In the 21C, “deepfakes” are among us. The use of sophisticated audio and video editing software has spawned a slew of faux interviews, statements, and cultural performances. “Compromising” pictures of Senator X with some semi-clad bed-partner, hi-jacked images or voices of some “A-list” star being sold for real bucks. A Presidential statement embracing a North Korean dictator (Gee, sorry, that actually happened!). Notable figures and ordinary folks will be subjected to this misappropriation of their likenesses and voices. It will get worse before it gets better, but “reality” will fight back in several ways.
Lying, of course, isn’t new. Ever since Cain denied knowing what had happened to Abel (“Am I my brother’s keeper?”), dissimulation has been a standard human practice. In WWII, Churchill (defending the use of misinformation about Allied war plans) said: “In wartime, truth is so precious that she should always be attended by a bodyguard of lies.” Indeed, there is a long history of military deception. In the political world, misquoting or taking statements out of context also has a robust past.
The rise of photography and electronic media (the original stuff: radio and TV) held the promise of verifiability as to what people said and did; after all, we had it “on tape.” But now, we’re all used to computer generated graphics as the background in many movies and the mix of live (“real”) and fake characters (“Who Framed Roger Rabbit,” a film mash-up of live and cartoon characters dates from 1988). The progress of technology has now advanced to the point that photos, recordings, and videos can all easily (with a modest amount of technical savvy) be wholly created. Now, everything is up for grabs; the lines between fact and fiction have been rubbed out and we’re left a bit bewildered. Most of the time (with things that proclaim or at least signal their “fictionality”) it doesn’t matter, but deep fakes present the risk of undermining our confidence in understanding what is “real” in a new and problematic way.
One of the complications arises because of the highly accelerated speed of social media. Items are re-“Xed” (formerly re-twittered/tweeted) or forwarded in chat or email in a moment, almost always with an implicit endorsement (at least of interest if not veracity). Retractions, corrections, clarifications, etc. aren’t so newsworthy and don’t get passed along, so the initial “news” stays in our social media consciousness far more than any digested assessment of the situation.
Did Biden really say that he loves China? Did Putin announce Russian withdrawal from Ukraine? Did some prosecutor’s announcement of an investigation get transmogrified into an indictment? Apparent slurs (racial, ethnic, personal) by media personalities are easy to produce. We might as well expect a remastered statement by Walter Cronkite (the personification of trustworthiness) announcing that the moon landing was a fraud. In each case, the damage is quickly done and never fully remedied.
A second complication comes from the broad undermining of truth in modern society. Propaganda isn’t new, but the degree to which notable people make false statements or statements without caring whether they’re speaking the truth has become far too ordinary. When we don’t care (as a society) if we’re hearing the truth, then we shouldn’t be surprised when we get all manner of gobbledy-gook. In a sense, the “supply” of truth is a function of the “demand” for it; it’s basic economics. Great efforts are being made to train young people in “media literacy” and “critical thinking”; but there is an awfully long way to go in this direction.
Another problem (less dire) arises from deepfake videos that undermine artists’ performances. With a little work, I can look like Olivier as Hamlet or do a cover of Taylor Swift’s “Cruel Summer” (ouch!). I can even create “influencers” that tout my dramatic or musical work.
But back to the “news” and the remnants of civic culture. It’s ironic that after social media has eviscerated the traditional vehicles of journalism, we now need someone to verify who actually said what. It won’t be enough merely to report on a video of Mike Pence endorsing a chain of marijuana dispensaries, tomorrow’s journalist will need the technical chops to evaluate the provenance of the digital file. Of course, this verification function will likely face its own fakers: a deepfake of Tucker Carlson undermining a deep-faked statement by He-Who-Shall-Not-Be-Named. The possibilities are endless and will make Alice in Wonderland seem downright homey.
Alternatively, the crescendo of falsity may build to such a point as no one knows or cares what is published and completely tunes out. Or maybe, some folks only subscribe to media outlets./channels/streams with some verifiable reliability; sort of like Trust-e for certain websites or the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval. Unfortunately, too many folks already just listen only to those channels that push their pabulum of choice and much of modern journalism has already been eviscerated so that the “reliable” choices are few; as are the number of listeners/watchers who summon enough attention and focus to watch/listen critically. If Jack Webb repeatedly asked for “Just the facts, Ma’am” on Dragnet, he may have his work cut out for him.