Tag Archives: Washington Post

A Picture Is Worth A Thousand Words

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.

Rolling Stone had yet another report of Fox’s “editing.”

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?

 

 

Do We Dare to Hope?

Has Amazon’s Jeff Bezos developed a workable business model for real journalism? According to Politico and other sources, the Washington Post–which Bezos bought three years ago–plans to add sixty reporters in the first quarter of 2017.

That’s not a typo–the Post really is hiring sixty new reporters.

The Post newsroom will grow by more than 60 jobs — or 8 percent — an astounding number in this day and age. Such contrarian additions, of course, come at a time when newsroom staff reductions are the rule across daily journalism.

The Post newsroom will number more than 750, third among the national newspaper-based press and moving it closer to the Times, with which it increasingly competes for high-end talent. The Times complement stands at about 1,307, the company says. USA Today’s newsroom stands at about 450, while the Journal, after its recent buyouts, tells me it employs 1,500.

Furthermore, subscriptions are evidently up at the Times, Journal and USA Today.

According to the story, Bezos believes that old-fashioned journalism — increasingly delivered via a variety of digital platforms from smartphone apps to the Kindle to Facebook — sells.

The Post has seen a 75 percent increase in new subscribers since the first of the year and says it has doubled digital subscription revenue over the year. Many of those new subscribers prove out Bezos’ theory that a mass market of low-price (generally around $36 a year for the national edition, after up to six months of “free trial”) subscription sales will form the leading revenue source for the Post in the years ahead.

In a time of journalistic business desperation worldwide, that’s a hugely important lesson being retaught to all news publishers by both the Post and the Times this year.

This is an incredibly important development. It is not an exaggeration to say that the displacement of genuine journalism by today’s fragmented and inadequate media bears much of the blame for today’s toxic and broken politics. Increasingly, as legitimate journalism has ceded its place to less-than-credible outlets, people don’t know whether they can trust what they read and so they read–and believe–what confirms their pre-existing biases.

As formerly reputable newspapers have competed online for eyeballs and “clicks,” far too many have eliminated sound reporting and substituted “infotainment,” celebrity news, the “bar beat” and sports. They have fired reporters and reduced substantive news coverage (which is more expensive to produce) in an effort to protect their bottom lines. It hasn’t worked.

The Post’s experience vindicates those of us who have insisted that any successful business plan would necessarily begin with a return to quality content–to what used to be called the journalism of verification.

Dare we hope that this “discovery” by national news outlets–their renewed recognition that the public wants substantive content and a return to journalism’s “watchdog” role–might encourage a similar trend locally?

As promising as this news is–and it is–it only addresses the deficit in national news. In Indianapolis and similar communities, we are still without anything approximating adequate coverage of local and state government. Gannett is still chasing those eyeballs by telling us more than most of us want to know about Colts’ games and bar openings.

Fingers crossed; maybe even Gannett will figure out that success in the news business requires…what was that they used to provide? Oh, yeah…news.

Burkha Barbie

A friend has pointed me to a weekly feature in the Washington Post called “Intersect.” Each week’s entry begins with “What was fake on the Internet this week?” and proceeds to list leading hoaxes, stories intended to be satirical that were taken as true, and the like.

So that’s where we are–in a media environment where no one knows what’s true and what’s fabricated, an environment that has made my students distrust the accuracy of pretty much everything they read on line, an environment that feeds and reinforces crazy uncle Ray’s darkest suspicions and conspiracy theories, and lets us all troll for “evidence” that supports our preferred beliefs.

I’m not sure what to call the media overload we live in, but I’d hesitate to call most of it journalism.

I had two immediate reactions to the existence of this (very useful) site. First, it testifies to a phenomenon I’ve previously noted: we have a large number of elected officials and public figures who are walking self-satires. Be honest: if you saw a headline to the effect that Sarah Palin or Louie Gohmert or Michelle Bachmann said Martians had landed and were having sex with antelopes, wouldn’t you believe it? Aren’t they all perfectly capable of saying something like that? Who could blame you for being credulous?

Second, this is exactly where real journalism needs to go. We need more sites devoted to verification (or debunking, as appropriate) of assertions made by our political class. That used to be what journalists did: when Partisan A proclaimed a fact, or made an accusation about Partisan B, real reporters investigated it and told us whether it was true. We need more sites like Politifact and Factcheck and Snopes….not because they are always right, but because–unlike so much of the rest of our current media sources–they are at least trying to get it right.

By the way, I know it’s disappointing, but Mattel really isn’t coming out with a Burkha Barbie…..