Discerning reality

May 15th, 2018

“Deep Fakes”

Jordan Peele, actor, comedian, and Academy Award-winning screenwriter for Get Out, recently produced an unusual public service announcement (PSA) about how deceptive software can make fake video and audio come across as authentic. In this PSA, Peele uses this software to put a series of profane statements into the mouth of former President Barack Obama that he did not and would not say. Halfway through the video, Peele reveals that the video has been altered and Peele has been speaking the entire time.

While Photoshop — the software that allows for photos to be easily altered — has been around for years, believable video alteration is becoming easier through readily available software. The resulting videos are called “deep fakes.” As these tools evolve, the ability for video and audio manipulation is becoming increasingly powerful.

Like most tools, this can be used in both harmless and harmful ways. The most disturbing opportunity for harm may be the way video is used in the news and how the American public might respond to altered video in making decisions about important issues.

Robert Chesney and Danielle Citron point out the dangers to our society in a February 21, 2018, article for the blog Lawfare. In the article “Deep Fakes: A Looming Crisis for National Security, Democracy and Privacy?” they write, “The spread of deep fakes will threaten to erode the trust necessary for democracy to function effectively, for two reasons. First, and most obviously, the marketplace of ideas will be injected with a particularlydangerous form of falsehood. Second, and more subtly, the public may become more willing to disbelieve true but uncomfortable facts.”

Disconcerting possibilities

Public trust in the news media has decreased dramatically in recent years. The term fake news has become ubiquitous in our daily conversations. The addition of fake video and audio makes discernment even more challenging.

Most of us don’t have the technical expertise to discern what’s authentic from what’s manufactured digitally. Even if we did, it would require an inordinate amount of time to research the truthfulness of all statements, videos, audio clips and photographs on the internet. Unfortunately, this plays to the advantage of those with the technical abilities to deceive.

Hany Farid, a scientist who spots fake videos, says in the scientific journal Nature, “In 5 or 10 years, this is going to get really good. At some point we will reach a stage where we can generate realistic video, with audio, of a world leader, and that’s going to be very disconcerting. I would say that the field of digital forensics is now behind in video.” Fortunately, progress has been made in efforts to determine the authenticity of some video, at least video released by the government. DARPA (the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) is a U.S. agency that has recently amplified its efforts along those lines. In an interview with NBC News, David Doermann, project manager of DARPA’s media forensics project named MediFor, points out that DARPA is investing in breakthrough technologies and is using artificial intelligence (AI) to speed up the process of detection.

One of the issues in detection currently is the amount of time it takes to discern the veracity of a single video, and using AI will greatly accelerate that process. Doermann predicts that within two years, there will be technology available that allows the U.S. government, Facebook, Google and other tech companies to scan any image and detect a fake almost instantaneously.

While these advances are in the pipeline, they’re not available at present. 

“Testing the spirits”

Truth is central to our faith, from the commandment not to bear false witness to Jesus’ words that “the truth will set you free” (John 8:32). First John 4:1 says, “Don’t believe every spirit. Test the spirits to see if they are from God.” There’s a discernment process to uncovering truth, a necessary testing of whatever we’re told. Whether it be evidence in a trial or the truth of our faith, we are to be seekers of truth.

Since we cannot simply wait for the technological fixes to alleviate the problem of altered media, here are some suggestions:

  • Consider the source: Although all media outlets are made up of fallible human beings and are capable of mistakes, some are more reliable than others. A reliable news outlet will own up to its own mistakes. Furthermore, if only one outlet is reporting something, ask yourself why this is the case. 
  • Consider the background: An authentic video or audio will likely have a number of witnesses attesting to its accuracy. If the video in question is the only evidence, it may not be genuine. Major news organizations typically have more resources to detect fakes, and it’s in their best interests not to publicize inaccurate pieces. 
  • Fact-check: The need for fact-checking has become the norm for news stories, memes, and articles these days. The same goes for altered audio or video. 
  • Seek (and speak) the truth: As Christians, we’re called to “[speak] the truth with love” as we “grow in every way into Christ” (Ephesians 4:15). The same applies as we seek the truth, even if it may contradict our previous understandings. Accepting something at face value just because you agree with the implications is irresponsible. Sometimes “seeking truth” can mean being patient until the full details of something are revealed. 

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