There she was — not just alive again, but young. It was Carrie Fisher, at the end of the Star Wars film Rogue One, as Princess Leia. “What is it they have brought us?” one of her fellow resisters asked.
“Hope,” she replied.
And here’s Barack Obama, staring into the camera. “Ben Carson is in the Sunken Place,” he observes. Also: “President Trump is a total and complete dipstick.”
OK, so the word that Obama says on the video is not dipstick, in fact, but that’s OK: It isn’t actually Obama saying those words, either, any more than it was Fisher saying “hope.”
Both images are the result of digital manipulation, and what, in its most ominous form, is called deep fakes: technology that makes it possible to show people saying things they never said, doing things they never did.
This technology has great potential both as art and snark: One set of deep fakes has cleverly inserted Nicolas Cage into a half-dozen movies he wasn’t involved with, including Raiders of the Lost Ark. You can watch that and decide for yourself whether Cage or Harrison Ford makes for the best Indiana Jones.
But, as always, the same technology that contains the opportunity for good also provides an opening for its opposite. As a result, we find ourselves on the cusp of a new world — one in which it will be impossible, literally, to tell what is real from what is invented.
Since Donald Trump became president, we’ve almost become accustomed to his incessant, berserk gobbledygook. Last week, in his second-most dishonest week as president, he made 129 false statements at four campaign rallies and a news conference (his record was 133 lies, in August).
But deep-fake technology takes deception a step further, exploiting our natural inclination to engage with things that make us angriest. As Jonathan Swift said: “The greatest liar hath his believers: and it often happens, that if a lie be believed only for an hour, it hath done its work, and there is no further occasion for it.”
Consider the image of Emma Gonzalez, a survivor of the Parkland High School shooting in February who has become a vocal activist. A manipulated photo of her tearing up the Constitution went viral on Twitter among gun rights supporters and members of the “alt-right.” The image had been digitally altered from another photo appearing in Teen Vogue. That publication’s editor lamented: “The fact that we even have to clarify this is proof of how democracy continues to be fractured by people who manipulate and fabricate the truth.”
That fake was exposed — but did it really make a difference to the people who wanted to inhabit their own paranoid universe? How many people still believe, all evidence to the contrary, that Barack Obama is a Muslim, or that he was born in Kenya?
The answer to that last question, by the way: Two-thirds of Trump supporters believe Obama is a Muslim; 59 per cent believe he was not born in America and — oh, yes — a quarter of them believe that Antonin Scalia (Associate Justice of the US Supreme Court) was murdered.
Now imagine the effect of deep fakes on a close election. Let’s say video is posted of Beto O’Rourke, a Democrat running for Senate in Texas, swearing that he wants to take away every last gun in Texas, or of Senator Susan Collins of Maine saying she’s changed her mind on Brett Kavanaugh. Before the fraud can be properly refuted, the polls open. The chaos that might ensue.
There’s more: The “liar’s dividend” will now apply even to people, like Trump, who actually did say something terrible. In the era of deep fakes, it will be simple enough for a guilty party simply to deny reality. Trump, in fact, has claimed that the infamous recording of him suggesting grabbing women by their nether parts is not really him. This, after apologising for it.
If you want to learn more about the dangers posed by deep fakes, you can read the new report by Bobby Chesney and Danielle Keats Citron at the Social Science Research Network. It’s a remarkable piece of scholarship — although I wouldn’t dive in if your primary goal is to sleep better at night.
Their report examines solutions, too. One approach — “immutable life log technology” — especially gets my attention. This would be, essentially, a 24-hour alibi service, in which one’s every word and action is captured digitally — thus making it possible to disprove fakes when they arise.
I don’t know about you, but the idea of a future in which I’m surveilled around the clock in order to ward off the threat posed by fake versions of myself — well, let’s just say that the thought somehow fails to cheer me.
It is possible, however, that some good will come out of the deep fakes menace. Maybe we will better understand that the truth is both precious and endangered. Perhaps we will learn to pause before giving in to internet-stoked spleen.
Above all, we have to more fiercely call out and refute manipulative liars — as well as the people who insist on believing their fictions.
What will this bring us? “Hope,” says the princess, in Rogue One.
This Leia is fake, but her answer is real.
— New York Times News Service
Jennifer Finney Boylan, a contributing opinion writer, is a professor of English at Barnard College and the author of the novel Long Black Veil.