Sunday, October 4, 2020

#278 / Deepfake Dangers


I have been writing, recently, about how it has become ever more difficult to know what is "real," and what is not real, and particularly as we are increasingly experiencing the world "online." It tends to be a little bit harder to get confused about reality when we are confronting it IRL

In one of my recent blog posts, I focused mainly on how new technology can sometimes sever our direct relationship with the real world. Another blog post focused on the impact that social media platforms are having on our politics and civic life. 

Our current president, as most readers will probably understand, has been a contributing cause of our increasing uncertainty about what is true and what is not true. He has, from the start, been trying to convince the public that truths that he wishes weren't true are not true, and that they are just "fake news." He also says things, all the time, that are just not true at all, with an expectation that the public - or a significant part of it - will believe him. 

It is ironic that the news that the president and his wife have contracted the coronavirus has faced a substantial amount of public skepticism - and that many think that it may well be "fake news." When I posted a "breaking news story" about the fact that the president is now infected, putting the notice on my Facebook Timeline at about 11:00 p.m. on October 1, 2020, it never occurred to me that this story - from a reputable newspaper - was not true. I read the report. It was from the Mercury News. I assumed it was true, and therefore passed it along. Many of those commenting on my Facebook posting, though, did not accept the story as true, and upon reflection, I had to agree that skepticism was appropriate, given the fact that our current president lies all the time. Michael Moore, for instance, quickly advanced the theory that the entire story was a fabrication. The New York Times, sometimes called the nation's "newspaper of record," ran a story on Saturday that made clear that there is widespread mistrust about the story, and that Michael Moore is not the only one who suggests that this news story about the president's medical condition might be "an ultra-cynical con." Time, perhaps, will make clear whether the president's sickness is actually "fake news," or not. 

Hannah Arendt, whose writings comprise a lifelong and profound reflection on totalitarianism, and what makes it possible, points out how dangerous it is for people to lose confidence that they can reliably know what is true. For those interested, the following short article outlines the argument: "Hannah Arendt Explains How Propaganda Uses Lies to Erode All Truth & Morality: Insights from The Origins of Totalitarianism." As truth erodes, democracy disappears, and totalitarianism precipitates. That is the bottomline message. Anyone who has read Orwell's 1984, and remembers the role that the "Ministry of Truth" plays in the story, will immediately comprehend the profound danger we face in our contemporary moment. Truth is eroding, and right before our very eyes. Technology is helping push the process along!

Yesterday, on Saturday morning, I not only read The Times' story on skepticism about the president's illness, I also read an online article that pointed out that we need to be cautious about past "realities," just the same way we need to be cautious about news of current events. Titled, "Fake Video Threatens To Rewrite History," the article talks about technologically-produced "deepfakes," which update the techniques utilized by Orwell's "Ministry of Truth," As the article demonstrates, modern technologies can make it exceedingly easy to present wholly untrue, but deeply convincing, portrayals of the past. The article lists seven different techniques that might help avoid this kind of deepfake danger, but I, personally, was not convinced that the destructive impact of fake news, both current and past, can be avoided by the kind of fixes that the article proposed. 

What, then, to do? There is, perhaps, no fully satisfactory solution. I don't think that there is any "technologial fix" that can give us certainty about what is true and what isn't, and particularly not in the "online" world. Furthermore, while most of us agree that there is, ultimately, a "reality" that exists independently of our own ideas about what it is, we all know that there is no human authority that we can reliably count upon to identify that "reality," or to tell us the truth. Starting with George Washington, who is supposed to have said, "I cannot tell a lie," many have assumed that we can generally count on our president - and perhaps other authoritative public figures - to tell us what is, and what isn't true. Obviously, we are now getting a clear message that this isn't going to work - just in case anyone actually believed the story about George Washington, which appears to be apocryphal. 

We encounter "truth" and "reality" only in the "real world." But as just noted, "truth" and "reality" are not self-evident, even when we are operating in real life. Staying off the Internet, as we seek out what is "real" and "true" may be helpful, but this does not solve the problem. 

Sometime ago, in June 2016, I did try to address the dilemma in a blog posting titled, "Not About The Truth." I think I got it right. We do not live in a world - the human world; the "political" world - that operates on the basis of "truth." Our world operates not on the basis of "truth," but on the basis of "opinion," and since it is a world we commonly share, we need to "talk it out," to seek to resolve our different opinions, and to arrive at some common conclusion, and to forge some common purpose that can serve as the basis for action. That's the best we can do. 

If we do it honestly, and don't make claims that our own opinions define and delimit "truth," I think that will be enough.

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