One of the most significant ways today’s protests differ from uprisings in the 60s is the ubiquity of cellphone cameras. It’s one thing to hear verbal descriptions of improper behavior–quite another to see it.
Historians tell us that it wasn’t until the Viet Nam war was televised that American public revulsion ended it.
When there’s video, when there are pictures, it’s no longer possible to dismiss accusations as overheated, harder to tell yourself there must have been more to the story…The widespread outrage we are seeing right now is in reaction to appalling behaviors that are shared daily on social media and the evening news.
Unfortunately, propagandists also understand how visual evidence shapes public opinion. Case in point: Fox News. As the Washington Post reported:
Fox News on Friday removed manipulated images that had appeared on its website as part of the outlet’s coverage of protests over the killing of George Floyd…
The misleading material ran alongside stories about a small expanse of city blocks in Seattle that activists have claimed as the Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone. That occupation had until then been peaceful–with people coming and going to hear political speeches and concerts and enjoy free food. Fox’s coverage, however, was designed to give the appearance of armed unrest.
The misleading material spliced a June 10 photograph of an armed man at the Seattle protests with different photographs — one also from June 10, of a sign reading, “You Are Now Entering Free Cap Hill,” and others from images captured May 30 of a shattered storefront and other unrest downtown.
The conservative news site, in coverage that labeled Seattle “CRAZY TOWN” and called the city “helpless,” also displayed an image of a city block set ablaze that was actually taken in St. Paul, Minn.
It wasn’t until the Seattle Times called Fox out for the misleading photographs that Fox removed them and “apologized,” saying “a recent slide show depicting scenes from Seattle mistakenly included a picture from St. Paul, Minnesota. Fox News regrets these errors.”
Sure they do.
A local Fox affiliate ran a story about a family flagging down law enforcement to protect their business from looters, only to have the police come and handcuff them. Fox News removed footage showing police drawing their guns and putting the family in handcuffs, and selectively edited out the police’s mistakes and aggressive tactics.
It isn’t just television. The Internet is awash with deceptive sites; just this week, I read about a site run by a Trump supporter with the URL JoeBiden.info, featuring out-of-context quotes from the former vice president and GIFs of him touching women in ways that would make women uncomfortable.
Now, we face the prospect of even more massive disinformation campaigns via so-called “deepfakes.” As Forbes recently warned, deepfakes are going to create havoc–and we are not prepared.
Last month during ESPN’s hit documentary series The Last Dance, State Farm debuted a TV commercial that has become one of the most widely discussed ads in recent memory. It appeared to show footage from 1998 of an ESPN analyst making shockingly accurate predictions about the year 2020.
As it turned out, the clip was not genuine: it was generated using cutting-edge AI. The commercial surprised, amused and delighted viewers.
What viewers should have felt, though, was deep concern.
Deepfake technology allows anyone with a modicum of skill and a computer to create realistic photos and videos showing people saying and doing things that they didn’t actually say or do. The technology is powered by something called “generative adversarial networks (GANs).”
Several deepfake videos have gone viral recently, giving millions around the world their first taste of this new technology: President Obama using an expletive to describe President Trump, Mark Zuckerberg admitting that Facebook’s true goal is to manipulate and exploit its users, Bill Hader morphing into Al Pacino on a late-night talk show.
The counterfeits are already hard to detect, and the technology continues to improve; meanwhile, its use is growing at a rapid pace.
It does not require much imagination to grasp the harm that could be done if entire populations can be shown fabricated videos that they believe are real. Imagine deepfake footage of a politician engaging in bribery or sexual assault right before an election; or of U.S. soldiers committing atrocities against civilians overseas; or of President Trump declaring the launch of nuclear weapons against North Korea. In a world where even some uncertainty exists as to whether such clips are authentic, the consequences could be catastrophic.
Because of the technology’s widespread accessibility, such footage could be created by anyone: state-sponsored actors, political groups, lone individuals.
The potential for chaos and political mischief boggles the mind. Given the reluctance of platforms like Facebook to alert users to even obvious lies, they’re unlikely to identify deepfakes, even if they develop technology enabling them to do so.
It’s already difficult to counter much of the disinformation disseminated through cyberspace–for one thing, we don’t know who has seen it, so we don’t know where to send corrections.
If a picture is worth a thousand words, what’s a fake picture worth?