Nobody is more tired of hearing about “fake news” than I am but the phenomenon is not going away. Instead, it could be getting much worse.
In an era ruled by electronic devices the concept of objective reality could soon fly out the window, some members of Congress believe.
A Feb. 19 article by Greg Nash in The Hill describes how newly developed software blurs the lines between genuine video and doctored footage that appears real. He interviews lawmakers who are concerned it could launch a new era of fake news.
“Meanwhile, researchers at Stanford and the University of Washington are currently developing technology that allows people to alter footage of world leaders like Russian President Vladimir Putin and former President George W. Bush, making them appear do things they’ve never actually done,” Nash reported.
We are all familiar with video tricks such as those used in “Forrest Gump” and television commercials. Social media now provides a platform for deceptions of Orwellian proportions.
Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon told the newspaper, “I fully expect there will be a proliferation of these sorts of fictions to a degree that nearly drowns out actual facts.”
The article also quotes researcher Renee DiResta saying, “Democracy depends on an informed electorate, and when we can’t even agree on the basics of what’s real, it becomes increasingly impossible to have the hard conversations necessary to move the country forward.”
That assessment is already apparent, even without news broadcasts enhanced by Industrial Light & Magic. We are being invaded by trolls, and they are not the kind that hide under bridges and scare goats.
Last November, representatives of Facebook, Google and Twitter were called before congressional intelligence committees to explain how and why they distributed Russian-backed ads and fake news reports during the 2016 presidential election campaign.
After initially dismissing the problem, Facebook and Google agreed to crack down on offenders. Twitter banned the Russian government-backed media outlet RT from its platform.
“Experts, however, say what they call ‘computational propaganda’ doesn’t just piggyback on social platforms; it is baked into the DNA and the business model of companies like Facebook, Google, and Twitter. And it’s going to take more than an algorithm tweak to get rid of it,” the Columbia Journalism Review reported this week.
I wonder how we will know when it’s gone. I occasionally watch RT on my satellite dish service and it’s hard to distinguish from CNN.
The issue came to a head this week when Special Counsel Robert Mueller indicted more than a dozen Russian individuals and corporations for their efforts to sway American voters – basically the same thing the Soviets did for many decades in the pre-internet era. Imagine what they could do with fancy new technological tools.
An Associated Press article gives a “real” account of how “fake” video could be used to warp our minds.
“The U.S. indictment centered on a Russian troll farm only scratches the surface of the St. Petersburg agency that allegedly produced online content to sway the 2016 presidential election — and glosses over how unconvincing some of its stunts could be,” stated the AP. The article was written by Raphael Satter and Nataliya Vasilyeva, but the tale they wove sounded more like Boris and Natasha:
“Many of the more eye-popping accounts of the Internet Research Agency’s activities have come from former staff members. One, Alan Baskaev, told the independent Russian television channel Rain last year that the agency made a video that looked like a U.S. soldier shooting a Quran and had even hired two actors in an abortive bid to fake a sex tape of Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton.”
Can’t get any scarier than that.
The Columbia Journalism Review article tells the story of a modern-day Frankenstein who takes responsibility for his role in creating the fake news monster:
“Guillaume Chaslot is a former Google engineer who helped develop the algorithms that decide which videos to recommend to YouTube users after they watch a video, and he says the platform has a very real issue with promoting fake news and disinformation.”
Chaslot wrote a blog post explaining how the most-recommended videos “involved conspiracy theories about the Earth being flat, the Pope being an agent of evil, Michelle Obama being a man, etc.”
“I came to the conclusion that the powerful algorithm I helped build plays an active role in the propagation of false information,” he wrote.
Instead of carrying torches to burn down the castle, YouTube viewers just keep clicking and clicking.
Digital distrust is bound to increase after this week’s order from the FCC repealing internet neutrality. If the Senate doesn’t change course within the next 60 days, internet users could see big changes in access to their favorite sites. It will be up to consumers to decide whether slow feeds are more or less trustworthy than fast ones.
So, where is all of this leading?
“For those who value real information, there will still be some reliable publications and news outlets, and their credibility will need to be guarded all the more intently by professional journalists,” Wyden told The Hill.
The credibility of news has always depended on its source. Internet trolls and video manipulators can only lead media audiences astray if people stop asking where their news is coming from, and whether they trust who is telling the story.