How Science, Technology, and Disinformation Converged in 2023

Year-end Reflections on the Nexus of Campus Free Speech, Generative AI, and Ozempic

An illustration of a Black women reflecting on 2023

As the year winds down, I recently shared with some colleagues what I have said every year since 2015: this was a year unlike any other. When I reflect on 2023, however, I believe that his holds especially true. There is an argument to be made that the massive, simultaneous changes that profoundly impacted both higher education and the world this year are extraordinarily disruptive and transformational.

Although the Toward Inclusive Excellence team is currently working on our year-end “countdown” of top posts and podcasts for 2023, which I will not spoil, I will share my belief that this is the year in which science, technology, and disinformation converged on the issues of campus free speech, generative AI, and Ozempic use.

Conflicts regarding free speech on college campuses exploded unpredictably. What started in 2021 as a limited yet divisive discourse about the supposed contrasts between DEI and merit, fairness, and equality (as if the two are somehow in direct opposition) recently shifted into full-blown discord regarding the Israel-Hamas War. In all the decades I have worked in higher education, I have never seen our campus communities more fragmented.

Reported cases of Islamophobia, anti-Semitic hate, and doxing on college campuses have all sharply increased. University administrators even received a reminder from the U.S. Department of Education of their legal obligation to address all forms of discrimination at their institutions

For the first time in publicly documented history, business leaders, millionaires, and billionaires are amplifying their threats on social media to withdraw philanthropic gifts over campus protests. Moreover, anecdotal details shared on social media suggest that BIPOC students, faculty, and staff may have suffered more club and classroom suspension threats and more job losses and rescinded job offers than their white counterparts for expressing their views on this controversial war.

It is especially painful to read accounts of Jewish and Muslim students fearing for their safety on campus. These fears are magnified by the hit-and-run incident that appeared to target an Arab-Muslim Stanford student and the shooting of three Palestinian students near the University of Vermont’s campus. My heart and thoughts go out to all those impacted by discrimination, racism, and harassment on our college campuses.

Alongside the issue of campus free speech, media hype over generative AI went into full throttle this year. This heightened attention comes despite more than four decades of AI research, insights, and usage. The trickle-down effect of this coverage sparked a dramatic response from higher education, yielding a bounty of reports in 2023 about the inevitability of how this technological advance will reshape colleges and universities.

It is not exactly clear how and when this inevitable transformation will occur. As a result, faculty and staff are polarized over the use of AI for teaching, learning, and research. Meanwhile student adoption of GPT chatbots is estimated to be as high as fifty-six percent.

The absence of clear strategies regarding AI is fueling rumors of job loss among some staff and faculty. This fear is not baseless. Current tech sector research preliminarily deduces that those without ongoing exposure to AI in a professional setting are vulnerable to position elimination. The fear of job loss to AI advancements coupled with ethical, inclusivity, and legal concerns, makes all things AI seminally critical for higher education to explore further.

Another critical development literally reshaping the world is the use of weight-loss drugs Ozempic and Wegovy (semaglutide). With more media attention focused on generative AI, there has been less press coverage of the emerging socioeconomic divide over access to Ozempic, which is prohibitively expensive for most people. Given how the “economics of thinness,” as detailed in this Economist article, financially reward or penalize women based on their physical size, weight-loss drugs like Ozempic are as principally important as AI in terms of their impact on human existence.

As this year concludes, I am troubled by the extent to which disinformation and misinformation continue to haunt us with nefarious consequences affecting each of the issues outlined above. For example, several people internationally have been hospitalized after purchasing fake Ozempic and Wegovy injectors. Concerning campus free speech, some institutions have elected to directly address false reports of racist and anti-Semitic campus behavior by employing fact-checking sites. Scholars engaging in disinformation research continue examining generative AI’s role in bolstering the spread of propaganda

Consequently, I believe 2024 will be a seminal year in world history as these disruptive forces—campus free speech, AI, and Ozempic—stand to transform how we interact with and view each other. We have the power to decide what the future brings.

I look forward to exploring these topics more with you in the new year.

Alexia Hudson-Ward headshot

About the author:

Alexia Hudson-Ward is Associate Director of Research, Learning, and Strategic Partnerships, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Libraries.

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Header image is a detail of This is Harlem by Jacob Lawrence. Courtesy of Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden. © 2021 The Jacob and Gwendolyn Knight Lawrence Foundation, Seattle / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. For more information, click here.