You Won’t Even Know You Are Being Manipulated

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By Reed Anfinson
Publisher, Swift County Monitor-News

Less than two years ago, researchers at the University of Washington used computer technology to produce a fake video of former President Barack Obama giving an address. With a sophisticated program, they had a computer view 17 hours of his speaking on a variety of topics in different places at different times in his presidency. The computer learned how his mouth moved as he spoke the words of a speech.

Those researchers were then able to literally put words in the president’s mouth. They were able to take words Obama had spoken, create a sentence he had never uttered, and have it appear that he was, in fact, delivering a speech with those words coming from his mouth. The effect was so realistic that most people couldn’t tell the video had been fabricated.

We know digital technology evolves rapidly and what was done in a lab by college professors and skilled researchers will soon be on the street for the average computer user to download. Such is the case with technology that can now create entirely fake, but nearly flawless false videos. The troubling and potentially devastating consequences for our society, for us as individuals, and for our government are just beginning to be felt.

Most of us don’t have the skills to edit and manipulate vast amounts of data, images, and audio to create sophisticated fake videos. We won’t have to - an artificial intelligence (AI) system will do that for us.

 “What’s new is the ease that you can do it and the democratization of access to sophisticated tools that used to be in the hands of a few and now are in the hands of many,” digital forensics expert Hany Farid told Angela Morris for an article she wrote for the Society of Professional Journalists Magazine Quill. He told her there are now websites through which you can order up a deepfake video for just $15. “That’s a bit of a game changer,” he said.

The technology allows for seamlessly placing the face of someone onto another person’s body. It allows the facial expressions to match those of the person you think you know. They allow the voice you will hear to sound close enough to the person you know that you feel assured the video is real. Voice technology is going to be better and better as it gains the ability to synthesize a voice to sound precisely like the person whose words are being manipulated.

University of Texas Law School professor Bobby Chesney told Morris he worries “about how badly a deepfake could harm a victim emotionally, and about ‘the larger society harm that occurs if people can’t trust than any video or audio content is authentic.’”
Deepfakes will be able to assume a person’s identity for blackmail purposes, demanding money to keep it from being posted online. Imagine someone having their face and voice replicated in a porn video.

 “Given the stigma of nude images, especially for women and girls, individuals depicted in fake sex videos may also suffer collateral consequences on the job market,” Danielle Citron writes in a research paper with the title “Deep Fakes: A Looming Challenge for Privacy, Democracy and National Security.” Such videos could ruin a person’s social and professional life, causing deep emotional distress and possible financial ruin. It is not hard to imagine them leading to a person committing suicide.

Deepfakes could end a political career. The recent faked video of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi appearing intoxicated was a crude, simple, easily recognized attempt at a fake video. The technology is there to do a hit job that would be far more believable and damaging.
We know that political operatives and political action committees working on behalf of candidates willing distort their opponent’s words and action in their commercials and print advertising. Imagine what they will be capable of doing in fake videos. If there were a line campaigns might not be willing to cross, the Russians, or other state actors, will do it for them. The impact of these fake videos could leave our political and electoral system in shambles.

Deepfake videos will have the capability of putting incendiary racial slurs in to a person’s mouth, perhaps inciting a violent riot that is only identified as fake as the embers of burning buildings smolder and the injured are being cared for in hospital beds.

“If the public loses faith in what they hear and see, and truth becomes a matter of opinion, then power flows to those whose opinions are most prominent – empowering authorities along the way,” Morris quotes the research paper. Those with the money and talent to create the best deepfakes will manipulate our sentiments like puppeteers.

We have an inherent bias toward believing video we see and audio we hear that appears original over what others may tell us about what they have seen and heard. Our perceptions of what we see and hear shape our opinions. It has been proven that even when we are presented with proof that what we heard, read or saw was fake, we have a hard time letting go of the memory it has seated in our minds. If we want to believe it was true, it is even harder to set aside. In fact, we will likely use that false information in conversations with others, even knowing it is tainted.

Trustworthy information is essential for citizens who elect their representatives to enact laws that protect our health, safety, and economy. Is climate change real? Are doctors prescribing highly addictive opioids painkillers too frequently? Are immigrants essential to our economy or a drag on it? Trusted answers to these, and many other questions are needed as we choose leaders to implement the policies and laws.

Journalists are going to be hard-pressed to sort truth from fiction as deepfake videos appear on the internet rapidly gathering credibility. The urge will be the first to air the new sensational news. News organizations are already forming forensic teams trained to recognize deepfakes.

At the same time deepfake videos are set to add even more troubling false information into our society the primary source of trusted information, our mainstream newspapers, are being financial eviscerated by internet companies that steal their content.

Newspapers are a public good essential to accurately informed electorate. We lose them at the very real peril to the future of our democracy.

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