No matter how much we lower our expectations, no matter how cynical we are about our fellow Americans, the appallingly low quality of some of the Fake News people fall for on the internet is hard to accept. No matter how stupid or improbable the "story" or how utterly amateurish the quality of the source, as long as it happens to tell reactionary idiots what they already believe is true about the world they will pass it around the internet tens of thousands of times. And that's without making any effort to make it look real. With the slightest effort at plausibility and the endorsement of fringe media figures, the story can circle the globe. Seth Rich, anyone?
Last month Radiolab did an episode about a new technology that allows people to create videos of real people saying things (in their own voice) that they never said. In other words, I can take a video of Trump speaking and change what he is saying in a way that looks quite realistic – the new words are made using his own speech, and his mouth movements will match the new script. The working name is "facial manipulation." There are examples all over YouTube, and the researchers quoted in the Radiolab piece have an example or two on their own site appropriately called "The Future of Fake News."
The podcast does slightly exaggerate how far along the technology is. Most of the examples online look realistic enough but, under scrutiny, are still obviously Fake. But in five years? Ten? We can be confident that this will be close to flawless in the not too distant future.
When that happens – and when huge disinformation operations with unlimited resources like those of a certain country that rhymes with Plushia – will be able to pump the last few bullets into the already wheezing and limping democracies of the world. Just imagine the field day people on the right are going to have with this. They already go wild for things that don't even look realistic enough to fool a ten year-old. Think about what will happen when they have video – realistic video – of their political enemies saying whatever someone with editing skills decided they should say.
To people who fact-check and care whether something is fake or not before passing it along to an unsuspecting audience, these videos will be fairly easy to debunk. That is, what, five percent of the population? Everyone else will either embrace whichever version of Reality they prefer or – and I think this is the real goal – throw up their hands and declare that nobody can really say what is real anymore so everything is equally valid.
This is going to be bad. Really bad. We have already entered an era in which it is disturbingly easy and common for people simply to invent their own reality or conflate whatever they prefer to believe with the truth. Malevolent forces are already encouraging this behavior and providing the raw materials that will exacerbate the problem. We have a Vice-President whose preferred strategy for responding to things said by the President is to insist that he did not say the things he said. It doesn't take a great deal of imagination or cynicism to see where this is going.
Pointing out that fake news is fake does very little to dissuade people from believing it if they choose to do so; the dynamic of chasing down and responding to every piece of misinformation that flies around the internet is exhausting, resource intensive, and mostly pointless. Once these manipulated videos look good enough to pass the eye test, I can't see what is going to convince people to differentiate them from reality. Seeing a picture or video of something happening with our own eyes *is* reality to most people, and that doesn't even take the popularity of motivated reasoning into account.