Third, and intertwined with transparency, platforms and other companies that rely on AI tools to clean up the harmful content their services have amplified must be accountable both for their data practices and for their results. After all, transparency means little, ultimately, unless we can do something about what we learn from it. In this context, accountability would include meaningful appeal and redress mechanisms for consumers and others โ€” woefully lacking now and perhaps hard to imagine at scale โ€” and the use of independent audits and algorithmic impact assessments (AIAs). Frameworks for such audits and AIAs have been proposed, but many questions about their focus, content, and norms remain. Like researchers, auditors also need protection to do this work, whether they are employed internally or externally, and they themselves need to be held accountable. Possible regulation to implement both transparency and accountability requirements is discussed below, and the import of focusing on these goals cannot be overstated, though they do not stand in for more substantive reforms.

Fourth, data scientists and their employers who build AI tools โ€” as well as the firms procuring and deploying them โ€” are responsible for both inputs and outputs. They should all strive to hire and retain diverse teams, which may help reduce inadvertent bias or discrimination, and to avoid using training data and classifications that reflect existing societal and historical inequities. Appropriate documentation of the datasets, models, and work undertaken to create these tools is important in this regard. They should all be concerned, too, with potential impact and actual outcomes, even though those designing the tools will not always know how they will ultimately be used. Further, they should always keep privacy and security in mind, such as in their treatment of the training data. It may be that these responsibilities need to be imposed on executives overseeing development and deployment of these tools, not merely pushed as ethical precepts.

Fifth, platforms and others should use the range of interventions at their disposal, such as tools that slow the viral spread or otherwise limit the impact of certain harmful content. Automated tools can do more with harmful content than simply identify and delete it. These tools can change how platform users engage with content and are thus internal checks on a platform's own recommendation engines that result in such engagement in the first place.23 They include, among other things, limiting ad targeting options, downranking, labeling, or inserting interstitial pages with respect to problematic content. How effective any of these tools are โ€” and under what circumstances โ€” is unknown and often still dependent on detection of particular content, which, as noted, AI usually does not do well. In any event, the efficacy of these tools needs more study, which is severely hindered by platform secrecy. AI tools can also help map and uncover networks of people and entities spreading the harmful content at issue. As a corollary, they can be used to amplify content deemed authoritative or trustworthy. Assuming confidence in who is making those determinations, such content could be directed at populations that were targets of malign influence campaigns (debunking) or that may be such targets in the future (prebunking). Such work would go hand-in-hand with other public education efforts.

Sixth, it is possible to give individuals the ability to use AI tools to limit their personal exposure to certain harmful or otherwise unwanted content. Filters that enable people, at their discretion, to block certain kinds of sensitive or harmful content are one example of such user tools. These filters may necessarily rely on AI to determine whether given content should pass through or get blocked. Another example is middleware, a tailored, third-party content moderation system that would ride atop and filter the content shown on a given platform. These systems mostly do not yet exist but are the topic of robust academic discussion, some of which questions whether a viable market could ever be created for them.

Seventh, to the extent that any AI tool intended to combat online harm works effectively and without unfair or biased results, it would help for smaller platforms and other organizations to have access to it, since they may not have the resources to create it on their own. As noted above, however, these tools have largely been developed and deployed by several large technology companies as proprietary items. On the other hand, greater access to such tools carries its own set of problems, including potential privacy concerns, such as when datasets are transmitted with the algorithm. Indeed, access to user data should be granted only when robust privacy safeguards are in place. Another problem is that the more widely a given tool is in use, the easier it will be to exploit.

Eighth, given the limitations on using AI to detect harmful content, it is important to focus on key complementary measures, particularly the use of authentication tools to identify the source of particular content and whether it has been altered. These tools โ€” which could involve blockchain, among other things โ€” can be especially helpful in dealing with the provenance of audio and video materials. Like detection tools, however, authentication measures have limits and are not helpful for every online harm.

Finally, in the context of AI and online harms, any laws or regulations require careful consideration. Given the various limits of and concerns with AI, explicitly or effectively mandating its use to address harmful content โ€” such as overly quick takedown requirements imposed on platforms โ€” can be highly problematic. The suggestion or imposition of such mandates has been the subject of major controversy and litigation globally. Among other concerns, such mandates can lead to overblocking and put smaller platforms at a disadvantage. Further, in the United States, such mandates would likely run into First Amendment issues, at least to the extent that the requirements impact legally protected speech. Another hurdle for any regulation in this area is the need to develop accepted definitions and norms not just for what types of automated tools and systems are covered but for the harms such regulation is designed to address.

Putting aside laws or regulations that would require more fundamental changes to platform business models, the most valuable direction in this area โ€” at least as an initial step โ€” may be in the realm of transparency and accountability. Seeing and allowing for research behind platforms' opaque screens (in a manner that takes user privacy into account) may be crucial for determining the best courses for further public and private action.24 It is hard to craft the right solutions when key aspects of the problems are obscured from view.

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About This Website

Liv and Zach are creative technologists exploring how to be joyful, yet responsible, humans in a world increasingly full of AI. Generative AI content brings us a lot of joy, but we're also cognizant of and worried about what AI technology is mining from us and the impacts it will have on human society.

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