From Green- to Machinewashing: misleading information in the digital age

People today tend not to fall anymore for the unhealthy practice of organisations providing misleading information by about their societal and environmental responsibilities. Greenwashing techniques, which were first noticed in the 1960s, are in fact easier to identify and organisations are urged to ’come clean’. The rise, however, of digital technologies, big data, AI, machine learning etc. poses new challenges in terms of ’digital ethics’, leaving it rather unclear how these technologies - and those in the making - will impact the economy and society. Prof. Peter Seele from the USI Faculty of Communication, Culture and Society is an expert in business ethics who has long studied the issue of greenwashing and who has now developed a novel model to identify so-called ’machinewashing’ techniques.

According to the first definitions that emerged only recently (in 2019), machinewashing is essentially a new form of "green PR" used typically by tech giants to assure of their good intentions surrounding AI and machine learning - and digital technologies and information systems in general - in an attempt to address increasing concerns around issues such as, to name just a few: robots and computer systems making human labour redundant; self-driving cars going awry; mass surveillance; gig economy and proprietary platforms eroding the social welfare state. "Machinewashing involves misleading information about ethical AI communicated or omitted via words, visuals, or the underlying algorithm of AI itself", write Prof. Seele and  Mario Schultz , post-doc researcher at USI, in their forthcoming article for the Journal of Business Ethics. "Furthermore, and going beyond greenwashing, machinewashing may be used for symbolic actions such as (covert) lobbying and prevention of stricter regulation".

Identifying misleading information in the AI domain can be more complicated compared to the environmental domain due to the mere nature of AI (algorithms, proprietary technology etc.). Nevertheless, in both we essentially find organisations aiming to present themselves in a more favourable way to stakeholders given the potential harmful (side) effects to the environment (greenwashing) or to society and individuals (machinewashing). For this reason, in his entry in the Encyclopaedia of Business and Professional Ethics , Prof. Seele suggests adopting the "4 criteria" model originally developed by Greenpeace to provide a guideline for revealing greenwashing campaigns. "The analogy between greenwashing and machinewashing on the conceptual level - as likely as it may be - would not hold if there weren’t any tangible examples indicating the strong overlap. Just as in the Greenpeace criteria ’political spin’ is a key criteria, so is the ’forked tongue’ with digital platform companies", explains Prof. Seele, referring in his article to the case of Facebook and its executives, who have called for more regulation while simultaneously pushing to get the US’s top regulator, the Federal Trade Commission chair Lina Khan, recused. 

The discussion on "ethic AI" is open in Europe and in Switzerland, where the Swiss government recognizes the importance of AI to move the country forward, and with that in mind, has been involved in discussions at the international level. The news portal Swissinfo reports on this subject in an article that features, among others, the opinion of Prof. Seele:  Ethical artificial intelligence: Could Switzerland take the lead?

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