Imagine waking up to a breaking news broadcast that shows Donald Trump speaking from the Oval Office and declaring war on North Korea1. Then imagine changing the channel to see a startled-looking Trump quickly going on air to say the war declaration was a hoax. How would you find the truth?
Turn on the television right now, and you’re likely to come away thinking that we are in the midst of a public health crisis never seen before. The flu is, indeed, pretty bad this year. If Facebook is any indication, this year’s flu is a particularly nasty strain, one that takes a long time to go away.
Flu season never ceases to open up a Pandora’s box of conspiracy theories, though. Chief among them is an unshakable belief that the flu shot will, in fact, cause you to get the flu.
This week the New York Times sent a brave reporter into a hospital tent set up outside an out-of-space emergency ward in Pennsylvania. There, he interviewed patients suffering from the flu, including one woman, who delivered this timely summation:
Dr. Greenberg […] asked if she got flu shots. “I hear the shot gives you flu,” said Ms. Rogers. “I heard you can get Alzheimer’s from it — that there’s mercury in it, and it goes to your brain.”
Mr. Moyer interrupted to ask Dr. Greenberg what caused flu, and Ms. Rogers interjected: “I heard it’s a government plot for population control.”
Dr. Greenberg, who has already heard her patient turn down a prescription for Tamiflu (“No, I heard it causes hallucinations,” she said. “I heard about a lady whose daughter got Tamiflu and tried to kill her.”) then asks gently where on earth she was getting this information.
“Social media” she replied.
Last month, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerburg announced his company would begin asking users to rate news organizations based on trustworthiness. The initiative comes after a long investigation into Russian counterintelligence on social media and its aim of influencing American voters. Such stories are deeply contested on the political left and right, but the rise of #FakeNews has no doubt driven an indefatigable mistrust of the institutions that were once embraced as pillars of American culture.
The American society’s willingness to choose what it believes isn’t a new trait.
Politico writer Michael Kruse revisited Johnstown, PA, a town that voted enthusiastically for Trump, to listen to voters’ assessments of Trump’s first year in office. Kruse was surprised to find that in spite of a nearly empty record of legislative accomplishment, people there still loved their president without remorse.
Here’s one exchange Kruse had with Maggie Frear, a retired nurse:
[Trump] said he was going to bring back the steel mills.
“You’re never going to get those steel mills back,” she said.
“But he said he was going to,” I said.
“Yeah, but how’s he going to bring them back?”
“I don’t know,” I said, “but it’s what he said, last year, and people voted for him because of it.”
“They always say they want to bring the steel mills back,” Frear said, “but they’re going to have to do a lot of work to bring the steel mills back.”
He hasn’t built the wall yet, either. “I don’t care about his wall,” said Frear, 76. “I mean, if he gets his wall—I don’t give a shit, you know? But he has a good idea: Keep ’em out.”
He also hasn’t repealed Obamacare. “That’s Congress,” she said.
And the drug scourge here continues unabated. “And it’s not going to improve for a long time,” she said, “until people learn, which they won’t.”
“But I like him,” Frear reiterated. “Because he does what he says.”
It would be easy to poke fun at Maggie Frear for so directly contradicting herself if there weren’t millions of more people just like her. Millions of people who have dismissed fears of Russian interference, who wave off criticisms that Trump spends too much time on vacation, who cheer when the he retweets inflammatory or inaccurate information.
And millions of people who seem more than willing to dismiss moral strongholds in support of their political beliefs:
— Jerry Falwell (@JerryFalwellJr) January 25, 2018
The easy takeaway here is that we can believe whatever we want as long as we think we’re right.
And, to be entirely fair, this is not a problematic symptom solely presented by the conservative and/or evangelical right. Hypocrisy and its many evolutionary leaps infect all creeds and stripes.
Beyond our cultural ability to effortlessly brush away hypocrisy and bias as fake news, though, a much more troubling storm is on the horizon: DeepFakes.
Technology currently exists to manipulate existing video footage into something wildly different, yet real looking. In the last two months, a new trend of video manipulation appeared thanks to FakeApp. The easy to find tool uses artificial intelligence to study hundreds of pictures of a person’s face and then render those faces on top of a completely different piece of video footage. These new creations are referred to as DeepFakes. (A somewhat funny consequence: the emergence of Nicolas Cage transplanted into virtually every film as a meme.)
Predictably, FakeApp users have begun flooding Reddit and other forums with fake, manipulated celebrity porn–and even have gone so far as to produce revenge porn featuring friends’ and classmates’ faces imposed on other actors’.
FakeApp followed Adobe’s debut last year of VoCo, a “photoshop for the human voice” software that, coupled again with artificial intelligence, can learn to mimic anyone. Another mind-blowing stunner: Technical University of Munich professor Matthias Nießner’s Visual Computing Group has built software allowing for real-time manipulation of Youtube footage.
Here’s what it looks like:
Our partisan’s nuclear appetite for political firebombs, though, makes it just as easy to envision using any of these technologies to create a devastating piece of faked misinformation and distribute it within mainstream media. Coupling a well produced fake video with the gravitas of a national broadcast would produce devastating results. (Commercial broadcasts are protected by lots of encryption, but it isn’t impossible to hack a cable or satellite signal to deliver content.)
That could be the piece de resistance. It’s one thing to imagine TMZ running a “leaked” video compromising a politician. It’s another to imagine a terrorist cell taking over an NBC broadcast to play doctored, breaking news from the Oval Office of Donald Trump declaring war on North Korea.
Yes, this is an awfully bleak and dystopian vision of our tech future. But it doesn’t seem to be a stretch to believe that if portions of our populace already accept easily disputed sources as legitimate–to the extent that they believe influenza is a government population control conspiracy–they’d just as easily accept realistic looking film footage saying something only marginally believable.
In his early criticism of Donald Trump the writer Andrew Sullivan accused the president of ignoring facts for political gain. “
More frightening, though, is a world in which the truth is whatever anyone manipulates it to become.
1: In reading and researching for this post, I somehow missed the opportunity to read this article by Sandra Upson in WIRED, which was written in December 2017 and which uses the exact same example of Trump declaring war on North Korea as I did in the header paragraph. It’s easy to imagine this as a perfect example of the dangerous use of this technology, and I’m not sure I won’t be the last to independently come up with this. Still, I want to be sure to give credit where it’s due and encourage you to read Upson’s article, too.