As Communications Director of the United Church of Christ (1999-2007), I was often asked, “what is the most pressing issue facing the UCC today?” Implicit in the question was the anticipation that I would say something about impending war, nuclear disarmament, the precipitous decline in church or finances or systemic racism. However, I always replied, perhaps somewhat cryptically, “to provide our members with tools of discernment.” My answer invariably prompted blank stares or quizzical looks. Whatever did I mean?
This was an era (yea, 20 long years ago!) when internet communications were exploding. Social media was in its infancy. The phrase, “the sage on the stage was dead,” had profound relevance; there was little guidance as to how to differentiate authoritative voices from charlatans. We were flocking to new forms of communication (especially our youth). But without the skills to distinguish truth from fiction, we were ill-equipped to recognize facts from fakes. We needed greater intentionality in pointing people to determine the reliability of sources they were encountering on-line.
This was before we had a President who routinely lies (more than 16,000 times so far, as reported by the Washington Post), before cyber-espionage was a thing and before climate change, income inequality, white privilege and gun violence grabbed headlines as the most pressing issues confronting us. Yet, I still believe that developing tools of discernment is a task that deserves more of our attention, even two decades later.
I was reminded of the urgency of this challenge a few days ago when I read an article in The Week by Bonnie Kristain about the growing sophistication of “deepfaking,” a term that did not even exist when I was asked the question twenty years ago. The word “deepfake” refers to the use of face- and voice-swapping technology in video production to edit and manipulate what someone says in order to alter their intention. I highly recommend Kristain’s article. Especially as we approach the upcoming Presidential election in an age of “fake news,” this is an alarming development as it further encumbers the search for truth. We have already seen how a pervasive Russian disinformation campaign disrupted the 2016 Presidential election (and, it could be argued, our whole civic discourse even until today). Such a danger is compounded exponentially as technology becomes increasingly sophisticated, accessible and cost-effective and deepfaking becomes more pervasive.
Kristian touches on another concern. “Tech experts have warned that a well-timed deepfake video could be used to sink the eventual Democratic nominee’s campaign against Trump — but I suspect the president’s unique history of immorality and dishonesty makes a convincing Trump deepfake the far greater risk.” The illustration used by the author is shown in stark detail in the video clip of President Obama created by Jordan Peele. You can view it here. It takes little imagination to envision how widespread circulation of such a deepfake could wreak havoc in the upcoming campaign season and how—should he be defeated—President Trump could rail against such new technological instruments—real or imagined—to de-legitimize the election results.
Writing in BuzzFeed, Craig Silverman reminds us that “the good news is it still requires a decent amount of skill, processing power, and time to create a really good ‘deepfake.’ The bad news is that the lesson of computers and technology is this stuff will get easier, cheaper, and more ubiquitous faster than you would expect — or be ready for.”
The implications of deepfaking lie far beyond our electoral process. Indeed, our entire social fabric is at risk if we can no longer rely on audiovisual evidence that someone has actually said what the video “evidence” shows. It is incumbent upon each of us to be vigilant. We must hone our tools of discernment so as not to be deceived by those who would do us harm. Silverman’s article offers helpful tips for the viewer to better distinguish between what is real and what is altered reality. At the top of the list is not to jump to conclusions. But in an age when “speed counts,” this warning is easy to ignore. We must be on guard for the perpetrators of alternate facts in our midst, both in the upcoming election and in our everyday lives. It could be the very phenomenon that tears our society apart.