Despite what media coverage may suggest, the appearance of the term “fake news” did not coincide with President Donald Trump’s rise to power. Although the term has recently been made famous by President Trump, the phrase “fake news” dates back to news headlines from the late 19th century, according to Merriam-Webster.
Since its original debut, “fake news” has been molded into a politically charged concept. This evolution has in part been caused by advancements in technology. Spreading a “fake news” article can be done fast using the internet, and manipulation of existing material is much easier when Photoshop can be used to edit a picture.
These technological improvements raise questions about how far manipulation of information can and will progress. Now, the possibility of fake videos floating around the internet, in addition to articles and photos, is realistic.
Researchers Supasorn Suwajanakorn, Steven Seitz, and Ira Kemelmacher-Shlizerman from the UW’s Paul G. Allen School of Computer Science and Engineering proved this to be true this past summer when they published their work on a program entitled “Synthesizing Obama: Learning Lip Sync from Audio.” Using footage from former President Barack Obama’s weekly addresses, the computer system, called a neural network, studied audio features and mouth shapes. With this information, the system was able to synthesize photorealistic video with any chosen video or audio. The result was a falsified, but incredibly realistic, video of Obama speaking.
While this is a monumental advancement in the field of moving image manipulation, the danger that a program like this poses to the integrity of the media and politics is immense. It is no coincidence that the researchers chose Obama to be their test subject. The former president was selected as there is a high volume of high definition video available of him speaking. With high quality video of anyone, the possibilities of this program, and programs like it, are seemingly endless.
The possible consequences of “fake news” and manipulated information have not gone unnoticed. Larger internet sites such as Facebook have made measures to limit the amount of misinformation present on their site, and organizations such as the News Media Alliance have created coalitions to help support the integrity of the media.
Efforts to educate people about the potential damage of “fake news” have occurred on the UW campus as well. Jevin West, an assistant professor at the UW Information school, and Carl T. Bergstrom, a biology professor at the UW, created a class focused on detecting incorrect information in our digitally-based world.
The class, nicknamed “Calling Bullshit,” highlights how to detect and respond to “bulls--t,” which they define as “language, statistical figures, data graphics, and other forms of presentation intended to persuade by impressing and overwhelming a reader or listener, with a blatant disregard for truth and logical coherence.”
While the course mainly focuses on how to detect falsities in data, West claimed the same principles apply when talking about “fake news” and politics. The difference in possible implications lies in the unfamiliarity of the technology.
“Repercussions of being able to photoshop voices and video should be something that we all discuss as a society,” West said. “We are not prepared for this because the technology is so new.”
To help prepare for the onslaught of fake videos, West explains that we need to educate people early on.
“People should be paying attention,” he said. “The technology is not perfect, but it will continue to get better. We need to be writing about it and letting people know it exists.”
West optimistically hopes that further programs will be developed to aid in detection of altered video in the future, however a dependence on possible technology is not sufficient. He suggested that discussing both the societal and ethical implications will better prevent the spread of the video version of “fake news.”
Manipulation of information is a modern day epidemic that cannot be stopped. With more advancements in technology on the horizon, the sophistication of “fake news” will only increase. There is a bleak future for the mediascape without discussions of the potential damage that “fake news” has on our political sphere.
Reach writer Rachel Morgan at email@example.com. Twitter: @rclmorgan