Fakebook: Why Deep Fakes Mean Deep Trouble

Video and audio are the most visceral mediums of human communication. From the movies that reduce us to tears to the music that lift our spirits, what we see and hear has huge power to shape our beliefs and guide our behaviour.

We all know when we watch Star Trek or immerse ourselves in EDM that we are suspending reality in order to feel a thrill of escapism. But what if reality was suspended permanently?

The rise of “deepfake” technology has the power to fracture society’s ability to tell fact from fiction. The term ‘deepfake’ refers to video or audio that has been altered with the aid of deep learning technology, to usually show a person doing something they never did; or saying something they never said.

Though media has been artificially manipulated for decades, faster computers and easy-to-use, publicly available technology makes convincing deepfakes increasingly easy to produce and proliferate online.

The most famous example is film director Jordan Peele’s 2018 deepfake of President Obama (below) to sound the alarm about the potential abuse of the technology. Being a film director, Peele is well placed to speak of the power of video and audio to manipulate emotions and persuade us to see events in a way the creator wants us to.

Many experts have recently raised their heads above the parapet and began publicly expressing concern. “There are a few phenomena that come together that make deepfakes particularly troubling when they’re provocative and destructive,” said Danielle Citron, a law professor at the University of Maryland “We know that as human beings, video and audio is so visceral, we tend to believe what our eyes and ears are telling us.” Citron was talking about deepfakes in the context of politics. And how a foreign government may release fake videos to sew chaos in democracies and make citizens believe things that never happened.

But technology expert Jamie Bartlett has recently expressed the opposite concern. That the most damaging effect of the rise of deepfakes may not be that we are all duped into believing fakes, but that we will become so cynical that we will believe nothing at all.

“If everything is potentially a fake then everything can be dismissed as a lie.” If a future Trump is caught saying “grab em by the pussy” It’s a deep fake! He will proclaim.

What Can We Do To Protect Democracy?

A recent hearing of the U.S House Intelligence Committee sought expert advice on the best means for governments to respond to deepfakes. Professor Citron contrasted two recent viral examples. The first was a video of Speaker Nancy Pelosi in which her voice was doctored to make her sound drunk when delivering a speech. The second was a parody video of Mark Zuckerberg by the artist Bill Posters in which Zuckerberg is synthetically made to say he controls the world’s data and therefore controls the world.

Citron suggested it was right for the Pelosi video to be removed while the Zuckerberg video allowed to stay online:

“For something like a video where its clearly a doctored and impersonation, not satire, not parody it should be removed.. [but] there are wonderful uses for deepfakes that are art, historical, sort of rejuvenating for people to create them about themselves…” 

The moral and legal principle which Citron seemed to be suggesting is that deepfakes should be permitted in instances where a reasonable person would be able to distinguish it as a fake equivalent to a piece of satire or fictional art but prohibited in instances where the primary purpose of the video is to deceive and injure.

David Doermann, former project manager at DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Project Agency) echoed this sentiment and added that he believes another layer of verification will be needed online. He advocated a new law for social media companies to delay the publishing of videos until some initial verification can be done, akin to the Facebook ads verification.

“There’s no reason why these things have to be instantaneous.. we’ve done it for child pornography, we’ve done it for human trafficking.” 

Public debate continues to rage as to what legal measures should be implemented to protect our democracies from falsification and confusion. But there is at least strong consensus emerging that there is a need to act and to act fast.

As the political scientist Hannah Arendt wrote in the 1950s, the ideal conditions for authoritarianism to thrive is a society where “the distinction between fact and fiction, true and false, no longer exists.” 

The health of democracies all over the world will depend on finding ways to re-establish truth and authenticity of video and audio content. I’ll leave you with this final quote from Jamie Bartlett on what we can expect if regulation is not urgently implemented:

“In the face of constant and endless deep fakes and deep denials, the only rational response from the citizen will be extreme cynicism and apathy about the very idea of truth itself. They will conclude that nothing is to be trusted except her own gut instinct and existing political loyalties..” 

 

 

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Why News And The Internet Don’t Mix

(Image: Steve Cutts)

The way in which we consume information determines how we interpret it.

In his seminal work “Thinking, Fast and Slow” Daniel Kahneman, Nobel prize winning behavioural psychologist  describes how two basic systems govern the way we think. We have a primal ‘system one’ way of thinking which is fast, impulsive and emotional. We also have a ‘system two’ form of thinking which is slow, deliberative and logical.

Democracy demands we use ‘system two’ thinking in order to function. Our institutions are designed to arrive at logical, evidence-based decisions. Our legal systems are designed to apply standards of ‘reasonableness’ in solving disputes. And our media should, in theory,  be designed to engender healthy, informed, public debate.

The internet, by contrast, is designed for impulse. Everything is fast and personal. We click, like, swipe and tweet as our neural circuits light up and react to stimuli like notifications, clickbait and automatically playing video. The internet creates an effortless, instantly, interactive experience which allows us to constantly redirect our attention to whatever grabs it in the moment never settling on one task or focus.

The speed and responsive nature of the internet means not only is it a distracted medium for news consumption but also a highly emotional one. Unlike when reading a physical newspaper in which you digest information and can contemplate it’s content in manageable morsels, online news comes at you fast and encourages you to instantly share your emotional response to a story on a public platform. Today people barely get past the headlines before erupting in a tweet-storm of rage or entering the cesspit of crass comments to vent their anger and opposition.

The toxic environment for discussion and debate we all witness online is a natural manifestation of the internet’s fast and fleeting format.  Studies repeatedly show that the more moral and emotional language used in political headlines and tweets, the more likely they are to receive likes, shares, comments and retweets.

Thus in the competition for clicks, reasoned, logical and important information is often traded for stories that can manufacture outrage, anger and fear. If we want live in a world where media can inform citizens, reflect healthy disagreement and host democratic debate then we must begin to accept the current business model and infrastructure of the internet is incompatible with this objective.

We should also be concerned by the increasing extent to which online news consumption is being dictated by for-profit algorithms. In the same way the food industry has exploited our natural craving for fat, salt and sugar, so too is the attention industry exploiting our natural curiosity for conspiracy, mystery and doubt to lead us down a dangerous rabbit hole of consuming more extreme content in the name of “engagement.”

Youtube is the worst offender. Sociologist Zeynep Tufekci has written on just how manipulative Youtube’s recommended videos and autoplay function are in encouraging extreme consumption:

“Videos about vegetarianism led to videos about veganism. Videos about jogging led to videos about running ultra-marathons. It seems as if you are never “hard core” enough for YouTube’s recommendation algorithm. It promotes, recommends and disseminates videos in a manner that appears to constantly up the stakes”

The Wall Street Journal also conducted an investigation of YouTube content finding that YouTube often “fed far-right or far-left videos to users who watched relatively mainstream news sources”. 

Tufecki describes this recent phenomenon as “the computational exploitation of a natural human desire: to look “behind the curtain,” to dig deeper into something that engages us.” As we click and click, we are carried along by the exciting sensation of uncovering more secrets and deeper truths. YouTube leads users down a rabbit hole of extremism and profits from the process.

The internet has opened up access to unlimited libraries of information allowing us to learn more about the world than ever before. However from inhibiting reasoned discussion to encouraging extreme consumption today’s diet of digital news isn’t making us smart it’s making us sick.

Fast Food News And Information Obesity

Article was originally published on the Iras Global Observer as part of a new collaboration project between their site and The Conversation Room

Be it the colossal shift in our diets towards snacking processed food to the life changing opportunities of international travel arising from commercial aviation, history shows that for better or worse human behaviour and consumption patterns are shaped by new technologies.

In 2017, nowhere is technology changing our behaviour more rapidly than through mobile consumption of news and information. The research group Pew found that the number of United States citizens who receive news through a mobile device rose from 54% in 2013 to 72% in 2016.

In their more detailed report analysing the demographics of news consumption, Pew found that:

“While solid majorities of both those ages 50-64 (72%) and those 65+ (85%) often get news on TV, far smaller shares of younger adults do so (45% of those 30-49 and 27% of those 18-29). Alternatively, the two younger groups of adults are much more likely than older adults to turn to online platforms for news – 50% of 18- to 29-year-olds and 49% of those ages 30-49 often do so.”

The data shows the explosive effect of smartphone technology and a global youth migration to social media platforms for news and information. In the past people might skim the morning paper on the train to work or catch the six o’clock news while making dinner but today we have an endless minute by minute drip of news and information at the end of our fingertips.

For news outlets this presents stark new challenges. Rather than only competing with other newspapers and magazines in a shop window, news outlets must now fight on a global scale through the thick grass of cat memes and clickbait to fight for our attention and clicks.

This seismic shift in publishing and consumption was aptly summarized by Katherine Viner, editor of the Guardian and Observer who noted in a recent address:

“The transition from print to digital did not initially change the basic business model for many news organisations – that is, selling advertisements to fund the journalism delivered to readers. For a time, it seemed that the potentially vast scale of an online audience might compensate for the decline in print readers and advertisers. But this business model is currently collapsing, as Facebook and Google swallow digital advertising; as a result, the digital journalism produced by many news organisations has become less and less meaningful.”

Facebook and Twitter newsfeeds contain everything from superficial selfies to news of nuclear Armageddon, delivering content in one messy mashup without significant demarcation between news and fun. Information is not ranked in degree of importance or category but algorithmically ranked in its importance to advertisers and what the hosting platform believe will hook your attention the most.

From annoying, automatic advertisements to eye catching, irresistible clickbait, cynical tactics are employed to suck us into a never-ending cycle of meaningless clicks and consumption.

Viner notes:

“Publishers that are funded by algorithmic ads are locked in a race to the bottom in pursuit of any audience they can find – desperately binge-publishing without checking facts, pushing out the most shrill and most extreme stories to boost clicks. But even this huge scale can no longer secure enough revenue.”

This highlights how the capacity for mainstream media to operate its dualistic goal of being a trusted information outlet and a commercially viable business in the digital age have come into radical reconsideration. Subscription based services have failed to garner significant support and reliance on ad revenue means journalists are evermore replaced by BuzzFeed style “content creators” often pumping out 10 commodified stories a day without making a phone call.

“Where once we had propaganda, press releases, journalism, and advertising,” the academic Emily Bell has written, “we now have ‘content’.” Readers are overwhelmed: bewildered by the quantity of “news” they see every day, nagged by intrusive pop-up ads, confused by what is real and what is fake, and confronted with an experience that is neither useful nor enjoyable.

The information overload is having drastic consequences on our mental health and collective social wellbeing. On an individual level the constant competition for our attention can leave many miserable, anxious and eventually feeling they have lost valuable time and years to aimlessly scrolling through newsfeeds and consuming junk news.

There’s also the superficial egoism which has crept into news consumption. If you share an article from the Guardian about climate change, you are signalling to the world that you are a caring liberal who is concerned about the imminent ecological collapse of our world. Sharing news, just like sharing photos of your food has become all about ego and brand. #Vegan #NewYorkTimes.

From a wider societal perspective, we cannot underestimate the massive loss of a common sphere of news. One of the primary public goods of media is the power to engender public debate and provide a platform for different societal groups to communicate with one another. Yet Facebook is wilfully blind to the interests of community and the public good. All its algorithm sees is individual consumers whose attention can be captured and monetized by concentrating content they know you will click upon.

When claims that Russia had hired trolls to bombard certain demographics of the U.S population with “fake news” during the 2016 U.S Presidential election the damage caused may have been more subliminal than obvious. It is not that people believe fake stories (well some believed Hillary Clinton was operating a child sex ring in a Washington DC Pizza parlour) but that they are bombarded with so much information that it becomes disorienting and difficult to determine what to believe and who to trust. This misanthropic media landscape of misinformation and mistrust is a serious threat to the future of liberal democracy.

Individuals are following news that never challenges but only reinforces their ideas about the world and tailors a narrative of world events to suit the audience. Thus, once established an online community can be far more important to individuals than their geographical one. Democracy today is waking up to a world where people are physically living beside each other but digitally couldn’t be further apart.

 

Boris? Trump? Rees-Mogg? How Social Media Gave Us Pantomime Politics

Ridiculous statements go viral. From Boris’s bombastic Libya remarks to Trump’s daily Twitter toddler tantrums, nothing gets our thumb tapping that retweet button faster than outrageous political buffoonery. Be it virtue signalling, endorsing or simply showing our sheer shock and dismay, social media users love reacting to silly soundbites as newsfeeds are coloured with witty one line responses and hastily published news articles looking to cash in on clicks.

Welcome to the age of pantomime politics. The digital marketplace where politics is reduced to its entertainment value while social and monetary capital is earned through the capture and re-sale of human attention.

And few have capitalized more by capturing the human brain by the shareable click than Jonah Peretti the creator of Buzzfeed. Peretti was a pioneer in understanding what makes us click and share.

Buzzfeed discovered that humans are programmed to react impulsively with either alarm or allure to images of Sex, food, death and gossip the fundamental components of the survival instinct. This neurological understanding allowed Buzzfeed to create an incredibly effective albeit cynical digital media strategy premised upon producing content that hacked the basic impulses of human biology.

buzz

As Tim Wu, author of “The Attention Merchants” explains: “These modern day clickbait things are getting at very basic principles of our neurobiology that are there for a reason,”

Developing tricks of the trade to attract attention was by no means a new phenomenon but with the changing medium of human interaction from the physical to digital landscape mastering the art of clickbait became a revolutionary development to trap and capture consumer attention like never before. The smartphone era enabled media companies to become omnipresent in our lives, pressing biological and psychological buttons every second of the day with the aid of addictive technologies, push notifications and personalized algorithms enslaving us to their ‘ping’.

As Ian Leslie writes:

“Be it the emails that induce you to buy right away, the apps and games that rivet your attention, or the online forms that nudge you towards one decision over another: all are designed to hack the human brain and capitalise on its instincts, quirks and flaws. The techniques they use are often crude and blatantly manipulative, but they are getting steadily more refined, and, as they do so, less noticeable.”

If this phenomenon was confined to the online arena of cat videos and “5 things you have to do before you turn 25” it would be worrying enough but it’s the invasion of clickbait into the sphere of political commentary that is such a threat to democracy and social order itself.

As the commercial viability of print journalism has dramatically declined, traditional media outlets have began marketing their content in the style of Buzzfeed while new digital media outlets have simultaneously begun branding themselves as reputable news sources competing in the same space as The New York Times or the BBC.

The 2016 U.S election is a recent example of how this plays out in practice harming democracy on a number of fronts. A current Senate hearing investigating Trump’s ties with Russia has heard that 1,000 people were hired to create anti-Clinton misinformation “news” sites in key US states during election. Most of the supposed “Fake News” outlets were coming from countries in the Balkans allegedly being bankrolled by the Kremlin.

Post truth became a popular reference describing how people were believing things that “feel right” or that “should be true” as opposed to facts. But with the barrage of information and the reality thaat reputable news sources were often exaggerating stories for clicks It was almost impossible to disentangle the “fake news” for the purposes of political subterfuge from the hyper exaggerated junk stories published for the purposes of simply drawing clicks.

The culture of clickbait has led to the demise of journalistic standards and ethics as more and more stories are selected on their potential virality rather than their public interest value. Important investigative journalism is no longer funded by traditional media as it simply isn’t generating website traffic while snapshot stories pitting social subgroups against one another has shown to be far more effective at drawing in the crowds.

Our political discussion and headlines are now dominated by personal spats and horse race politics while significant analysis on policy substance is continuously being downgraded beneath political entertainment.

 A tragic play featuring 140 characters

Jacob Rees-Mogg is the latest pantomime villain to pop up in the British political sphere with his caricature Tory persona and playful media interviews.

jacob

 

Mogg became a viral internet icon after a video of him casually dropping the word ‘floccinaucinihilipilification’ in parliament spread like wildfire. In a similar vein to Farage and Trump, Mogg is admired for his “Tell it like it is” attitude unafraid and unapologetic of his conservative, Christian views.

Admittedly, he is an infectiously entertaining character. Watching a Mogg interview is like watching a 13th Century pampered Prince John transported through time and put in a suit. There is a complete disconnect between the reality of Rees- Mogg as a politician and the playful character who’s every word is an opportunity to create memes, gain social credit and personal brand points by mocking.

Mogg, Boris and Trump oh what will they say next?

Welcome to the world of pantomime politics.

Wikipedia Proves Fake News Hysteria is Bullsh*t

Katherine Maher, executive director at the Wikimedia Foundation discusses how Wikipedia went from a site loaded with errors and false information to the world’s trusted open encyclopedia.

Through the process of constant self improvement and a dedication to ensuring accurate information, Wikipedia shows that sorting fact from fiction is a much easier job than has been made out from public figures such as Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump.

Maher suggsts that the way news is consumed and how information is spread is more the problem than fake news itself.  It is the profiteering, commercial model of clickbait and stretching of truth as companies and individuals fight for our screen time that must be seen as the focal point of fake news.

She states the product design is flawed and the major providers need to take a stand on the way information is presented to the consumer and allowing quick resolution to removing what is fake, just as Wikipedia has done:

“When I’m looking at a Facebook feed I don’t know why information is being presented to me. Is it because it’s timely? Is it because it’s relevant? Is it because it’s trending, popular, important?
All of that is stripped out of context so it’s hard for me to assess: is it good information that I should make decisions on? Is it bad information that I should ignore? And then you think about the fact that all of the other sort of heuristics that people use to interpret information, where does it come from? Who wrote it? When was it published? All of that is obscured in the product design as well.”

So does Fake News really have the problem or is this an obfuscation of what is really causing the spread of misinformation?

How to Stop Wasting Your Days on Facebook

It’s an addiction. A stimulation we crave. Yet it can really inhibit the quality of our lives and ability to focus on hard tasks. Most of us would admit we spend way too much time aimlessly drifting through newsfeeds but how do we beat it?

Author Charles Duhigg believes we must treat it like any other ingrained habit. Accept that we have a dependency and slowly try and wean ourselves off.

This can be done by scheduling timeslots in the day when we will use social media and removing automatic notification alerts that we don’t need and slowly start creating a new habit of focus.

How Social Media is Shaping Our Thought Patterns

In this extraordinary clip Dr. Dan Siegel, clinical professor of psychiatry at the UCLA School of Medicine reveals how social media is actually physically rewiring our brains.

The addictive nature of social media has become starkly apparent as anyone who takes public transport will be aware. Yet its capacity to manipulate and reshape our brains is something not often discussed and something parents should be particularly aware of in relation to exposing their children to smartphones.