We can no longer trust our eyes.
In case you’ve missed it – say, distracted by the dumpster fire that is our government in Washington DC these days – a number of technological developments are threatening to obliterate our ability to tell if a documentary (or Video Blog posting, or news story, or social media clip) is truthful just by watching critically.
We now have the ability to morph a face under studio control. Using advanced, graphics processor-intensive ai algorithms, you take a stock video of your target – say, Keith Richards or Lady Gaga. Then, you use an actor to change what the target says and does. You could take an interview of Keith explaining how heroin informed his song writing over the years, and turn it into a tearful confession that he has found god and is renouncing rock and roll as the devil’s music. And have it come out looking utterly real and believable!
You can imagine the implications for political propaganda, in this active-measures, fake-news, election-stealing era. As many parts of the world lurch toward right wing fascism, and away from democracy, deepfakes will be a frighteningly potent propaganda tool. They make the lies of strong men and dictators seem believable. Scientists are racing to build tools that can detect deep fakes, though this may lead to a never-ending arms race. And, like other lies that spread like wildfire with the help of bots and paid trolls, they may be just as effective once debunked.
Read more in this Guardian story: https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2018/nov/12/deep-fakes-fake-news-truth.
Now, documentary filmmakers and journalists can’t protect their subjects and sources by blurring out their faces. When someone’s identity needs to be protected, the usual procedure has been to place a blur effect on their face. New video editing technology lets this blur be reversed, recreating the original images. Maybe a great thing for fixing focus errors in post, but a disaster for everyone who is fighting for truth and justice against brutal oppressors. Like our close ally, Saudi Arabia. Or the Soviet Union under Putin’s birthplace, the KGB. Or like the FBI during the McCarthy era, and in the 1960s.
What is the answer? According to Berkeley law professor Teri Kanefield (and hero), the way to counter an authoritarian’s firehose of falsehoods is to educate people – to train the populace to consume media (and propaganda) critically.
“Don’t expect to counter the Firehose of Falsehood with a squirt gun of truth.”(p.9)
Instead put on raincoats.
If people expect to be drenched in lies, they can better withstand the effects.
And for documentary filmmakers? Maybe a redoubled commitment to truth and transparency?