The camera never lies. Except, of course, it always has. Photo manipulation is as old as photography, and images have been tweaked and altered for various reasons since at least the 19th century. In the Soviet Union, individuals were famously edited out of photographs when they fell out of political favour. What sort of trickery could despotic regimes achieve in the 21st century, with all the new tools of digital technology?
The latest trend worrying security experts is the “deepfake” technology. Deepfakes are highly realistic and difficult-to-detect, digitally manipulated videos of people saying or doing things they never did. They can be used to produce everything from celebrity pornography to fake news and hoaxes. Could they ever be used to manipulate an election by producing footage of a candidate doing or saying something controversial or illegal? Could deepfakes ever spark an international incident, or even conflict, by faking a military event? Could regimes cover up humanitarian crimes by bringing activists back to life or hiding evidence of torture?
What do our readers think? We had a comment from Paul who believes YouTube is awash with faked videos promoting conspiracy theories. How big a problem is the issue of faked video right now?
To get a response, we put Paul’s comment to Hany Farid, professor of computer science at the University of California, Berkeley, and a specialist in digital forensics and image analysis. What would he say?
Next up, Marcel tells us his philosophy is not to trust the mainstream media, and only to believe things he can see with his own eyes. Is that really a sensible philosophy, or does it leave him vulnerable to manipulation by new technologies such as Deepfakes? And can society even function properly without some basic level of trust in information?
How would Professor Hany Farid respond?
To get another perspective, we put the same comment to Fabrice Pothier, Senior Advisor at the Transatlantic Commission on Election Integrity, a bi-partisan initiative by leading figures in European and US politics, tech, media and business aimed at of addressing the issue of foreign interference in elections. What would he say to Marcel?
Well, the problem in this case is that if that’s the ultimate test – to believe only what you see – then there are many things you will not be able to believe, including things that are happening on the other side of the world. That’s a very limited way to test the truth of news items.
What you need to do is have all the elements to be able to decide whether this is a quality news item or opinion piece, or whether this is a more controversial and potentially inauthentic piece of news or opinion. That’s the first step towards defending our citizens and societies against more toxic news. So, just be open and clear, and if you feel that the news provider – either the mainstream news or a news platform – are not clear and transparent enough about who has written what and why have they written that piece, then I think as a citizen and a consumer of news you should ask for that information, because I think this is your right. And I think this will really greatly help people to exert more critical minds when they receive news in their inbox or on their WhatsApp group.
Can we still trust what we see and hear online? Are social media platforms “awash” with faked videos and content? And can society function without basic trust in information? Let us know your thoughts and comments in the form below and we’ll take them to policymakers and experts for their reactions!